The Adventure

What kind of boat is like a helicopter?

Posted by Topher Donahue on Thu, Aug 09, 2012

Let’s say you want to explore the islands.  So you go on a cruise.  The ship is comfortable, but when you get to the islands, all you can do is look at them from the deck of the ship, or visit the port where a cruise ship can dock. For this reason, a cruise ship is more like a passenger jet, albeit a huge and luxurious one. 

To really experience the islands, you need something smaller, more maneuverable, that can take you into the secluded bays, near the natural wonders of the islands, safely navigate shallow water, and land you on the most pristine beaches.

dream beach

The best boat for exploring the islands is, without a doubt, the Zodiac.  The rigid inflatable boat allows for safe passage in rough water, easy maneuverability to reach the trickiest beaches, no hull hanging into the water to hit ground, and powerful enough to get back to the ship against the tide or swell. 

The helicopter is to the mountains what the Zodiac is to the seas.  It gets you right where you want to be, easier than any other machine. All it needs to land safely is a space the size of the helicopter.  

During CMH Summer Adventures, we use a twin-engine Bell 212 helicopter, called the safest helicopter ever made, each morning to transport you and your friends and guide to your destination for the day, and to return you to the lodge at the end of a great hike, climb, glacier trek, photography session, nap, picnic, or whatever is your ideal day in the mountains. 

helicopter fun

The ride isn’t like a cruise ship, but neither is it like a jet ski.  Somewhere in between the two, the helicopter is designed to be the most versatile, maneuverable method of air transportation.

For many CMH guests, some of the highlights of the trip are the helicopter rides.  The helicopter flies slow enough to really see the terrain as you pass by, and low enough that you are often just below the summits of the highest peaks while still above the glaciers and valleys.  

This low-altitude perspective is truly a bird’s eye view.  In an airplane you gain so much altitude so quickly that even the most striking geography looks flat.  In a helicopter you fly along the valleys, looking up to see the summits, gazing into the forrest below where sometimes a moose or bear can be seen peering up at the strange mechanical bird.

helicopter view

The photographic perspective out the window is alone worth the price of admission and, surrounded by windows, every passenger in the helicopter gets a fantastic view.  Make sure when you take photos from the helicopter (or a plane for that matter) that you remember the following techniques:

  • Use a high shutter speed - ideally 1000 or faster - to compensate for the vibration of the machine.
  • Put the camera near the window to minimize glare off the plexiglass.
  • Don’t touch the window with the camera because the vibration is much greater when the camera is touching the machine.
  • Turn off the flash when shooting out the window to avoid the reflection of the flash.
  • Set up your camera before you get in the machine so you’ll be ready when the flight is underway.
  • Use the flash when shooting your family or friends inside the machine - the bright mountain sun outside will trick your camera even if it is not pointed out the window.helicopter photography

During a 3-day CMH Summer Adventure, thanks to the helicopter, most of our guests will see more mountain splendor than they have in the rest of their lives put together.

That’s why a helicopter is the the Zodiac of the skies.  Visit Hawaii and only use an airplane, and you’ll see Maui and some nice beaches.  Visit Hawaii and take a tour with a Zodiac and you’ll see some the most pristine island destinations on the planet.  

Visit Western Canada with a plane, bus or a car and you’ll see a few famous views.  Visit Western Canada with CMH Summer Adventures and you’ll get a world-class tour of a sublime alpine world very few people have ever laid eyes upon.

Photography by Topher Donahue.

Tags: Adventure Travel, heli-hiking, helicopters, adventure

Helicopter Travel with CMH: No Need to Sleep on Board

Posted by Topher Donahue on Tue, Aug 23, 2011

Virginia Heffernan’s idolizing of airplane sleepers in article posted yesterday in the Opinionator, the online commentary section of the New York Times, has to be the most honest and hilarious descriptive of commercial aircraft travel I have ever come across. 

