A heli-hiking adventure in B.C.’s Bugaboos

In Summer

Photo: John Evely | The stunning spires of the Bugaboos

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Words by Tamara Elliott | Posted January 13, 2018

Womp womp womp womp

The whirring of the helicopter’s blades directly overhead sent vibrations into the rocky track we were crouched on, as our group heli-huddled together to stave off the wind gust. The thumping noise got louder and the force of the wind stronger, and just when it felt like we were all about to be bowled over the strength of the wind subsided. Out of the corner of my eye I saw our fluorescent-clad guide gesturing us toward the chopper which had touched down only a few feet in front of us, and we scooted toward the open door. No more than 30 seconds later with seat belts tightly fastened, we pulled up and away from the rock face with our faces glued to the window, staring in wonder at the mesmerizing mountain scene below. No matter how many times we hopped in and out of that helicopter during our heli-hiking experience with CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures, the thrill never wore off.

Just a couple days earlier I’d arrived in the mountain town of Banff, Alberta with a couple of friends, all of us buzzing with excitement about what the week had in store. We counted ourselves lucky that being from Calgary we didn’t have to travel far, as outdoor enthusiasts come from around the world to explore B.C.’s backcountry with CMH. The company—whose founder Hans Gmoser just so happens to have invented heli-skiing back in 1965—has a reputation for creating epic adventures under the watch of highly-trained guides. Add to that the fact that excursions are based out of remote lodges surrounded by nothing but epic scenery, and it’s no wonder people are willing to make the trip.

Photo: John Entwistle | Heli-accessed hiking to rarely seen locations in the Bugaboos

Our quick overnight in Banff meant an early wakeup to hop on the bus that would shuttle us across the provincial border and into Kootenay National Park, the gateway to our final destination: the Bugaboos, a mountain range in B.C.’s Bugaboo Provincial Park famous for its towering granite spires formed an estimated 75 million years ago. En route we were treated to views of emerald ponds, soaring mountain peaks shrouded in morning fog and even frolicking deer, before arriving at the takeoff spot located near Radium just a couple hours later. When we pulled up I was surprised to find we were in an empty, grassy field instead of a full-fledged heli-pad, but it later made sense when I saw first-hand what kind of terrain the bird was capable of landing on. I happened to be included in the first group of 14 passengers that would be zipped up to the lodge, so it wasn’t long before I found myself strapped in to the Bell 212 helicopter, its engines roaring as we flew over the Spillimacheen Valley where a winding, turquoise creek provided a pop of colour among the thick green forests.

Photo: Cal Snape | The view from the heli, enroute to the lodge

It only took about 10 minutes for the 80 kilometre journey, and we soon found ourselves greeted at the door of the stone-framed lodge by smiling staff members who managed to memorize all of our names immediately, much to the amazement of the approximately 40 guests. We were invited to unpack in our rooms named after peaks like Thorington and Logan (my room was huge, with two queen size beds, a private bathroom and large windows with mountain views) before gathering in the gear room.

Even the most seasoned hikers might not have outerwear suitable for the sometimes fickle weather in the Bugaboos, so CMH provides everything their guests could need—prompting my fellow guest Judi to remark that a heli-adventure would make the perfect surprise trip. “You can arrive here in your street clothes never having done this,” she exclaimed, adding, “You could leave office on a Thursday night with nothing!” We grabbed full rain suits, water resistant backpacks, poles and even hiking boots, which many of us ended up begging to bring home by the end of the trip as they fit so snuggly.

Photo: CMH Bugaboo Lodge | The birthplace of heli-skiing, and one of three CMH summer lodges.

A hearty lunch of pasta, salad, charcuterie and fresh-baked bread served in the communal dining room followed, providing us with the energy to head out right away on our first heli-hiking adventure—after all, there’s no time to waste when one is lucky enough to find themselves in the heart of “The Bugs.” We grabbed our gear and headed outside for a safety briefing from the pilot explaining how to get in and out of the chopper when the engine is on, and just like that we found ourselves back up in the air, zipping toward the spires for our first foray into the backcountry.

CMH had split us into three groups to account for different hiking abilities, and the first stop for our group was Taupe Lake which the helicopter conveniently dropped us off beside. Boasting a vibrant turquoise hue, even the overcast day couldn’t dim its lustre, and we stared at it mesmerized while our guide Ryan talked about the marshy foliage and jagged peaks surrounding us. But as we started making our way past the “watermelon snow” (caused by algae which turns it pink, and even makes it smell sweet) and up a ridge, fog enveloped us. Dashing the hopes of the photographers in the group, the white mist quickly covered what would normally be an incredible vantage point. We had been Bugaboo-ed.

