The Hills Are Alive

Heli-hik­ing in re­mote B.C.

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Su­san Ner­berg

JOHN MELLIS barely hops out of the he­li­copter when he un­leashes a loud yo­del. The falsetto tones bounce off the roar­ing ro­tor blades and, car­ried by the wind, skip heather and mos scampi on, sed­i­men­tary boul­der and snow patch be­fore fad­ing some­where above the white-blue realm of the Zillmer Glacier. Mellis looks around at our group of hik­ers and gr ins. His sound of mu­sic must be moun­tain-guide speak for “Wel­come to my back­yard.”

The Zillmer Glacier, in Bri­tish Columbia’s Cari­boo Moun­tains (a straight line west of Jasper, Alta., to give you an idea), is prac­ti­cally hov­er­ing at arm’s length. Brood­ing peaks poke through its mass, and crevasses trace lines into a void that sep­a­rates us from the 15,000- year-old ice patch. Rough­hewn rock mon­u­ments, eons older than the glacier, of­fer shelter from the high­alti­tude wind. The best thing is there’s no one else here: it turns out a he­li­hik­ing trip with Cana­dian Moun­tain Hol­i­days (CMH) means mind-bend­ing scenery with zero crowds.

As we’re wait­ing for the he­li­copter to take us to our next ad­ven­ture, Mellis traces the jagged hori­zon with one arm. “I’ve been wait­ing for a decade to show you this,” he says, in­hal­ing the scenery. You can tell he’s in his el­e­ment. The man­ager and lead moun­tain guide at CMH’s Cari­boos Lodge, he’s been tak­ing skiers into th­ese moun­tains ev­ery win­ter for 25 years. But this is the first time since the 2008 mar­ket down­turn, when heli-hik­ing was struck from va­ca­tion­ers’ bucket lists, that Mellis is show­ing off the same ter­rain to hik­ers. Fit­tingly, the re­launch of heli-hik­ing this sum­mer marks the 40th an­niver­sary of CMH pi­o­neer­ing the “heli” con­cept – it started heli-ski­ing in 1965. Again, lodge guests plant their boots at un­crowded van­tage points on land­scapes even more spec­tac­u­lar than those along the Ice­fields Park­way, all from a comfy base­camp that pours craft beers and serves food you’d find at an award-win­ning city res­tau­rant.

AFTER DROP­PING OFF an­other gang of hik­ers (guests are di­vided into groups, each with one or two guides), the pi­lot flies over the toe of the glacier and into a val­ley with a wa­ter­fall. He hov­ers long enough for peo­ple to get a good view, then sets the ma­chine down on a flat spot that’s hardly big­ger than a con­fer­ence-room ta­ble. Mellis, who gets out first, un­loads our day­packs from the chop­per’s cargo bas­ket be­fore tak­ing us to the precipice of Zillmer Canyon. Far be­low, the melt­wa­ter from the glacier has carved a race­track through ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory. The smooth rock is streaked with colours that bring to mind burnt-sugar al­monds, rose nougat and maple taffy. Or maybe I’m just get­ting hun­gry.

Over cod with to ma till os au ce and brown rice (I wish I hadn’t made such a dent in the af­ter­noon “tea goody” of cheeses and breads, fruits and nuts), Mellis talks

about our home away from home. Built in 1974 as the sec­ond base camp for CMH, the Cari­boos Lodge was a smaller af­fair back then. “There were bunk beds and shared baths,” he says, “and no heli-hik­ing un­til 1978.” A far cry from to­day’s rus­tic-chic vibe.

AT DAYBREAK, a thick fog swad­dles base­camp. It’s a no-fly morn­ing, but, then, after the daily stretch­ing ses­sion (a tra­di­tion adopted from the heli-ski­ing trips), one of the staff rings a bell; the pi­lot has found a path through the clouds. No sooner have we landed at Ninth Hole – a boul­der-strewn ledge near the im­pos­ing North Ca­noe, South Ca­noe and Penny glaciers – when the fog comes back. Some­one jokes the heli won’t be able to land, and we’ll have to walk to the lodge, an endeavour that could take two days. But the sun con­quers the mist, and our re­ward for keep­ing on trekking higher up the rockscape is a suc­ces­sion of mo­jito-green pools hugged by boul­ders that seem to dan­gle on the blue fray of shift­ing ice and sky.

I ask Mellis if the trail we’re on is an an­i­mal path. “No,” he says. “The plants take so long to re­gen­er­ate in the alpine that the trails we hiked un­til 2008 still haven’t grown over.” Look be­neath the fuzzy leaves and stunted branches, and you’ll see a layer that shim­mers in the sun. Th­ese moun­tains – the dirt, the rocks, even the creek beds – are awash with a golden sheen. “The glit­tery stuff,” says Mellis and picks up a hand­ful of gravel, “is mica…. [Some­times] used in cos­met­ics.” Not that this corner of the Cari­boos needs any em­bel­lish­ment. It’s as good as gold.

Flight mode. A CMH he­li­copter over the Cari­boos

Hound’s Tooth Spire in Bu­ga­boo Provin­cial Park, B.C.

John Mellis

For a guide to great gear, go to www.ev­ery­thing zoomer.com/hik­ing-gear. A group heli-hik­ing in the Bu­ga­boo moun­tain range

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