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Patti’s backside was inches from my helmet as she struggled to find her footing on the sheer rock face. Fifteen stories of air and wind were the only things below us. My feet were beginning to shake and give. The unspoken fear was that one of us would fall, taking me, Patti, her friend Alison, and our mountaineering guide, Thierry, to the bottom of the cliff, our one mutual rope still tied to our bodies.
Without letting the image linger too long in my mind, I reached out and pushed Patti’s rear upward, grabbed her foot, and yanked it to a one-inch ledge. She looked down at me with a pink lipsticked smile, sweat dripping from her forehead.
“Thanks” was all she could muster.
We were climbing at the base of the dramatic granite spires of the Bugaboos in the Columbia Mountains near the British Columbia–Alberta border. It was June, but ice and glaciers were all around us. Nary a sign of life could be found, save for the distant buzz of the helicopter that had brought us here and the odd grizzly bear tracks in the snow.
The four of us had been scaling the mountain for nearly three hours, inch by strenuous inch. The two sweet Southern girls with their painted fingernails and expertly applied makeup were way past the point of pretension. Alison cussed like a sailor with every tenuous handhold. Thierry led us on with false promises. “We’re almost there,” he kept insisting in his thick French accent. I was in charge of collecting all the gear as we made our ascent, but I must have missed something, because about halfway up Thierry exclaimed, “Where’s the red rope?” The girls and I looked at each other.
“What red rope?” I ventured.
“The one at the first pitch.” Thierry gave me an accusatory look. “We’re screwed without it. We’re screwed!”
We all looked at each other, and the girls’ faces screamed Helicopter rescue!
I felt awful—personally responsible for our imminent deaths. As Thierry hooked us up for the next ascent with a grumble, we all whispered to each other that no one had even seen the rope in question.
With a newfound seriousness we continued to climb, our muscles stretching and aching. Finally, after five hours, we had made it to the summit, sans red rope. We triumphantly ate our lunch with the conquered mountain below us.
That night at dinner Patti said to me, “You know, I think I can do anything now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought that it was just going to be a mountaineering trip, but now I realize it translates to everything in my life. I have this relationship that’s been a real pain, and now I think I can finally leave my boyfriend. If I made it up that damn mountain, I can really do anything.”
What Patti said had universal truth.
The mountain-climbing expedition we had undertaken was but one option of what was supposed to be a more serene vacation spent heli-hiking. Perhaps I had considered this activity after first meeting my fellow heli-hikers. When I arrived at the helipad to join the group, I was surprised to see the collection of people. The hodgepodge of travelers included a family with a grandmother and teenagers, couples in their 50s, and groups of single women in their 30s. Any fears I had about the trip’s physical demands were quashed when I met a smiling and corpulent 11-year-old who would be hiking with us. Apart from a lone Brit, I was the only other single male.
About 30 of us were to embark on a three-day stay in a mountain lodge called Bobbie Burns, nestled in the Columbia Valley and on the edge of the majestic Canadian Rockies. Bobbie Burns (named for the Scottish poet Robert Burns or a local gold prospector with the same name, depending on which legend you believe) is one of five summer lodges run by Canadian Mountain Holidays, a venerable company specializing in heli-hiking and heli-skiing trips. Most of their lodges are reachable only via helicopter—all told, the properties encompass more than 15,000 square miles of wilderness, the largest private area in the world to heli-hike and heli-ski.
Despite the heights we were to reach in the Columbia Mountains, this was not going to be some backcountry, sleeping-on-the-ground camping trip. Not unlike the Victorian travelers who took luxury Canadian Pacific Railway trains to the Rockies, we too would be fed gourmet meals and enjoy linen service at a cozy three-story lodge with dining rooms, fireplaces, outdoor decks, a game room, bar, and in a bow to modern times, a cappuccino maker.
