Taking a break from the everyday WW-II military topics that have long been my hugely enjoyable daily staple at Tomahawk Films and following on from voicing a long series for The Travel Channel, I was invited out to Canada to present a programme looking at new style of out-doors activity holiday: Heli-hiking!
Courtesy of Canadian Mountain Holidays head-quartered in Banff, (and the first specialist travel organisation to offer both Heli-skiing and Heli-hiking as a holiday activity), I flew to Calgary with a film-crew, thence on to the mostly un-touched western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia to split a week up between the immaculate ski lodges of ‘The Bobbie Burns’ and ‘The Bugaboo’. Each stands defiantly alone amidst the pine forests between the Rocky & Purcell Mountains, some 40 miles away from the nearest main highway and totally devoid of any television, radio or newspapers… utter peace!
Formed originally as a pure Heli-skiing company in the mid-60s by Austrian Hans Gmoser to carry advanced & deep-powder skiers up to the very mountain tops, it was suggested by one of their regular skiing guests in 1978 that during the Summer months keen hikers might also enjoy the thrill of being flown high into the mountains for long days of walking amidst the spectacular alpine scenery…and so Canadian Mountain Holidays became a year-round concern.
With their maxim, ‘respect and awe for the mountains’, the company prides itself on its professional attention to detail and the whole mountain experience runs like a well-oiled watch with a confident adeptness. The daily wake-up bell at 7.15am summons the lodge’s guests to breakfast whilst behind the scenes the highly experienced mountain guides set to work and small parties of walkers are rostered for the day ahead, each ranged according to experience.
A remarkable feature of this outdoor hiking adventure was that the average age of my fellow hikers was 59, quite surprising when you realise, later in the week, just how challenging some of the hiking could be, both in terms of duration & incline! So suitably togged out and ready to tackle the plateaus & glaciers ranging from 7 to 9,000 feet that surround the lodges, the small groups, under the ever watchful eyes of their shepherding guides, trooped out each morning to the heli-pads in the Lodges’ well-groomed grounds!
Helicopter-lore and the safety of passengers is top priority and every guest receives a pre-flight lecture on how to enter and exit a helicopter, which is often precariously balanced on a mountain peak or perched in a small area of wood clearing as they make their swift and daring war-zone combat-style drops and pick-ups..!
Nothing is chanced, everything is ‘run by the book’ and always under the ever vigilant eye of the friendly, but deadly serious and ultra-professional mountain guides many of whom, like Roko, are but the latest in a long line of Austrian families now proudly representing generations of European mountaineering, skiing & guiding skills in this huge, wide-open North American wilderness!
Previously studied photographs of this part of the world simply cannot do justice to this magnificent country and finding yourself standing atop a snow-clad peak in early September, gulping in the smell of the pine trees whilst hypnotised by huge glacial-green mountain tarns mirroring the big skies, was both an emotional & exhilarating experience hard to capture in print!
An expertly flown Bell 212 helicopter carried me up into a mountain world open only to a very privileged few and, sadly lapsing into clichés, I really did feel as if I was walking atop the world; however my euphoria was to turn to dismay as mid-way through the shoot it was suddenly announced by the producer that I should tackle a major rock climb, which was ‘mildly unfortunate’ as I have a distinct fear of heights, but as they have a habit of saying in this game, ‘the show must go on’!
So again under the watchful eyes of expert guides I was fully kitted out with crash-helmet, rope, harness & karabiners and flown to the foot of Trundle Ridge, a 2,000 foot sheer rock face, still praying I was merely going to climb to 200 feet, do a piece to camera pointing out where the ‘real climbers’ go, then come down for tea!
Such optimism turned to concern when my climbing guru ‘Roko’, with myself & Nicholas, (our Hungarian director) all roped together, climbed straight up through 200 feet without stopping! Yes, I did do several ‘pieces to camera’ on the ascent, but several of them were lost under the cover of grunts and muffled expletives as I fought, struggled and cussed my way up this long, tricky and tiring climb!
I have to admit that it was the toughest day of my entire life and when we all finally crested the summit after 4 long hours of climbing, the emotional dam burst and there were tears of exhilaration & triumph amidst the ‘high fives’ and whoops of joy! The sheer feeling of elation as I pulled myself up over the top, knowing that I had finally conquered the mountain, set against the grin on Roko’s face as I finally made it, put me on an enormous ‘high’ that will never be repeated!
This surprisingly intense reaction is, I’m told, by no means rare as hiking & climbing almost alone in the high peaks of a Canadian mountain wilderness is very much a soul-enriching experience and I was certainly left with a feeling of deep gratitude for the rare privilege of having been allowed to get to know a little of the majesty of the stark beauty of Canada’s western mountains, along with its people who are, without exception, warm, friendly, engagingly modest and refreshingly reserved… mind you, I still don’t like heights!!
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013