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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | CANADA

Back to Nature -- by Helicopter

Being Airlifted Into Pristine British Columbia Wilderness--to Hike, Picnic and Relax in a Comfy Lodge--Is a New Option for Outdoors Lovers

April 19, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Christopher Reynolds is The Times' travel writer. His last piece for the magazine was on Bora-Bora

Helicopters are ungainly machines that do wondrous things. The most obvious keys to keeping them aloft are the top rotors, the blades that whir above the aircraft and give pilots the ability to hover. But the bit of metal that holds those rotors in place is equally important. The technical term is "main rotor retaining nut," but certain dark-humored pilots call it "the Jesus Nut," because if it fails--well, you get the idea.

Now, if that bit of information unsettles your stomach, there is very little chance you'll be interested in traveling to the Bugaboos, a lonely set of mountains just west of the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia, to crouch under the roar and shudder of a 14-seat Bell 212 helicopter and shuttle between a lodge and one spectacular hiking spot after another. You may not want to think about the occasional takeoffs amid charcoal skies and pelting hail. I probably shouldn't even mention the occasional landing on a narrow precipice of loose and splintered slate.

But there are those who possess the necessary faith and equilibrium for these actions, and not all are wild-eyed, free-spending heli-skiers besotted by the idea of virgin powder and no chairlifts for miles. A small but increasing number of North Americans have embraced the idea of helicopter-aided hiking and mountaineering, including yours truly.

I take you now to Groovy Ridge, a 9,000-foot-high mountain spine near Bugaboo Glacier. It's an afternoon of variable winds and massing clouds. I shuffle along near the end of a single-file line of hikers, scarcely blinking.

Our path is perhaps three feet wide, with slopes of several hundred feet on either side. A few hundred feet down one slope, we can see mountain goats, still as statues. Farther down, about 1,500 feet, is the tree line. Out there on the horizon, dozens of ragged, snowy mountains are arrayed like ice cream cones. Occasionally, we pause to appreciate them. Then we go back to picking our way along the ridge, delicately placing our feet among approximately 1 billion bits of shattered slate. This is nothing compared to what serious mountaineers do around here with ropes and pulleys, but we are strangers in the high country of British Columbia, and this is plenty for us. It is astonishing, and if you were in the wrong frame of mind, it would be enough to make you curl into a terrified fetal ball.

Thanks to the ministrations of guide Jos Lang, we are in the right frame of mind: relaxed but alert, fully aware that we are tiptoeing through a singular environment.

As we scramble up a particularly problematic jutting boulder, my fellow hikers Dave and Jeanette Maddy start chuckling aloud at something quite absurd: They have just remembered that I'm supposed to put this experience into words.

*

Commercial heli-hiking seems to have been born in British Columbia in 1977. That winter, a Connecticut-based tour operator named Arthur Tauck Jr. took a heli-skiing vacation at a lodge run by Canadian Mountain Holidays.

Ideas run in the Tauck family. The senior Arthur Tauck is widely credited with popularizing the North American escorted bus tour. The junior Arthur Tauck suggested to CMH management that they really ought to find a use for their lodge in the summer. Perhaps he could help.

A deal was struck. The following summer, Tauck's company introduced 800 summer visitors to CMH's Cariboo Lodge and packed them off on daily expeditions by helicopter. Now Tauck brings more than 2,000 hikers each summer on group tours to several lodges run by CMH, the biggest operation of its kind in the world. An additional 1,200 hikers and mountaineers signed up on their own. This is small potatoes compared to the 7,000 heli-skiers who fill CMH's lodges to capacity each winter, but the hiking idea is catching on among other mountain resort areas, including Whistler.

I fly to Calgary, Alberta, on a Wednesday in late summer, catch a bus to Banff, spend a night, then catch another bus and a helicopter into the mountains to the south. Getting out on Sunday was simpler--a bus straight to the airport in Calgary. In between, I had a standard package: three days, three nights, 11 flights, all meals, at about $350 per day.

The Bugaboo Lodge, about 185 miles west of Calgary, was built in 1968 and has been upgraded and expanded three times since. It is one of six CMH wilderness lodges in British Columbia. (All six handle heli-skiing in winter; four open for summer heli-hiking.) It gets its power from a pair of generators and stands in a long green valley. From the deck and about half of the bedrooms, you look out, and up, at the postcard view of Bugaboo Glacier, pierced by twin spires, Houndstooth and Marmalata. From this angle, the spires look like a single peak--look, in fact, like a 9,250-foot granite molar bursting forth from smooth white slopes.

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