Canada: Short cut to the tops

By Greg Dixon

Hikers are surrounded by white-tipped mountains and deep green river valleys during an eight-hour excursion in the Bugaboos. Photo / Janna Dixon
Hikers are surrounded by white-tipped mountains and deep green river valleys during an eight-hour excursion in the Bugaboos. Photo / Janna Dixon

As I kicked into the crisp white shell of the glacier, the murk of approaching snow clouds stole closer. It was almost time to get out of here if we wanted to get out at all by chopper, but not before we'd reached the top of this small, pristine patch of ice atop a saddle in the heart of Canada's Bugaboo mountain range.

The greyish-white swirl was being whipped nearer by a rising wind, and I was blowing pretty hard too to make the top. As I leaned into my walking pole to propel myself heavenward, I punched the toes of my boots hard through the ice to make steps for me and for those behind me.

The kick of each step sprayed a little more ice up my already wet tramping trousers. I detected a slight dampness in the toe of each boot. I was sweating despite the cold.

Couldn't be far now. I kept my head down; the fastest way to the top of a hill is not to eye the bugger too much until you're there.

Finally. As the glacier flattened out, I picked up the pace and I was there. The last, icy climb to this place took perhaps 15 minutes. It felt like ascending Everest. Well, to the unfit.

Catching my breath, I looked out from our perch down the valley of stone and lakes we'd climbed. You can see a lot from 2400m above sea level, but this view was disappearing fast in the wispy cloud which had now concealed the valley on the other side of the saddle.

Our guide, Paul Langevin, was already on the radio making plans to move our party of eight. With all this cloud blowing in, we'd need to be extracted from this spot within minutes or we'd be faced with a long walk back from where we'd come from, only in falling snow, temperatures and visibility.

It couldn't have been more than 10 minutes before we heard the thump, thump, thump of our red-and-white taxi.

It's quite some sight watching a helicopter moving quickly and noisily below you before rising up to where you wait, on a speck of ice in the middle of nowhere, with the cloud already obscuring the stunning mountain scenery and the wooded valleys below.

I kept my head down as the Bell wide-bodied helicopter floated above and lowered itself to our smallish circle of ice. We bustled into the chopper's belly, heads still low, escaping the weather but ready for a fast, exhilarating ride home.

For years, I have walked up hills and down dales and through streams and over mountain saddles and in the rain and in the sunshine and still it had never occurred to me: why not get there by air?

While purists will pooh-pooh, others might agree that one of the troubles with seeing the best of the great outdoors - the greatest hits you might say - can be the getting there. While a walk in the woods can be a fine thing indeed, if you just want to climb or walk above the tree-line and drink in the alpine vistas, then a walk in the woods for many hours, or even days, to get to where you really want to be could be something like monotony.

So why not fly?

It hadn't occurred to me, though it seems to have suggested itself to an Austrian fellow, Hans Gmoser, about a year before I was born. Gmoser, a mad climber and mountain guide, migrated to Canada in the 1950s and, by the mid-60s, had more or less invented the heli-skiing business.

The summertime version, heli-hiking, was the obvious next step and, over the next 40 years, the company Gmoser started, Canadian Mountain Holidays, has developed into (it claims) the world's largest heli-skiing and heli-hiking company, operating 12 lodges in the winter and six in the summer and playing host to more than 10,000 hikers and skiers every year.

The Bugaboos, part of the larger Purcell mountain range in eastern British Columbia, was the first area Gmoser brought his skiers to and, in the three days I spent there, I found myself complimenting his choice: the Bugaboos are an impossibly beautiful mix of spires, peaks, creeks, passes, forests, alpine glades and icy lakes - pity about the impossibly ugly name.

According to the author of a 1946 book, Days in the Bugaboo Mountains, mineral prospectors in the 19th century gave the place its unattractive title because their mining claims came to nothing - according to the OED, a bugaboo is a bogey or a bugbear and derives from the Welsh.

However, another version, from 1906, has a Scotsman naming the place Bugaboo "on account of the loneliness of the place".

