Heli-hiking in Canada lets you climb a peak—or touch a glacier—and end the day in luxury
A bank of clouds obscures my view of the Bugaboos Spires, a collection of pointy peaks that are part of the Purcell Mountains in southeastern British Columbia, Canada. The temperature is cool for mid-July, and though nature is still captivating—the overcast sky makes colours pop, from the orange and yellow lichen atop boulders to the pink algae that streaks the snow—a chill settles in as my tired legs descend a steep hillside.
And then I see it. On the far side of an alpine lake, a white helicopter awaits our group of hikers to spirit us back to CMH Bugaboos Lodge. We climb aboard gratefully and moments later the whirly bird lands on the lodge’s heli-pad. Ten minutes after that I’m warming up in a rooftop hot tub, and rehydrating with a cold beer. The clouds lift and I’m rewarded with a view of the granite towers we couldn’t see during the afternoon excursion. I could get used to every hike ending this way.
As outdoor adventures go, riding a helicopter to go hiking isn’t as well-known or glamorous as flying in a chopper to access untracked powder snow, but this summer activity has been around for more than four decades and it’s growing in popularity.
Heli-hiking: Easy access to nature, plus bird’s-eye views
A customized tour with a Canadian travel company makes it easy to hike by day and slumber in luxury by night. Both Fresh Tracks Canada and The True North Collection work with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the same company that invented heli-skiing over 50 years ago.
The main reason to go heli-hiking, of course, is the scenery in these parts, considered some of Canada’s most spectacular. The backdrop of the Bugaboos makes every hike and flight epic—from the air, you get to see swaths of green forest below, valleys oxbowed with creeks, and steely blue lakes bobbing with icebergs—all framed by the granite spires’ jagged skyline.
Another reason to try heli-hiking is the easy, guided access to the high alpine. Instead of trekking for days to reach a glacier, the chopper drops you off almost at its toe, and then a certified guide safely leads you the rest of the way. The clincher, though, may be the pastime’s seclusion. Deep in Canada’s backcountry, surrounded by nature, the world’s problems seem very far away.
It all starts with a helicopter ride
To get here in the first place, a helicopter flies our group in from a heli-pad located in B.C.’s Columbia Valley (90 minutes west of Banff National Park). We land at the spectacular Bugaboos Lodge, a welcoming retreat with comfortable private guest rooms, plus common areas packed with inviting couches and wood-burning fireplaces, not to mention a dining room and bar—it will be our base for the trip.
We’re split into groups according to hiking ability, outfitted with hiking boots and daypacks, and then flown higher—up to alpine meadows that would normally take an expedition to reach on foot. After touching down, we hike, to mountaintops and glacial lakes, accompanied by trained guides and all the while dwarfed by the rock towers that modern-day mountain climbers still dream of conquering.
When our legs tire and our thirst for something stronger than water becomes insatiable, the helicopter takes us back to the lodge. By night we dine on hearty roast beef and potatoes, or ginger-spiced salmon and broccoli, and then retire to our rooms (or to the bar to sip cocktails).
Notch up your adventure a level
If that sounds too soft-adventure for the wilderness, guests can ratchet up the extreme: CMH offers Via Ferrata experiences for those who want a real taste of scaling cliffs.
For many of the guests, heli-hiking is exciting enough. While it’s mostly true that anyone who can walk can hike (which makes it sound kind of boring), it’s also true that backcountry hiking poses more risks. It demands that participants be relatively in shape since they’ll be hiking between five and 10 kilometres a day. And, as soon as the helicopter zooms away, hikers are at the mercy of fickle mountain weather, rough terrain at altitude and their personal fitness levels.
I’m in pretty good shape, but I do succumb to a smidge of vertigo on Day 2 when the helicopter lands on a rocky promontory below the impressive Howser Spire.
“Watch your step,” the guide instructs and I immediately see why—the land falls away dramatically mere feet from the chopper. One misstep and I’ll be tumbling down a cliff instead of hiking up a mountain.
My daypack is stuffed with a three-litre bladder of water, a sandwich, high-energy snacks and lots of extra layers—even though it’s summer, I might need a rain jacket, fleece or even a hat and mitts at elevations that can be as high as 2,900 metres. The two guides are equipped with bear spray in case we run into any bruins, though in such a large group it’s unlikely. They also carry first aid kits for blisters or minor injuries, and walkie-talkies for keeping in contact with the pilot. (If something should happen, help really is just a helicopter ride away.)
Customize your trip
Both Fresh Tracks Canada and The True North Collection take pride in customizing trips to guests’ interests and abilities. What’s more, once out on the trail, the alpine guides are always keeping an eye on the hikers, making sure they’re in the right group for their ability. After all, these aren’t the wide, maintained trails of a national park. Instead, our group of intermediate hikers follows narrow game routes and scrambles up loose scree in alpine bowls.
As soon as we begin hiking I have to stop, pull out my camera, and start snapping pictures. The scenery is mesmerizing: in the foreground, the multiple pinnacles of the Bugaboos steal the show; in the distance, the jagged peaks of the Selkirk Mountains puncture the sky. Later, standing at the foot of Vowell Glacier, I realize I haven’t stopped capturing Canada’s natural beauty through my lens, all within reach thanks to a helicopter. I’m pretty much ruined for regular hiking, but that’s okay. I’ll keep seeking out high places in the mountains, to feel like I’m on top of the world.