I’ve been envious for years hearing the wild stories of heli-skiing from a friend and her husband who skied two weeks a year for over a decade with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). So when I was invited to visit Bugaboos Lodge and check out their heli-hiking program I jumped at the opportunity. I mean really, anything with the word heli sounds impossibly adventurous and exciting to me. And I really wanted to see the area my friend had raved about for all these years.
My weekend started in Banff as it does for most people who visit since Calgary is the nearest big airport. Then it’s a scenic two hour drive through the Rocky Mountains of Banff and Kootenay National Parks to reach Radium Hot Springs. From there it’s a pretty 20 minute drive through the Columbia Valley to reach the helipad.
Getting in and out of the lodge requires a scenic flight with views up and down the Columbia Valley that are nothing short of spectacular – at least on a clear day. But what will really blow you away is your first view of a Bugaboo spire. This is like nowhere else in the world I’ve been.
But there’s more than pretty scenery to the Bugaboos area.
The reality is I didn’t come to sit in the lodge no matter how pleasant the view and how delicious the food. I was there for adventure and I got it in spades, especially on the second day when I did their kick-ass via ferrata.
Most guests come for either three nights or six nights if they include a stay at the Bobbie Burns Lodge. Our group had only two nights so we had a lot of ground to cover.
On the first day we managed an afternoon of lovely ridge-walking. Never in my life have I got to treeline and into the views so quickly. That’s the beauty of a helicopter. In 10 minutes – tops – we’d touched down and then spent the next four hours walking. At the end of the day it was a treat to wait for a pick-up rather than endure three hours of hiking down through the trees. And there’s nothing like being high in the alpine one minute and then in a blink of an eye you’re holding a glass of wine and reveling in the view from the comfort of a lounge chair, with nary a bug in sight.
Here’s an idea of what sort of scenery you might enjoy on a ridgewalk.
The following day was a full one that included the near vertical via ferrata (CMH operates several and this is NOT the Mt. Nimbus via ferrata that is accessed from the Bobbie Burns Lodge) and a few hours of easy hiking around a gorgeous turquoise coloured lake along with some time on a glacier.
I was keen to do the via ferrata and see how it compared to the one I’d done a few years ago at Mt. Norquay. I spent three hours in a state of flow – that complete absorption to the task at hand. Climbing the via ferrata entailed moving up near vertical rock faces – while being clipped in. At the same time I had a running conversation with myself explaining that if I fell, it would be six feet at most. Once I finally reached the summit I concluded that the CMH via ferrata is way harder than the one at Norquay. I think it’s because of several long stretches where you must put your faith in your balance, and dance your way sideways to a solid rung or handhold. On a couple of occasions I stopped and looked up wondering how in hell I was going to get to the next metal rung. With time, it all came together; I didn’t fall off (and no one has) and the feeling when I walked onto the summit was one of pride and immense satisfaction.
After a delicious hour of hanging around the summit, eating, dozing in the sun and generally enjoying life, it was time for another short ridge walk so we could reach a landing spot for the helicopter.
And then there were a few more hours of lovely, easy hiking with the group breaking into two so some could head up onto the glacier and the rest could circumnavigate the lake. I chose the lake for the views.
The heli-hiking at CMH wasn’t the only great thing about the trip.
Dave Cochrane our guide, who’s been doing this for 37 years is a true professional and a fountain of knowledge. I wish it was possible to do brain dumps and learn all he knows about the plants, animals, mountains, geology and more that he shared. With every new wildflower we’d encounter, Dave would stop the group and give us a short lesson. He explained that fleabane was used in straw mattresses back in the day when fleas were an issue and the diminutive spotted saxifrage he showed us is capable of cracking rock. I now know that saxifrage comes from two words – saxum meaning rock in Latin and fragere – means breaking. It makes total sense and thanks to Dave I’ll never forget it.
Not only will you come back from this trip fitter, but you’ll be smarter!
What’s it like inside the Bugaboos Lodge?
I’ve been reading the book Bugaboo Dreams by Topher Donahue. It speaks to the fact that heli-skiing started here in the Bugaboos. The first lodge opened in 1968 and to quote from the book “When we started luxury was the furthest thing from our minds. We thought what we were selling was outside. We had eight people sleeping in a room, snoring and farting, but we always had good food.”
The lodge rooms are still simple but you won’t have to listen to anyone farting. And the food is wonderful.
There are a lot of amenities – like a hot tub with a view, a steam room, and a three story rock-climbing wall in addition to a beautiful bar and lounge area with a wood-burning fireplace. What you won’t find is a TV, radio or phone in your room though CMH has embraced the internet and the WiFi is excellent.
What a bedroom in Bugaboo Lodge looks like
The Food at Bugaboos Lodge
Watch out for a case of heli-belly, a disorder that leads to weight gain in as little as three days. The problem can be remedied by avoiding any of the delicious cookies and snacks that are endlessly available or by going home – but who wants to do that? The meals are excellent, plentiful and varied.
Creative desserts – that’s a dried piece of pineapple on top of a chocolate cake
Heli-hiking is an incredible experience. You don’t have to be someone that works out six days a week to enjoy a holiday here. Hikes are done according to how hard you want the hike to be and the wishes of the group. No one has to do the via ferrata but trust me you should. And if the helicopter is in the area and you want to call it a day, that’s not a problem. It’ll zip you back to the lodge.
Heli-hiking with CMH is great for those coming from a distance.
All you have to do is show up with a few changes of casual clothes. Really it’s that easy. At the lodge you are provided with top of the line hiking boots, waterproof pants and jacket and a waterproof knapsack. If you’ve forgotten something, there’s a store onsite.
Of note are the staff. They are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered and they all appear to have our names hardwired into their brains within an hour of our arrival. I asked Dave if he used word association to remember names. He said “yes” but declined to tell me what the trigger word was for Leigh.
Heli-hiking allows you to see the best scenery in the most efficient way. And there’s still time to go heli-hiking this year. The Bugaboos Lodge is open until Labour Day weekend. You can learn about all the summer adventures and options here.
Would you enjoy a CMH heli-hiking or a via ferrata adventure?
Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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