Little of this will matter to you - or even seem relevant - as you sit yourself on the sunny deck of the Bugaboo Lodge, the startling, unforgettable Hounds Tooth Glacier before you and a delicious glass of Grasshopper (a wheat beer made in nearby Calgary) in your hand as you toast another fine day's hiking with a little help from the red-and-white taxi.

There can't be many advantages to watching endless reruns of M*A*S*H. But I have found one.

Having watched the opening titles of the 1970s Korean War sitcom, oh, maybe nine million times, I know exactly what to do when a helicopter approaches for a landing, even before I'd seen one close-up. It's easy really: you and your mates crunch and huddle as close together as possible, you hold on to your hats and, when the thing touches down, you move fast and low towards it and climb aboard.

If you look up, particularly the first time, as the chopper lowers itself to the ground (which is advisable anyway if only to make sure it's not going to land right on you) it's a nerve-racking sort of thing.

But it is remarkable how quickly travelling by whirlybird becomes a rather normal sort of thing during three days in the Bugaboos. The slight fear never goes, but neither does the joy of travelling across mountainous terrain in a chopper.

Indeed one can become rather fixated on the man-made bits of the Bugaboo experience.

Apart from frequent trips in the Bell - I reckon there were a dozen for me all up - the lodge itself is just so comfortable, its staff just so welcoming, its food and drink so agreeable and its views so lovely, it would be easy enough to just stay there and forget about the hiking.

Built in 1965, Bugaboo Lodge has had four renovations and extensions, and now looks something like an enormous alpine chalet with a sloping roof, a spread of verdant lawn out front and a view straight up the valley to the Hounds Tooth, a pinnacle like an incisor in the glacier's white gum.

The place has a capacity of 44, with well-heated, well-appointed rooms that would rate three to four stars. There is a games room too, a massage service, a climbing wall, a sauna, a hot tub on the roof, even computers with internet connections... yes, the walker's equivalent of apres-ski - apres-walkabout? - is well taken care off.

But, for almost any hiker, it will be the 379 square kilometres of available hiking terrain that makes the comforts of the lodge even more seductive.

What better way to earn a hot soak and a beer than with a long, fine day in the mountains?

I had entertained the idea, after two days in the Bugaboos, that I'd seen all that the area had to offer - and that perhaps the downside of the unlimited access offered by the chopper could be that you see too much too quickly.

Our first day's hiking had taken us along Black Forest Ridge to Powder Pig Scramble (many locations are named for ski runs) and had begun in bright summer sun with guide Lyle Grisedale delighting in our delight at the sight (and the crunch underfoot!) of snow at the end of summer.

More delight followed: it wasn't long before the white stuff was falling very thickly indeed - along with the temperature - and we were walking in the heaviest snowfall I've ever tramped through. Then, two hours later, we were again in bright sunshine.

Day two, a beauty of a day with guide Bob Sawyer, was more spectacular ridge-line walking (with the odd climb up and down, including a steep scree slope) which ended at Dead Elk Lake and was eight hours of being encircled - utterly surrounded - by many, many white-tipped mountains and deep green river valleys. It was like walking through a 360-degree, 3D IMAX movie called River Deep, Mountain High.

Could the Bugaboos offer anything more? It says much about the knowledge of the guides (there are no tracks, they just know the Bugaboos like the back of their hands) as well as the sheer amount of hiking terrain available that day three with guide Paul Langevin was an entirely different experience again.

Our final day would be, said Langevin, about a transition from the diminutive to the immense - from the tiny beauty of the late summer flowers in small alpine glades to climbing upward to the grandeur of the mountains above us.

Such an appealing notion, I thought, as we choppered down through the gathering clouds from that small patch of glacial ice towards a cold beer and a hot meal.

CHECKLIST

How to get there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Vancouver.

Where to stay: Bugaboo Lodge is on the web.

Further information: You can find out about holidays in British Columbia at hellobc.com

Greg Dixon travelled to Bugaboo Lodge courtesy of Air New Zealand and Tourism British Columbia.

- NZ Herald

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