How a 97-year-old grandmother inspired the birth of heli-hiking
In 1978, a bus tour operator named Arthur Tauck, who had joined CMH in the winter for helicopter skiing, realized a summertime tour of the same remote part of the Canadian Rockies, with easy helicopter access, comfortable lodging, and first-rate cuisine might appeal wonderfully to his elderly guests on bus tours.
In 2001, CMH produced a coffee-table photo book titled, “Heli-Hiking and Mountaineering” in which Tauck penned an intro that reveals much about the sublime world of heli-hiking, his vision for its origin, and why heli-hiking is so ideal for older guests.
Besides the obvious beauty of the remote mountains he'd seen while skiing, Tauck was curious how he might be able to take tours to other places besides the more popular Canadian Rockies tourist destinations. He wrote:
“There was another question in my mind, too: would the senior citizens we cater to appreciate a mountain program given the frailties of age?
"Coincidentally, about the same time, I happened to visit my wife’s ailing grandmother, who was in a home living out her waning days. It was a sad visit. She was failing fast. Among her last words to me were, ‘Arthur, inside this baggy old body of bones, I’m still 25.' I cried, and later realized she had answered one of my questions.
"We had always designed tours around out perception of our elderly clientele’s physical limitations. Maybe that was a mistake. My grandmother-in-law convinced me that we should let our clients determine their own limitations. We should design tours that would engage their spirit and tenacity, that would leave them with renewed pride in themselves.
"I tracked down this guy Hans Gmoser (founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays). I wanted to talk to him about my idea of introducing my clients to his lodges and letting them partake of the magic and purity of an alpine experience geared to their wishes and capabilities. I envisioned a program like Hans’ heli-skiing where each day guests are divided by ability and heli-lifted to four or five different venues they could explore with a guide."
Tauck gave CMH a call, and heli-hiking was born. (Above, an early heli-hiking group prepares for liftoff from the Bugaboo Lodge.) It worked perfectly. For decades Tauck Tours included a CMH heli-hiking segment during bus tours of the Canadian Rockies with elderly travelers. Tauck concluded:
“The result was a renewed sense of pride. They met the challenge of satisfying their inner spirit at a time in their lives when they were beginning to accept the more sedentary life that comes with age. It was a joy to watch them fanny-slide down snowy slopes, frolic like kids with snowballs in the midst of summer, and push themselves along ridge lines and up the slopes far above timber. They learned about the flora, fauna, and the power of glaciation. They embraced the mountain environment... and they bonded with one another and wished they could adopt the CMH staff that made it all possible.
"Then, upon departure, while waiting for the helicopter to return them to reality, I would witness reflection, sometimes tearful. Maybe it was about their accomplishments and the fact that they may never have such an experience again.
"I too, have found myself with moist eyes seeing their emotion. I realized Hans and I were the authors of an experience that enhanced and sometimes changed the lives of many.
"We have watched, awestruck, amputees navigate the meadows and the glaciers. We have seen the more fit eagerly reach out to embrace the challenges of mountaineering. And we have witnessed families unite with teenagers, parents and grandparents, each at their own level of participation, but each sharing the same emotion.
"My original goal of creating Heli-Hiking to take advantage of added rooms in the Rockies for financial gain has long since faded in importance. As it turned out, my personal gain is the realization that Heli-Hiking has rekindled the dreams that reside inside so many of us. My only regret is that my wife’s 97-year-old grandmother never had a chance to live the experience she inspired. God bless her.”
Since then, CMH Summer Adventures has hosted seniors, kids, world-class athletes, handicapped travelers (shown above in a wheelchair on Grizzly Ridge near the Bugaboos), families, famous mountaineers, and everyone in between. CMH Summer Adventure programs have diversified to include safe-but-thrilling adventures for adrenaline-seekers, photo workshops and family adventures, but perhaps the most incomparable value in CMH Summer Adventures is still heli-hiking for elderly travelers who can experience Mr. Tauck's vision of engaging their spirit and tenacity once again and leave with renewed pride in themselves.
Photos courtesy Canadian Mountain Holidays archives.