Heffernan writes: “These are seeming mortals who, though in coach (in infantilizing seats complete with baby trays that trap them in their own refuse until mommy clears their place), conk out.  With the closed-mouth solemnity of a dignitary lying in state, airplane sleepers seem to me shamanistic.”

And that’s just the beginning. 

The article got me laughing hard, and thinking back to those times back in the 20th century when pilots used to be able to let kids check out the cockpit and husbands were allowed into concourses to meet their wives when they walked off the plane.  It made me appreciate the aircraft experiences that still have a sense of wonder, freedom, and pleasure. 

In my world, I’ve encountered two aircraft experiences that haven’t yet deteriorated to the point where those who can sleep through the experience are the lucky ones.  The first is the ski-mounted bushplane flights that access mountain adventures in Denali National Park.  The other is during summer mountain adventures with Canadian Mountain Holidays. 

Even while riding in helicopters and glacier planes, some passengers manage to fall asleep, but nobody envies them.  With CMH, the aircraft is an intimate part of the experience and it’s a rare guest who falls asleep.  The following four photos demonstrate the breath of fresh air that is the CMH aircraft experience perfectly:

kid in pilot seat helicopter

helicopter view woman

happy couple helicopter

kids playing helicopter

Yup, there are still places out there where air travel is worth staying awake for.

Tags: Adventure Travel, Family Travel, helicopters, CMH Summer Adventures

4 Safety Elements of CMH Summer Adventures

Posted by Topher Donahue on Wed, Jul 13, 2011

Ever since CMH invented heliskiing in the mid-60s, and then heli-hiking in the 70s, the safety of guests, guides, pilots and staff has been objective number one.  Of course, in the beginning nobody knew as much about mountain dangers as we do today, and technology available in those days left a lot to be desired.  After nearly five decades of learning, however, safety at CMH is an institution.

Today, all aspects of CMH Summer Adventures, from the lodge activities, to the helicopter to the via ferrate, ziplines, hiking routes and mountaineering objectives are designed around providing the safest adventure possible; and the guides, staff, and pilots are all trained in managing safety to the highest professional standards. 

heli-hiking reflections safety

To find out what CMH guides and staff are thinking about out there when it comes to safety, I asked Lyle Grisedale, a hiking guide, what he felt were the biggest safety concerns of CMH Summer Adventures.  Here are the four areas of concern he outlined, as well as how CMH manages the issues:

  • The Helicopter: Of course the pilot, engineers and staff are all trained in working around the helicopter, but the guests are usually not so familiar with the machines.  To manage this, CMH and its partner company, Alpine Helicopters has developed a safety briefing that every guest must attend, even the many guests who visit CMH every year.  The twin engine Bell 212 helicopter used by CMH Summer Adventures is known as one of the safest helicopters ever made, and Alpine Helicopter’s fleet of Bell 212s is known throughout the aviation industry as one of the most well maintained 212 fleets anywhere.
  • Terrain Management: In the alpine areas where CMH operates, there is a lot of terrain where there is virtually zero risk, however, there is also a lot of terrain where it’s just not wise for a human to go.  There are cornices of wind-deposited snow that form on ridges and mountaintops and can fall unexpectedly, areas with frequent rockfall from huge alpine faces, glacial icefalls that shed ice avalanches all summer long, and river drainages that would swallow a human without a trace.  Training and familiarity with the terrain allows CMH guides to show guests the wildest and most spectacular places – the icefalls, the alpine faces, the cornices, and the glaciers - all while staying on the safest terrain.
  • Wildlife:   Hiking in groups almost entirely eliminates the risk of a dangerous encounter with a bear, but guides are trained in dealing with bears and in some situations guides carry non-lethal deterrents like bear spray, bear bangers, or air horns in case a bear gets too curious. Those adventure travellers who are lucky enough to see a bear in it’s natural habitat with CMH - and natural habitat is what CMH is all about - usually count a bear sighting as one of the highlights of their trip.
  • Environment: While the alpine environment is largely devoid of poisonous plants, snakes, spiders and other nasties that are common in other areas, there are still a few plants you wouldn’t want to eat, water you wouldn’t want to drink, and places you wouldn’t want to go hiking in a lightning storm.  While CMH maintains safety as the number one concern, a close second is stewardship, and that means protecting the environment where we operate with programs like Second Nature as well as contributing to environmental initiatives at a local level in the region of British Columbia where we operate.
The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides provides the training courses for CMH Mountain Guides, and each season CMH runs in-house training for every employee.  From the person who cleans the rooms, to the area managers, everyone who works at CMH receives specialized training in safety and guest care.

