Alpine meadows above the tree line

Alpine meadows above the tree line

Here’s the answer to what ski resorts do to stay open in the summertime: heli-hiking.

I’ve only known Diane three days and she asks me to go to a PowerPoint presentation. I resist for a while and then think what the heck, we can always have dinner afterwards. The presentation is all about what Canadian Mountain Holidays do with their heli-skiing resorts in the summer time. It looks like it could be fun, but it’s not cheap.  And you have to get yourself to Banff.

I’m already thinking of dinner when the pitches and the slide show are over and the people from CMH start drawing for door prizes. The third prize winner is announced. They get a thick pair of hiking socks. They’re thrilled. Second prize: a book of Canadian mountain wild flowers. Ecstatic. First prize: a free trip for one to Bobbie Burns Lodge, three nights and two and a half days, worth $2,500. I win. I didn’t even know Diane had put my business card in the jar. For once I’m speechless. Who are you going with? she asks immediately. I’m proud to say I don’t even hesitate for a second. You, of course, I reply. Three years later, we are happily married, so you can see this has a happy ending.

It’s July and we’re off to Banff. We check in and are comped up to a suite at the Banff Springs Hotel. Good for Fairmont Presidents Club. The room looks over the river valley and seems to have been designed by a crazed Scotsman. Well, that’s the style here – Scottish Baronial. In spite of the tartan wallpaper we sleep well.

The next day a long coach ride to somewhere in the Columbia Mountains (between the Rockies and the Coastal range). We’re dropped off with our luggage at a gravelled square in the middle of nowhere. They teach us about hot loading on and off helicopters.  Crouch down right here, trust us that the helo is not going to land on you, and whatever happens, don’t stand up. Not exaggerating: the helo lands less than two feet from my hand. We pile in keeping very low.

Diane and our guide on the edge

Diane and our guide on the edge

As we rise up the valley, a journey they later tell us would take a couple of days to hike, the views are spectacular. Wild mountain streams rush down gorges below us, milky coloured from glacial run off. Rocky crags tower beside us. Glaciers gleam in the distance.  Twenty minutes later we’re landing at the lodge. It’s rustic. The room is small. No TV. No phone. No mini bar. Tiny bathroom. The beds are foam and fairly hard. We ask for a double and get two twins pushed together with one big sheet. Turns out this is part of the plan to get you out of your room and into a social mood with all your fellow heli-hikers.

Dinner is convivial and our guides for the next morning sit at the end of communal tables, help serve and ensure everyone gets to meet everyone. We’re divided up into four groups: the uber keen, the very keen, the keen and then there’s us, the slow party. Well, that’s a blow to the ego. I’m told my high blood pressure is the reason.

Next day we’re outfitted, breakfasted and the first group off by 8 o’clock. They are going mountaineering. They have ropes slung over their shoulders. The next group leaves half an hour later. They’re going hard core hiking from one point to another. The third group leaves next: they’re going on the via ferrata. It sounds scary if you’re afraid of heights (I am). They are going to climb up rock faces using a series of iron rungs placed there over the years by the guides, then zip line back down the mountain.  We’re just going to take the helo up the mountain, meander around for a while and then take the helo back down again. Four ladies and I crouch down on the lodge’s heli-pad. I’m by far the biggest so they all cling to me like I’m a boat anchor or something.  As the helo comes down, its rather like being in a tornado. Someone’s hat blows off and true to our training we let it go. See, if you stand up, the blades of the helo could chop your head right off. Diane and I get seats looking out the side window and over the next two days we realize this is the best part of the trip. Flying around, with spectacular, and I mean really spectacular scenery all around.

Waiting for the next ride

Waiting for the next ride

When  we land, we’re above the tree line. The meadow is filled with just opened tiny mountain flowers. There are still patches of snow around, but it’s warm enough that we are in shorts and T-shirts. We amble along for a while and then the guide calls up the helo and we are whisked to another meadow for lunch. We decide to call this heli-strolling. The pilot, a jolly Santa of a guy, is a Vietnam vet. He’s the one who tells me the slang for helicopter is ‘helo.’ He can land it on a dime. By now we’re getting used to the landing skit. One hop, the skids of the helo are less than nine inches from my camera. Check out my video below. I am not exaggerating.

We picnic off generous and tasty packed lunches. Then more helo jaunts to hidden places and back to the lodge for tea. Last out, we are first back. Which suits me fine. The hot tub beckons. The bar is open. At Bobbie Burns lodge, surrounded by mountains and glaciers, I can only think of scotch on the rocks.

The next day, we are joined by the lodge manager’s wife and their two small kids. He’s Austrian, like many of the guides and staff, but she’s a Banff native. She and the children are perfect blondes and as we march across the hillside, with three other blondes in our party, it looks like a scene from “The Sound of Music.” I start to sing Edelweiss, rather less well than even Christopher Plummer.  The children treat me like a grandfather, and bring me special rocks, flowers and other treasures to inspect. They are as good as gold.

Thinking of the next scotch on the rocks

Thinking of the next scotch on the rocks

Our guide Roko takes us to a couple of glaciers. Spectacular doesn’t even cover it, up here in the thin mountain air. Roko’s very tall, also Austrian, and given to telling long jokes without the funny bit at the end. As we mooch along, it’s hard to imagine that he’s the hot shot down hill ski expert in the winter season. Later he shows us a video with some extraordinary footage of powder skiing down virgin snow fields.

All too soon it’s over. New friends made. Promises to keep in touch. A last helicopter ride down the mountain and back on the bus. Fortunately we have friends to stay with at their ranch in the Foothills outside Calgary, but that’s a story for another day.

Please enjoy my brief helicopter video, shot on location in July 2009 in the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia.

This is the first of a series of occasional blogs I plan to post on travel, good living and food. If I can keep up the pace, I might post every week. Fingers crossed!

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