The Birth of Heli-Hiking: Part 2

In Summer

CMH Cariboos | Photo: John Evely

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By Arthur Tauck

For anyone that understands my involvement in CMH and the subsequent birth of Heli-Hiking as I envisioned it, one must first realize that I operate tours in the Canadian Rockies as well as many other destinations around the world.

I am also a skier.

In 1975, my wife and I spent a month hopscotching our way north from Salt Lake City to Jasper, sampling various ski resorts along the way. By the time we reached Jasper, we were about skied out. While my wife elected to take a couple of days off, I set out to explore the possibility of Heli-Skiing.

Heli-Skiers at CMH in 1981

I had heard about Heli-Skiing in the Bugaboos but knew nothing about CMH. Believe it or not, I turned to the Banff Yellow Pages and that’s how I found out about CMH. When I asked about Heli-Skiing for a day, they suggested I head for Valemount early the next morning to join a group of doctors who were skiing the Cariboos from the Sarac Motel.

With my 220cm Hexel Competition ski and nervous as hell, I join that group. It wasn’t long before I realized I had the wrong equipment. Regardless, I found myself experiencing something extraordinary, something that challenged all of my senses far beyond anything I’d ever done before.

At lunch, we joined the group from the Cariboo Lodge, and I couldn’t help but appreciate the bonding, spirit and camaraderie among the lodge guests.

There was something very special going on. You could sense it in the air.

Late that afternoon on the drive back to Jasper, I vowed to return the following year with my son Chuck, who would then be due a college graduation present.

Heli-Skiers enjoying the spring weather at CMH in 1977

It was April 1976 when we joined Kiwi Gallagher and his staff for a Heli-Ski week in the Cariboos – it proved far more exhilarating than I had ever experienced. I was amazed at the construction of the lodge, the comfort of the accommodations, and the sophistication of the cuisine. Plus, that something special I felt the year before was still in the air, and the skiing was only part of it. The social chemistry among the group was intense.

Tour operators strive to enhance the social chemistry among their guests. Sometimes we are more successful than other times, but even at our best, nothing matched what I experience in the Cariboos that week. My son and I became one with the other guests. We lived the experience of a lifetime together. It became clear to me that CMH had found the solution to packaging magic.

I simply could not get the feeling out of my head. I asked whether the lodges were open in summer and learned they were not. This started my juices turning.

Could I combine the CMH experience with a motor-coach tour of the Rockies and thus free up some of the coveted hotel inventory that could then be utilized to add more departures to our other Rocky programs?

“Arthur, inside this baggy old body of bones, I’m still 25.”

Arthur Tauck’s 97-year-old Grandmother-in-law

Much of any tour operator’s success in the Rockies is limited by the number of hotel rooms controlled in Banff and Jasper National Parks, or specifically for my company, Tauck Tours, at the Banff Springs Hotel Chateau Lake Louise and Jasper Park Lodge. Due to building limitations imposed by Parks Canada, there has always been more demand for rooms than there has been supply. This is especially true during the peak summer months.

There was another question in my mind, too: would some of the older guests we cater to appreciate a mountain program given the frailties of age?

Coincidentally, about this time, I happened to visit my wife’s 97-year-old grandmother, who was in a home living out her waning days. It was a sad visit. She was failing fast. Among her last words to me were, “Arthur, inside this baggy old body of bones, I’m still 25.” I cried, and later realized she had answered one of my questions.

We had always designed tours around our perception of our client’s physical limitations. Maybe that was a mistake. My grandmother-in-law convinced me that we should let our clients determine their own boundaries. We should design tours that would engage their spirit and tenacity, that would leave them with a renewed pride in themselves.

Hans Gmoser and Arthur Tauck

I tracked down this guy Hans Gmoser. I wanted to talk to him about my idea of introducing my clients to his lodges and letting them partake of the magic and purity of an alpine experience geared to their wishes and capabilities. I envisioned a program like Hans’ Heli-Skiing, where each day, guests are divided by ability and heli-lifted to four or five different venues they could explore with a guide.

Suffice to say that Hans was not easy to convince, but that’s another story for another day. Ultimately, we met and flew to the Cariboos to better understand each other and explore the possibility of working together. Hans, the skeptic, soon became Hans, the enthusiast.

Next, we both realized that our enthusiasm for Heli-Hiking had to pass the test of reality. We looked at each other and, both understanding the business risk involved, decided to go forward.

Zillmer Glacier, CMH Cariboos | Photo: Jesse Tamayo

The next summer, 1978, with a single mailing to Tauck customers, we introduced 900 people to the mountain magic of the Cariboos. The following summer we maximized the capacity of the Cariboo Lodge with over 1,200 guests. This encouraged expansion to the Bugaboos, and later the Bobbie Burns. Both Hans and I fed on the positive feedback we received from our guests.

In reality, we were challenging the majority of our guests to participate in situations that were but a few inches over their heads, even though they felt they were into something miles above them. If they were stymied physically, we didn’t rush to their aid. We let them figure it out, but always under the guide’s watchful eye. Support came when needed, but in most cases, our guests accomplished the tasks themselves.

The result was a renewed sense of pride. They met the challenge of satisfying their inner spirit at a time in their lives when they were beginning to accept the more sedentary life that comes with age. It was a joy to watch them fanny-slide down snowy slopes, frolic like kids with snowballs in the midst of summer, and push themselves along the ridgelines and up the slopes far above timber. They learned about the flora, fauna and the power of glaciation. They embraced the mountain environment…and they bonded with one another and wished they could adopt the CMH staff that made it possible.

Then, upon departure, while waiting for the helicopter to return them to reality, I would witness reflection, sometimes tearful. Maybe it was about their accomplishments and the fact that they may never have such an experience again.

CMH Cariboos | Photo: Hike, Bike Travel

I, too, have found myself with moist eyes: seeing their emotion, I realized that Hans and I were the architects of an experience that enhanced and sometimes changed the lives of many.

We have watched, awestruck, amputees navigate the meadows and the glaciers. We have seen the more fit eagerly reach out to embrace the challenges of mountaineering. And we have witnessed families unite with teenagers, parents and grandparents, each at their own level of participation, but each sharing the same emotion.

My original goal of creating Heli-Hiking to take advantage of added rooms in the Rockies for financial gain has long since faded in importance. As it has turned out, my personal gain is the realization that Heli-Hiking has rekindled the dreams that reside in so many of us. My only regret is that my wife’s 97-year-old grandmother never had the chance to live the experience she inspired.

We believe that flying you to these otherwise inaccessible landscapes in summer, regardless of the ability you possess, remains one of our greatest strengths. This was the original concept of CMH Summer Adventures, and it holds true today.

Over the years, our offerings have evolved to provide a diverse range of physical activity; from summiting peaks to ambling through alpine meadows, as well as the via ferrata climbing and mountaineering experiences at any of the three summer lodges; Cariboos, Bugaboos, and Bobbie Burns.