Heli-Hiking in British Columbia
Updated: Jan 24
An active travel Review of Canadian Mountain Holidays - Bobbie Burns Lodge
Our helicopter had been whirling over thickly forested terrain for about fifteen minutes when I first spotted the Bobbie Burns lodge in a clearing. Our alpine home base for the next few days was much larger than I imagined. And I realized, as I spotted the outdoor hot tub on its front deck, it came with some amenities that I hadn’t expected from a backcountry heli-hiking lodge.
Heli-what? I was familiar with the concept of heli-skiing prior to my experience with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH). But it was a June magazine article featuring the impressive shape of Mount Nimbus and its infamous suspension bridge that triggered the enthusiastic grin on my face. Both my husband and I are avid hikers and find no better way to disconnect from our busy lives and reconnect with nature, than immersing ourselves in a mountain environment. I had fantasized about the concept of heli-hiking or heli-trail running for years. But I didn’t know it already existed or that the experience was possible outside of a cost-prohibitive private tour. I spent the next several hours fervently researching details and could barely rein in my excitement as I took in the details of the summer options that CMH offered: I could actually take a chopper up to a high elevation mountain lodge in the summer? Then each day, I would go on guided hikes in remote, backcountry wilderness, starting and ending with helicopter transport to and from this seemingly imaginary haven?
And you are telling me that after exhausting myself in mind-blowing alpine terrain, I would come back to a glass of wine, a gourmet meal and a hot tub?
Sign. Me. Up.
And that’s exactly what I did.
There are three summer lodges open for heli-hiking with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH): Bobbie Burns, Bugaboos and the Cariboos lodges. Each lodge has its unique offerings and style, with this one represented in a type of rustic-contemporary design, and made cozy with exposed wood, a large stone fireplace and overstuffed chairs. At the Bobbie Burns lodge, there is also a game room, a gym equipped with a climbing wall, an outside basketball court as well as a hot tub. I was impressed that they had so many additional entertainment options, considering I was exhausted after each days hiking adventure and thinking of nothing more than a beer and the couch. Although massage and alcohol were separately charged, all stays include meals, guided hikes, and helicopter transportation to/from the helipad near Parsons, British Columbia, as well as to/from the lodge for each days hike. In our three-night stay, we were whisked away by chopper eight times in total.
And although we arrived equipped with our own gear, we were surprised to discover that use of rainwear, jackets, trekking poles and hiking boots was also included in the price of our stay.
NOTE - The Bobbie Burns lodge will be closed for renovation, the summer of 2019, but re-opening the following season. However, both the Cariboos and Bugaboos lodges will be open and fully operational.
A typical day
Each morning, breakfast was served around 7am. This left plenty of time to prep our daypacks, and pack a gourmet lunch from a selection of snacks, sandwiches and fruit, before the first chopper left around 9am. Our hiking group typically consisted of eight to twelve guests made up of couples, a few solo travelers and on our trip, a European family with two teenagers traveling together for their mom’s birthday. We were then flown deep into the surrounding rugged landscape and dropped off, usually in the middle of a wide, open field. Aside from our group, there was not a soul in sight for miles. When we reached the end of that days adventure, our guide simply made a radio call to the pilot, who swooped in and picked us up. This was the coolest thing I had ever done. Back at the lodge, we then headed straight to the bar, grabbed a beer, and excitedly recounted stories of the days thrills and accomplishments with our fellow hikers. Dinner was around 7pm, which still left time to get an incredible massage, shower, change clothes and then... select a bottle of wine for dinner.
I was in active-travel heaven.