But first we had to ride the helicopter. “If the chopper flips to one side, you’ll want to use the chairs as a ladder to climb out the window,” our young pilot calmly explained. He had other safety warnings that I’d just as soon forget, though his demonstration of the cautions required to avoid being beheaded by the chopper blades continues to resonate. The ride itself was a great adventure. As the pilot instructed, we squatted on our haunches and formed a tight circle on the tarmac—more than an exercise in bonding, since we had to hold on to each other to keep from falling over from the strong gusts produced by the whirling blades.
One at a time we piled on and buckled in, the engines blaring around us. I sat next to a 70-something gal from Sacramento who seemed to be enjoying every second of it. Our craft lifted off the ground with a whoosh, and we were quickly parallel with the tremendous ice-covered peaks surrounding us. Victorian travelers referred to this area of the Canadian Rocky Mountains (along with the adjoining ranges, the Kananaskis and the Columbia Mountains) as “50 Switzerlands in one.” Impossibly lofty summits sprung up all around us, so many that I figured there must be thousands of them. (I found out later that more than 700 of the peaks reach at least 6,000 feet.) They were like something from a Maxfield Parrish painting—a fantasyscape of rock towers that majestically jut into the heavens.
How far I had come from where I had been the other day: a crowded gay club called Detour in Calgary, sipping a Molson Canadian lager. That city of a million people, just a three-hour drive away, sits on the plains with shiny bravado, framed by the snow-peaked Canadian Rockies. The whole region has a reputation for being buttoned-down and conservative. Just days prior to my arrival, Alberta’s premier, Ralph Klein, announced that his province would be the only one not to recognize Canada’s same-sex marriage law (all hot air, since the law will be a federal mandate not open to dispute). Could this really be the province that produced k.d. lang?
When our chopper landed with a soft touch on a gravel square, lodge staff warmly greeted us. They explained our itinerary: Every day we would do two hikes of three to four hours each in different areas of the surrounding mountains. We would be broken into groups depending on our desired activity level and interests. Our reward for sore calf muscles would be multicourse gourmet meals at the lodge and one mountainside barbecue. And at night we could hang out in the spacious lounge to recount our adventures with drinks and games by the fireplace. After the orientation we were fitted with boots, walking poles, packs, jackets, water bottles, and anything else we could possibly need.
Upon checking into my comfortable, wood-paneled room (I was happy not to see a television—or, for that matter, a single electrical outlet), I donned boots and gear. We were off on our first adventure. Along with 13 others (including a few 70-somethings), huddled once again in our cozy circular formation, I boarded the chopper and was lifted to a spot called Grizzly Ridge in a matter of 20 minutes. We ducked out of the chopper (feeling like extras in M*A*S*H) and were greeted with a stark summit landscape of slate rock and snow patches. Beyond was a glorious panorama of snowcapped ranges as far as the eye could see. It was like sitting on top of the world.
The cold wind whipped about us, and we were all happy to work up a sweat on our hike along one slope of the mountain to another adjoining peak. At an elevation of just 6,000 feet there were no altitude problems, and the snow was sporadic enough not to be a problem. Temperatures hovered around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Our Quebecer guide, Jean-François, showed us the best way to hike up a hill (diagonally, with one foot directly in front of the other), but beyond that there were no special skills we needed. During my stay I joined other groups for hikes through the strikingly varied landscapes. On one trek we walked along the base of a glacier, its icy blueness towering above, with cold gusts warning us to keep our distance. But then, 15 minutes later, we were in a green grassy valley cut by a gurgling stream and filled with wildflowers.
Once we reached it, I was not the only one to fling off my jacket and sunbathe. We passed outcroppings cupping blue-green pools of cold water, glided down steep hillsides of loose slate, and traced the ridges of dark peaks where avalanches form in winter. No matter which group I joined, our camaraderie was immediate. It was akin to being part of a nomadic tribe: We kept moving on to new, wonderful vistas, all the while entertaining each other.
My climbing pal, Patti, had been right about the effects that travel and adventure can have. No trip is just a trip.
June through September, Canadian Mountain Holidays (403-762-7100) offers day and half-day heli-hiking trips starting at $862, with three-day trips starting at $1,348, including transportation, meals, equipment, and guides. December through April, weeklong heliskiing trips start at $4,836.
The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com if you have any new information.