Photo: Lyle Grisedale | Heading off in the heli in the gorgeous Bugaboos

Perhaps it was fitting that was our first experience in the area. After all, that’s how the range got its name, after prospectors scaled the peaks in search of gold and left empty-handed, but not before christening the spires with the moniker which is defined as “something that causes fear, worry or irritation.” But undeterred by the weather, we continued hiking along a rough trail, eventually reaching Wallace Basin and summiting a spire. The clouded view may not have been what we were hoping for, but the feeling of accomplishment was great—even if we had taken a helicopter most of the way up. By the time we made our way back down to Walter Lake a few hours later we’d walked an impressive eight miles, meaning none of us felt guilty back at the lodge that evening while soaking in the hot tub with a cold beer, enjoying an uninterrupted view of the Bugaboo Spires.

Lady Luck was on our side for the last day of our heli-adventure. One group bravely tackled the Skyladder Via Ferrata, which saw them scale along metal rungs fixed to the mountainside with ropes safely supporting them while climbing thousands of feet in the air. Our group took a more conservative approach, and were dropped off on the west side of the Bugaboo spires to explore glaciers. After giving us a view of the Anniversary, Houndstooth, Pigeon and Snowpatch spires, the chopper miraculously touched down on what seemed like an impossibly small landing spot, as the so-called “Harley of the Skies” sped away to whisk off the third group.

Photo: Katie Goldie | Stunning views surround hikers in early summer

Once stillness had returned, we looked up to find the most incredible sight: a spire bursting out of the cliffside, surrounded by a steep mountain valley known as the Kickoff area. To say we were spellbound is an understatement, but it turned out our day was about to get even better. As the guides led us through the wildflower-filled valley passing ponds and streams framed by the dark ridges, we found ourselves quickly shedding all the layers we’d worn as the sun began to make an appearance. Within minutes, we were treated to a spectacular scene of the vibrant blue sky and puffy white clouds behind the mountain range, with the peaceful meadow sprawled before us without a soul in sight.

Navigating past waterfalls and scrambling over boulders, each turn in the trail brought exclamations of delight from our group, as the views got better and better. We were unapologetically making slow time, too captivated by the scene to even think about turning away from it. Carefully watching our footing, we eventually we made it over a ridge covered in loose rocks to find ourselves in front of a spire reflecting off a tranquil emerald pond. It was the perfect place to nestle ourselves between the rocks, and tuck in to the picnic lunches we’d packed back at the lodge.

Once our bellies were full and our legs had gotten a well-deserved rest, Ryan radioed the helicopter to take us to the next stop. As this was a multi-drop day, we were heading to another treasure in the Bugaboos: the Vowell Glacier. We soared through the granite peaks, passing over pools of glacier-fed water and pink snow before the icy surface of the glacial moraine came into view. The chopper dropped us on a sandstone rock, leaving us to wander along an aqua-marine hued stream filled with floating icebergs.

Photo: Taylor Burk | Standing alongside a glacier lagoon amongst the spires
Photo: Taylor Burk | Tackling the Skyladder Via Ferrata at CMH Bugaboos
Photo: Katie Goldie | Taking in the stunning views of Cobalt Lake

We stared in awe at the glacier as the Bugaboo Spire rose up behind it. Our guide Jeff also pointed out a few signs we’d passed earlier on the trail, marked with “2000” and “2002.” It turns out they serve as markers to show how much the glacier has melted in just over a decade—a sobering reminder that someday, these incredibly beautiful places may no longer even exist.

Despite the dark clouds beginning to approach, our last stop had us returning to the same area we’d explored on the first day, in hopes we could beat the storm and enjoy the stellar views. Standing at the top of a grassy ridge, we crested the range to discover famous Cobalt Lake perched perfectly before us. The surrounding mountains created a bowl for the ink-coloured pool, as waterfalls gushed out of it and down the hillside. It was easy to see why Cobalt Lake is a favourite spot for photographers, particularly during wildflower season.

We headed back to the very tip of the ridge, putting our legs to the test as we scaled a narrow pathway only a few metres across. Just as we neared the summit in hopes of that memorable view the storm rolled in. The view of the entire mountain range sprawled beneath us was just within our reach, but again we would have to wait for another day to see it.

Once again we’d been Bugaboo-ed—and none of us would have had it any other way.

For more on CMH Summer adventures visit cmhsummer.com

Tamara Elliott is an award-winning travel writer based in Calgary, Canada. In 2013 she founded Globe Guide, which offers savvy tips for exploring destinations around the world while showcasing unique experiences, and specializes in travel hacks.