Tags: Adventure Travel, heli-hiking, helicopters, Sustainability, Alpine Helicopters, safety

The World’s Greatest Hikes Photo Tour: Snowman Pass

Posted by Topher Donahue on Wed, Jun 29, 2011

The places we go during CMH Summer Adventures would be among the world’s most visited adventure travel destinations – if they were easier to get to.  Instead of roads, visitor centres, hotels, restaurants, campgrounds and picnic areas, the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, the mountains CMH Summer Adventures calls home, is surrounded by a vast expanse of wilderness.

Among the countless wilderness adventures possibilities in the Purcells, a few stand out as exceptional.  One of the most visually stunning can be found at a place called Snowman Pass in a hanging valley at the top of Crystalline Creek in the CMH Bobbie Burns area.   A lake is perched almost on top of the pass, an unusual place for a lake to have formed, allowing for postcard views in nearly every direction.  Here is a photographic tour of the Snowman Pass experience.

Getting moving after a hearty breakfast is easy with the help of a twin-engine Bell 212 helicopter, a machine that’s been called the safest helicopter ever made:heli hiking lodge morning
The view out the window of the helicopter towards the Bugaboos with the ridgelines receding into the distance is alone worth the price of admission:
helicopter view bugaboos

Within minutes after landing the helicopter, you’re picking your way through fields of waist-deep flowers in some of the least explored and most spectacular of our planet’s wildflower displays:   flowers hike woman
The first view of the lake at Snowman Pass and the glaciers of Mt. Deluge in the distance sucks the very breath from your lungs:scenic snowman pass
Taking the time to soak your feet in a cold alpine stream during a long hike on a warm summer day is like a new lease on life:pond soaking feet hiking
After a half-day hike to Snowman Pass you can call it a day and catch a ride back to the Bobbie Burns Lodge, or if you're looking for an all-day adventure you can traverse into Valley of the Lakes for a heart-pumping workout and another valley of alpine magic:pickup pilot helicopter hike
July 8 is the first day of CMH Summer Adventures 2011.  Come see for yourself!

Tags: Adventure Travel, Bobbie Burns Lodge, heli-hiking, helicopters, CMH Summer Adventures

The Iron Way: A Critique of the Mt. Nimbus Via Ferrata

Posted by Topher Donahue on Tue, Jun 21, 2011

A critique of the Mt. Nimbus Via Ferrata in the CMH Bobbie Burns area was posted on YouTube as a comment to the video shown here:

The writer was “personally dismayed” to see the Via Ferrata and had a number of questions about it.  Here are a few of their questions and my answers from the perspective of knowing the guides and the discussions around the via ferrata:

Q: Why is this area inaccessible to the general public? 

TD: While the public could, in theory, access Mt Nimbus, it would be difficult.  It would require driving 50km up a logging road, bushwhacking all day, and then scrambling on loose rock to reach the beginning of the Via Ferrata.  To our knowledge, nobody had ever found the Via Ferrata without a guide and a helicopter or even hiked or climbed in the area without helicopter support.

Q: How was the route carefully sited?

TD: Mt. Nimbus was chosen in part because it was an utterly ignored piece of landscape that would never be seen by other wilderness users, in part because the loose and broken nature of the rock makes it unappealing to rock climbers, and in part because the terrain around it is durable rock and talus that can withstand human traffic without eroding tundra or other fragile ecosystems.  The guides who installed the via ferrata are all mountaineers - if Mt Nimbus had been worthwhile as a traditional climb they never would have installed the via ferrata.

