Heli-hiking on the icy edge of Earth

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

The ice fields, mountain peaks and alpine meadows here are as inaccessible as they are stunning.

Our guide stabs at the air with a ski pole, pointing to an enormous glacier spilling down the mountainside in front of us. Its face is scarred by deep cracks. “Some of those crevasses could be 200 to 300 feet deep,”  Tom Gruber says.

 But Tom might as well be talking to the waterfall that noisily courses down one of the glacier’s flanks. “No one’s listening to me,” he moans in mock frustration.

 But we can’t help it. We’re so smitten with Zillmer’s raw beauty that we’re all eyes, no ears. Ignoring Tom, we spread out across the rock-strewn slope where, moments earlier, we were dropped off by helicopter.

 We snap countless photos, trying to capture every facet of this extraordinary landscape; its ice falls, waterfalls, cliffs, plateaus, and pools of still water reflecting all that beauty back to us.

This is when I’m reminded why I heli-hike. Not to cheat, but to get to places like this, in the heart of Canada’s Cariboo Mountains in eastern British Columbia. The ice fields, mountain peaks and alpine meadows here are as inaccessible as they are stunning. Simply put, none of us would be here without a helicopter.

This year Canadian Mountain Holidays, the company that “invented” heli-skiing in 1965, celebrates 40 years of heli-hiking. Three of the company’s 12 lodges are open this summer, including Cariboo Lodge, where heli-hiking first started.

The Cariboos are older than Canada’s Rockies and not quite as high. But what they lack in metres, they make up for in grandeur. “We have a lot of ice, massive glaciation,” Tom told us earlier at the lodge. 

I could happily spend all day hiking under Zillmer’s icy gaze, but Tom has hinted at other spots that are just as magnificent. (CMH’s land tenure is more than a million hectares in total.) A couple of hours later, the chopper picks us up and flies us 500m  lower into a mountain-rimmed meadow with a river running through it. We inhale the citrusy scent of conifers while walking on soft ground carpeted with wildflowers and heather, a shocking contrast to the cold black-and-white beauty of Zillmer.

 One more short flight and the helicopter sets us down on top of the world. Encore Ridge boasts non-stop views in every direction. We walk a couple of kilometres  along what feels like a gentle stairway to heaven. Clouds billow up from below creating the lovely illusion that we’re walking on the very edge of the Earth.

Bugaboos Lodge

It was in the Bugaboos where Hans Gmoser, the founder of CMH, built his first back-country lodge. A sub-range of British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains, the Bugaboos are known for their distinctive spires — granite towers sculpted by glaciers over the eons. They pierce the sky with a massive glacier flowing around them.

It was here that I came to appreciate how well CMH guides cater to every guest, no matter their physical condition or their level of experience. 

I visited with my 89-year old, diabetic father a few years ago. Dad was a farmer all his life and has spent lots of time outdoors, but not in the mountains. He’s never owned hiking boots, never worn a backpack.

On our first day, the guides divided guests into small groups. I was put with a couple of fit and youthful retirees, while Dad was teamed up with another octogenarian and a couple of middle-aged physicians. 

Off we went our separate ways by helicopter. When we met back at the lodge later that afternoon, Dad was grinning.

 While I had been slogging my way up a glacier with crampons and an ice axe, Dad had been strolling in an alpine meadow of wildflowers. While I scrambled over waist-high boulders and picked my way down a wild goat trail, Dad enjoyed a nap beside a babbling brook. You get the picture. We both had fun, just in very different ways.

Bobbie Burns Lodge

I first discovered the joy and freedom of heli-hiking at Bobbie Burns. With no trails — or at least no man-made ones — you can go anywhere. We rambled over tundra, peered down marmot holes, discovered abandoned prospecting tools and swam — ever so briefly — in a small lake that still had ice clinging to one edge.

 I was looking forward to more of the same on my second day when one of the guides suggested I try mountaineering. I would need special equipment, he said, including a helmet and a harness. Not knowing what was in store, I agreed. 

The next morning our helicopter landed on the side of a glacier. From there, it was a tough but short climb to the craggy mountaintop. I thought that we were done, but the adventure was really just beginning. 

“You, young lady,” our guide said, pointing to me. “You are going first.” Luke pointed to the edge of a cliff and proceeded to clip me into a rope. A string of questions later — “What do I hold onto? Should I bend my legs or keep them straight? What if I flip backwards?” — I let Luke lower me over the edge. “Lean back, let go and enjoy the ride!” he said a little too gleefully.

 Next, it was time to walk a ledge not much wider than my boots. This time we clipped in and out of steel cables as we carefully worked our way along this slimmest of footholds, avoiding looking into the abyss below. “If my wife were here she’d never let me do this,” confided the man inching his way along behind me. 

Back at the lodge I learned that this kind of mountaineering, called via ferrata, began in Italy’s Dolomites during World War I.  Mountaineers installed cables and ladders to help soldiers get on to the mountaintops. 

Guides from CMH went to the Dolomites to learn how modern via ferrata courses have been created. Climbing the one they built at Bobbie Burns is easily the most terrifying and exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. But I was hooked. A couple years later I flew to the Dolomites myself for an entire week of climbing via ferrata.

Fact File


Suzanne Morphet was a guest of Canadian Mountain Holidays. They have not seen or approved this story.


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