Heli-hiking is the less well-known cousin of heli-skiing, where avid powder seekers are whisked to the top of remote mountains to enjoy freshly fallen snow and have the mountains all to themselves. What has caught on around the world was actually invented by Canadian Mountain Holiday’s founder, Hans Gmoser, in 1959.
He secured exclusive ski rights to remote national parks in Canada and began taking tourists to go skiing in the 1960s. CMH (canadianmountainholidays.com) has grown to have 12 lodges in 11 different areas in Canada, and is the premier option for heli-skiing in Canada. It was a natural extension to start offering heli-hiking in the summer months to utilize their beautiful mountain lodges and offer more people the ability to see mountains, valleys and glaciers that would normally take several days of back-country hiking to access.
I was invited to the CMH Cariboos lodge, which is located near Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park just west of Jasper, Alberta. While used every winter for skiing, CMH is reopening Cariboos to heli-hiking for the 2018 season.
While technically accessible by dirt road, guests are transported to the lodge via helicopter from a facility outside of Jasper. The ride in left me speechless. You are in the middle of a 100-mile-wide section of the Rocky Mountains, and you are surrounded by green trees and snowy peaks. Time flies by, and you start your descent to the Cariboos lodge, which has a grassy helicopter pad that you’ll use as the base for your adventures in the coming days.
CMH makes it easy to have the hiking trip of a lifetime
The lodge itself has 28 rooms, which is small enough to be intimate, but large enough that you won’t feel pressure to become close friends with everyone. The lodge is what you’d expect from luxurious mountain-side accommodations, with a large lounge and bar, sauna, outdoor whirlpool, massage room and more. The rooms themselves all feature a mountain view, and while they are not particularly large, offer comfortable bedding, nice bathrooms and surprisingly good Wi-Fi coverage. The lower level of the lodge has equipment rooms that will assign you gear when you arrive. They will provide effectively everything you need: rain jackets, boots, etc.
The heli-hiking experience itself can best be described as surreal. It took 10-15 minutes to go from the lodge to jaw-dropping environments. It was not enough time for my brain to adjust from mountain lodge to standing next to a glacier on the top of a mountain. The difficulty and experience can be completely customized for your comfort level. Our guides told us how they’ve even taken guests with physical handicaps up a mountain and allow them to spend time by a tarn (small mountain lake) or be next to a glacier.
On a single day, we were able to accomplish three hikes in completely different environments. We were first dropped off by a glacier and hiked up alongside it. The hiking was more of a casual pace and afforded us plenty of time to take pictures and take in the stunning views. CMH can adjusts the hikes so that if you are an avid mountaineer then they can arrange strenuous hikes or they are happy to adjust them to be more casual.
After spending a few hours taking in the glaciers and tarns, we were picked up by the helicopter and flown to a lush green valley nearby where we hiked up along streams fueled by melted glacier water running down the surrounding hills in stunning waterfalls. Our group of 10 hikers were paired with two guides who took up the front and rear. The guides have to go through certification classes that take nearly a decade and I felt extremely comfortable with them in the lead. The front guide had to frequently yell off into the distance to try to startle any animals that we may have stumbled across on our trek. The valley that we hiked was frequently used for skiing in the winter, but they said it had likely been more than a decade since someone had hiked it.
After making our way to the top of the valley, the guides called the helicopter with their walkie-talkie and we headed out for our final hike of the day: to hike up the spine of a ridge towards the top of a peak. While that may sound dangerous, it really wasn’t. There was plenty of room for us to casually hike, and while the ground had some shifting rock, I never felt like I was uncomfortable. After we completed our hike up the ridge, the helicopter came to pick us up and whisk us back to the lodge. In 20 minutes I went from hiking on a ridge to eating a gourmet, grilled pork chop dinner back in the lodge. Like I said, it can be surreal at times.
The food is worth a special mention. There was always a big spread served Sunday-dinner style at each table for breakfast, and then you would actually pack your own lunch to take out on the mountain. This isn’t exactly cold turkey sandwiches, though. A few types of pre-made sandwiches are wrapped and laid out (I had a great banh mi one day), along with fresh fruit, veggies, trail mix, nuts, candy bars and more. You get exactly what you want when you pack your own lunch and snacks.
Downtime at the lodge was very enjoyable. The lounge and bar were a pleasure to hang out in and mingle with other guests or read a book on the huge L-shaped couch. There is time to get a massage or hang out in the sauna in the evenings as well.
CMH offers heli-hiking at three of their lodges and trips run from two to five nights and cost between $1,829 and $4,137 per person. Pricing includes all meals, helicopter rides, etc. It’s also important to understand the context that hotel pricing in the region during the summer can be quite expensive and can show how much value the CMH pricing has. I recently stayed in Banff during the summer, and the cheapest hotel was $200 per night. Luxury properties in the region can be $600 per night.
Transport can be arranged from Calgary, which has several non-stop flights per day from Houston on both United and Westjet. While Calgary is several hours south by car from Jasper, the drive is also stunningly beautiful and takes you through two national parks. While the CMH heli-hiking experience is easily worth a trip to Canada just by itself, I would make it the cornerstone of a slightly longer trip and explore Jasper and Banff as well.
Trip availability and specific pricing can be found at canadianmountainholidays.com. At the time of writing, several of the early July trips are sold out, but there are still many available in late July, August and September.