Q: Clearcuts and dams cover a small amount of a larger "operating area" but does that justify their existence?

TD: Comparing a Via Ferrata to a clear cut or a damn is quite a stretch - being how you can’t see the Via Ferrata until you are quite close to it and virtually zero living things were damaged in the installation or the ongoing use of the Via Ferrata.  However, at CMH we are well aware of our delicate environment and publish a sustainability report every year that explains how we are doing in our endless quest to decrease our impact and increase our contribution to the good of the environment and the communities where we operate.  To this end, CMH has implemented micro-hydro power systems and taken many smaller steps, like timed lighting in bathrooms and food-waste composting systems.

Via Ferrata impact critique

The critique concludes: “This critique doesn't even factor in the carbon footprint of the helicopter flights. While you may pay for your high-adrenaline, low-risk ‘adventure,’ the mountain environment (and the spirit of traditional mountaineering) pays in the end.  On the one hand, this allows folks to do things they might not otherwise do, and see things they might not otherwise see. Hopefully, it leads them to appreciate the wild Rockies more than they did. Ironically, this kind of installation is destructive, permanently alters the mountain, and will likely lead to many more visitors (and human impact) than normal."


  • Regarding the carbon footprint issue, between 2009 and 2010, CMH was able to reduce our carbon footprint while maintaining our quality of service and viability of our business.   
  • Regarding the destruction, the Mt. Nimbus Via Ferrata required many small holes to be drilled into the rock, but the rock surface can withstand millions of footsteps with no erosion.  When the hardware is removed - and CMH will remove the hardware when the via ferrata is no longer used by CMH - there will be no sign of human passage. 
  • As for the spirit of traditional mountaineering, mountaineers use automobiles, helicopters and planes to reach the wild places, and too many mountaineers leave empty oxygen canisters, tents, trash, and fixed ropes all over the world’s most beautiful peaks.  We can all improve.

I couldn’t agree more with the critique's final point about people going home from a CMH Summer Adventure with greater appreciation of the wild Rockies – that’s what it’s all about.  

Tags: Bobbie Burns Lodge, helicopters, Sustainability, Via Ferrata, CMH Experts

Youth Rank Hiking Among Top 5 Outdoor Sports

Posted by Topher Donahue on Mon, May 30, 2011

A study conducted in 2011 by the Outdoor Industry Association has revealed that young people enjoy hiking a lot more than many folks, especially their parents, might guess.

The study surveyed the participation in outdoor sports among people in the United States from the age of 6 to 24.  Only running, bicycling, camping and fishing were ranked above hiking.  Skiing and surfing, sports often perceived as hip young people's sports, rank far below hiking in terms of participation. 

Accesibility to recreation resouces has a lot do do with what's popular in the study, but what is surprising about the youth's top five is that four of them, including hiking, can have difficult, strenuous elements requiring mental tenacity that we usually associate with older athletes.  

family photo hiking
It also suggests that it’s not just the youth whose tendencies in outdoor sports reveals some exciting trends, namely that more peaople are getting outside to play.  The total number of participants in outdoor sports in the United States grew from 134 to 138 million between 2006 and 2010 - that's a million new participants each year.

Another revealing aspect of the study is the relative equality of outdoor sport across the income spectrum.  When broken down into 5 household income categories ranging from $25,000 to over $100,000, the fraction of participation is not dramatically different.

Essentially, the study says that getting outside, even for a simple hike in the woods or a run on a trail is good for people of all ages and every year more people are figuring this out.  A survey of people’s enjoyment while heli-hiking with CMH would likely reveal the same thing:  Young hikers enjoy the experience as much or more than anyone.

During a CMH Family Adventure, a common pattern emerges that shows how of the young hiker’s enthusiasm grows with participation. 

