Friday, 2 March 2007

Heli-hiking in the Bugaboos

It might seem a bit soft, calling a taxi to go to lunch halfway through a day’s hiking. But in the Bugaboos you earn the ride and every single calorie consumed at the end of it. Besides, without it we would have missed out on the finest hamburgers imaginable.

The taxi was a Bell 212 helicopter. Lunch was a barbecue on a high plateau where we were asked not to stray from a marked area of rock, so as not to tread on delicate Alpine vegetation. And we were the A team, the toughest hikers at the lodge, ready for anything guide Dave Cochrane chucked at us.

There was Nancy, a theatre nurse from Denver, Bob, a root canal dentist from San Francisco, and his wife Kate, Justin and Anna, who were the youngest, and Sylvia, who had come with her partner Frank and her remarkable parents. Milo was 75 and had undergone by pass surgery, Aiga was 73 and had a year old, artificial hip. They had just celebrated their Golden Wedding and they bounded up the mountain like a pair of chamois. You don’t get more remarkable than that.

We had been thrown together on three day heli-hiking trip to the Bugaboos, part of the Purcell chain, which runs close to the Rocky Mountains in western Canada. The lodge where we met was itself some 15 – 20 miles from the nearest surfaced road. Heli-hiking involves flying from there to an even remoter point in that vast wilderness and walking until it is time to be picked up again. The point is that it gets you to routes, mostly close to or above the tree line, to which it would take half a day’s hike or more to reach on foot.

The organisers were Canadian Mountain Holidays, based in Banff, whose founders built the lodge in the 1960s as a base for heli-skiing and there was something of the ski holiday about our first hours there. Boots, walking poles, jackets, backpacks and rain ponchos were provided for those who had not brought them. Everyone had sent off a form before leaving home, assessing their fitness levels, so guests were split immediately into groups. But the guides spent that afternoon making their own assessments – and reshuffling the groups accordingly.

I set off along Chalice Creek with my first set of companions in steady rain. Dave, also the lodge manager, set a stiff pace uphill. Before long Larry from Texas, who said he’d been on anti-biotics for a month, was admitting he had bitten off more then he could chew. No problem. Dave took him to a point where he could team up with other walkers and catch an early flight back.

The rest of us continued up an increasingly steep slope, grateful that Dave was kicking footsteps in the loose slate, to reach a ridge so narrow it seemed impossible that the helicopter could land there. By now we were becoming accustomed to the routine. On with the wooly hat to protect against the chilly down draught, hang on to back packs to ensure they’re not blown away, crouch beneath the rotor blades, jump aboard and buckle seat belts. It becomes almost military.

There is need for discipline in the mornings, too. Since the lodge is only about 5200 feet above sea level you are not kept awake by the rapid heartbeat which comes with high altitude, so you may remain in deep slumber when they ring the ship’s bell on the lawn at 7.15am. Breakfast, maybe French toast, bacon and maple syrup or Eggs Benedict, is at 8am and the first flight leaves promptly an hour later. Nobody wants to be held up by laggards.

Day two brought an unbroken hike including climbs totaling some 2500 feet. We flew up Bachelor Creek to start walking near a lake called Dead Elk, which tips into a tumbling brook. A little fresh snow had fallen overnight. Though it was still early September we needed fleeces, warm jackets, ski hats and gloves until the sun and uphill gradients took away the chill.

Grizzly bears live in these parts, but they stay away from walking groups. Starting downhill we encountered a hole dug by one, in pursuit of a ground squirrel. “Bears like them because they provide a lot of fat for the winter”, says Bryan, our guide for the day. “Sometimes they dig holes as big as Volkswagens trying to get at them”.

While a few patches of Indian Paintbrush remained to provide splashes of red against the wet green grass, and a few pale orange blooms lingered on Arctic Willows shrubs, most flowers had long gone to seed, but there were mushrooms everywhere: puffballs, boletus edulis (cepes) and others, which would demand skilled identification before being thrown into the pan.

Back at the lodge there was time for a beer before dinner. It has been a demanding day involving some 2500 feet of uphill slog – but demanding is not obligatory. Others, having taken easier options, are back before us. There is no shame in returning at lunchtime to spend the afternoon with a book, or relaxing in the roof top hot tub.

Next morning brought the first unclouded view of the Hound’s Tooth, the aptly named rock outcrop framed by the lodge’s windows. “The world’s largest cuspid”, Bob the dentist called it.. Though the sun had yet to emerge from the wings it cast spotlights the colour of mango sorbet on the glaciers in which it appeared be rooted.

“It’s going to be a dynamite day”, said Dave at breakfast, adding that what he had planned for us was “more than hiking”. When we looked up at the ridge he had in mind we saw immediately what he meant.

The helicopter had dropped us on a ledge opposite the fluted, snow encrusted wall of the Hawser Spires. Steve the pilot did a little circuit against this backdrop before departing, so that the group could take a few photos of the helicopter. Above us soared Cross Fish, a peak named after a brand of tinned fish and so named because the first climbers to reach the top left a can up there.

We took all morning to climb the steep ridge, scrambling over huge granite boulders, taking care not to dislodge stones which might hit the hiker below. Hoary marmots peered at us from rock perches. Over the saddle we tramped through new snow to a flat place where Steve landed to take us to lunch. As we ate ravenously, chipmunks scavenged for crumbs. Were the burgers really that good? Who knows? They came with such a lavish trimming of taste enhancing scenery that our taste buds might easily have been deceived.

Then it was back in to helicopter and off to the Vowell Glacier, which should give pause for thought to anyone who doubts the threat of global warming, for it has shrunk significantly since last year’s fierce summer. How much is hard to say but its surface has dropped by at least six feet, and maybe more. Dave gives us a brief glaciology lesson, explaining how boulders called “travellers” break loose from the lateral moraine – the scooped out valley walls – and are carried by the flow and have wound up as “erratics”, isolated far away during ice ages. Behind us, as we walk down the glacier, we hear the thump of one such traveller as it begins its journey.

There was one last taxi ride, to the start of a pleasant stroll along a narrow ridge between two summits. The views were magnificent. Flushed with enthusiasm, a couple of us suggested walking all the way back down to the lodge. Dave warned we might find the going tedious. We accepted his advice and joined him in flying home. That might seem soft, too - but why risk spoiling a perfect day with even the slightest note of anti climax?


Canadian Mountain Holidays operates a variety of packages including those based at the Bugaboo Lodge. You will need to spend at least one night in Banff before joining the trip. I stayed at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.