On the first day, the younger hikers in the group are excited about the helicopter, but tend to be generally more ambivalent about the hiking.  The pilot answers questions like:
    “Can I ride in the front?”
    “How fast does it go?”
    “What does this do?”

But everything changes after a day of hiking across thick, spongy alpine tundra, glissading on pristine snowfields under the crystal-clear alpine sun, watching marmots sunning themselves on a boulder, and feeling the euphoria that exercise in the mountains tends to inspire.

At breakfast the second day, the conversation tends to include not only the lofty experience of riding in the helicopter, but also revolves around the anticipation of what the day's hiking may bring.  The guides answer questions that reveal the change in the young people’s motivation for being there:
    “Will we hike by a glacier again today?”
    “Can we slide on the snow again?”
    “Do you think we'll get to see a bear?”

This transition suggests that hiking, be it heli-hiking or otherwise, needs to be experienced before it will reveal its secrets.  Like life, hiking is not a spectator sport.  But once we try it, hiking takes on surprising qualities.  It becomes a meditation as well as a work out, a bonding experience for a group as well as an empowering experience for an individual, and both a grounding and life-changing experience. 


Photo of heli-hiking in the Bugaboos by Topher Donahue.

Tags: Adventure Travel, heli-hiking, Family Travel, helicopters, Guides

5 of the Happiest Kid Photos Ever

Posted by Topher Donahue on Tue, May 03, 2011

They say a photo is worth a thousand words.  I never believed it.  Some photos seemed hardly worth one word, and others worth a novel.  When it comes to the content and happy kids you'll see on a CMH Family Adventure, these faces tell the story better than any number of words:

boy helicopter dream tripDo you think this boy would rather be anywhere else in the world than behind the stick of a Bell 212 helicopter after a day of exploring in the mountains?

boy happy snow playDo you think this boy has a healthy relationship with his world?

girl lunch helicopterHow much cajoling do you think it took to get this girl to eat her lunch after a long hike through alpine flower gardens?

girl snowslide happy hikingDo you think this girl was even the slightest bit upset about having a bit of snow in her socks?

girls camera family adventureHow long do you think these girls will remember their family vacation?

Do you wonder if a CMH Summer Adventure could be right for your family?  Give us a call at 1 (800) 661-0252 and we’ll be thrilled to answer any of your questions.

Tags: heli-hiking, Family Travel, helicopters

Thanks for the Wilderness!

Posted by Topher Donahue on Thu, Nov 25, 2010

bobbie burns helicopter view

Some places have a plethora of wilderness, but just living there is so hard that recreation in the wilderness is not really an option.  Other places have the leisure culture to enjoy the wilderness, but no wilderness to enjoy.

We are so fortunate to still have wilderness left in North America, wilderness so wild as to be almost entirely unaffected by human touch, yet with modern access, technology, and a culture that makes exploring this wilderness a safe and easy endeavor.  Sure, we can make it challenging and dangerous if we want, but that's our choice.

bobbie burns heli-hiking waterfallI have spent more time in this wilderness than I probably deserve, but am thankful to live at a time and in a place where it is possible to go into these wild places in comfort, safely, and as a form of recreation rather than only as a risky expedition of discovery.  It wasn’t long ago that the wilderness was viewed as a place where everyday humans should not go and only the most intrepid explorers set foot.

Today, in North America, average people can dive deep into the wilderness with maps, mountain guides, GPS devices, and guidebooks to show us the way; with lightweight equipment that keeps us warm, dry and comfortable in the sun, wind, rain and snow.

Here, we have the best of both worlds.  We have all the modern comforts and the privilege of leisure time as well as deep and unmarked wilderness.  We can effortlessly travel to the edge of civilization and spend a long weekend in the woods, away from the hectic modern world. 

Every one of the thousands of days I’ve spent in the wilderness I view as gifts from our modern world, gifts from this time and this culture.  As much as the politics, tragedies, and information overload can be maddening, this time in history - for those of us fortunate enough to be able to enjoy it - is a time of happiness unlike anything the world has ever known. 

I took these two photos during a CMH Summer Adventure at the Bobbie Burns Lodge.  They perfectly demonstrate the incredible privilege of wilderness access.  In little more than a long weekend, we jetted to Calgary, rode a bus to the edge of the vast wilderness of Interior British Columbia, and were whisked by a reliable twin-engine helicopter deep into a wilderness so sublime and untamed as to make us feel like astronauts on planet earth. 

Words do little to express my gratitude for the chance to live in this culture, and at this time in history, where adventure travel into the wilderness is an easy, safe and comfortable experience that can be shared by the young, the old, and everyone in between.

Tags: Adventure Travel, helicopters, CMH Bobbie Burns

Adventure Travel by Helicopter - What's it Really Like?

Posted by Topher Donahue on Fri, Aug 20, 2010

describe the image

Sitting in a car or bus has a familiar sleepy vibration.  It’s a rare person in our modern world who doesn’t know riding in a plane is all about that hypnotic jet hum in an atmosphere thick with a hundred passenger’s quiet discomfort.  Millions of people know the smooth speed of an electric train and the hypnotic rhythm of a rocking boat.  But far fewer people know what it’s like to travel by helicopter, especially the big twin-engine Bell 212 - known as the safest helicopter in the world - used on CMH Summer Adventures

D BCBU10 2519Adventure travel by helicopter in the mountains is like nothing else.  The combination of relatively slow speeds compared to a plane, and proximity to the earth for a truly bird’s eye view of alpine grandeur, offers the passenger an unparalleled intimacy with flight.

Leaving the ground is the first eye-opener.  The helicopter takes off slowly, rising vertically for several metres, and there is a second or two when if feels like the machine could go any direction - and it can.  Then it leans forward slightly and begins to accelerate, quickly reaching cruising speed.  This is about the point when the cameras start clicking.

As a passenger in a helicopter, your sensitivity to changes in speed is very acute.  In a jet, it is impossible to get a feel for speed because of the high cruising altitude.  When “cruising” in a Bell 212  during a CMH Summer Adventure, you’re right at mountaintop level, or lower, doing around 200 kilometres per hour – about the average speed of a Formula One race.

If you’ve ridden in smaller helicopters, which often feel like they are rotating back and forth, the Bell 212 is unbelievably stable – sort of the Limousine of helicopters.  While it has two engines, and can fly on one engine if the other should fail, the mighty Columbia Mountains force the Bell 212 to fly slow to around 100 kilometres per hour while climbing - think highway speed, but looking out the window at a glacier.

Unless they're in a rescue scenario, pilots don’t just fly straight up a vertical mountain face.   A good mountain pilot, like those we work with from Alpine Helicopters, will read the terrain for the easiest line just like a mountain guide, crossing passes at their lowest points, avoiding unnecessary altitude gain and loss, watching the wind and weather, and always keeping an escape route open if conditions change.

describe the image

On the way down, the helicopter can lose altitude fast enough to put your stomach in your throat – up to 1000 metres per minute – but the pilots save those kinds of speeds for when they’re alone in the helicopter.  With passengers, they slow the descent to give everyone a smooth, comfortable, photogenic ride.

If you’ve never been in a helicopter, riding in a Bell 212, on route to one of the myriad experiences of a CMH Summer Adventure, is the ultimate way to give it a try.  Not only do you get a scenic flight in the world’s safest helicopter through some of the world’s most beautiful mountains, but at the end of the flight you are left in a breathtaking location with a guide to spend the day in a mountain paradise surrounded by raw, quiet, untouched wilderness.

Photos by Topher Donahue.

Air speed information for the Bell 212 provided by Alex Holliday, Safety Manager for Alpine Helicopters.

Tags: Adventure Travel, First Timers, helicopters, CMH Summer Adventures