Because my husband and I are avid hikers and pretty much always keen for adventure, we selected two of the full-day via ferrate routes during our stay: Mount Nimbus and Conrad Glacier. These hikes would entail not only hiking but also negotiating some terrain via fixed ropes, iron steps, or bridges. I have hiked in several countries and mountain ranges around the world, including one of the most scenic Northern Italy Via Ferrate route in the Dolomites. And I can say without hesitation, that these routes were two of the most thrilling and challenging that I have yet to experience. And for me, a person who has a healthy ‘respect’ for heights, the challenge was mental as well as physical: ziplines, Burma bridges, suspension bridges and iron-rung steps, led us alongside, and over, gushing waterfalls and granite ridge lines in a series of physical challenges that felt like an adult version of a mountainside obstacle course. But everyone in our group, which included complete novices to via ferrate and with an age range of 16-55 years, safely completed the course.
And the vistas we were exposed to were absolutely incredible. Surrounded by glaciated ridges and wide-open basins, I admit that I felt a bit emotional at times as
I realized how special the experience was and how few people actually get to see this remarkable terrain in this manner.
NOTE - If you prefer shorter, less physically demanding hikes, there are many route options to choose from. Simply describe what kind of experience you are looking for and the guides can easily match you with a group of similar interest and/or ability.
Our king bedroom was very comfortable, fitted with soft bed linens, and completed with thick bathrobes and en suite bathrooms, including nice shower products and over-sized towels. The rooms were very quiet and ours had access to a common balcony. I liked that there were plenty of hooks and clothing pegs around the room to hang damp gear out to dry.
All meals, appetizers and snacks were included with our stay. Alcohol was separately charged. Breakfast was plentiful and always included a variety of both hot and cold items, proteins, yogurts and pastries. Since our days were spent on trail, lunches we packed ourselves and from a mix of freshly made sandwiches, cookies, fruit and a variety of snacks and energy bars. When we got back, we were always surprised to find hot appetizers or a mixed array of cheese and crackers waiting for us near the bar to tie us over until dinner was ready. The bar was equipped to make cocktails and mixed drinks, as well as serve wine or beer. This was not included in our stay but we felt that all of the choices were reasonably priced. Dinner meals were far better than I expected from a remote mountain lodge and served personally by the staff.
Pasta, steak, broiled fish, as well as vegetarian options and mouth-watering desserts were all part of the daily feast.
We left the table each night, rubbing our stuffed bellies.
When we first arrived at the lodge, the guides quickly introduced themselves and got a feel for each guests hiking ability and preferences. They all were highly experienced, and with unique personalities. One interactive skill that I noticed on our first via ferrate hike was the way they encouraged the guests without over-providing instruction or relaying any doubt or hesitation. Let me explain. On any given via ferrate obstacle, say a challenging up-climb over a steep rock face with a lot of exposure, they seemed to have a way of casually encouraging me, without adding to any nervousness that I may already be experiencing. At first, when I noticed they were not giving me a lot of direction, not telling me exactly where to put my feet and hands, I started to wonder.
But then one of the guides hovering above me, simply said in a relaxed tone of voice,”there are many ways to get up here. Just take your time and find the foothold that feels good to you.” Not giving specific direction may seem like it wouldn’t be helpful, but it actually was.
This seemingly casual encouragement relayed a sense of confidence in me, as well as in the terrain. The guide stating that there was no ‘one right way’ to get where we were going, inferred that there were several, which to me, also meant that there were fewer ways that I could ‘screw up’ and fall. The guides were definitely attentive, always bookending the line of hikers and frequently checking the safety of our equipment. But they did it in such a relaxed, confident manner that I couldn’t help but feel more relaxed myself. If they had given me more direction, I think my brain would have had more anxiety about getting it ‘exactly right’. But since they gave little specifics for each step, I interpreted that to mean that there were many step options to get the job done and they would only intervene if my choices might compromise my safety. And since they rarely corrected my hand or foothold choices, I concluded that I was safe. Which I was. Climbing guide psychology? Maybe. But it worked. And I felt safe and gained confidence in my ability to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
If there is any one testament to the success of this organization, it’s the number of repeat guests that we met during our stay. And I'm not talking about just two or three times, some guests had returned twelve times! One woman, who was the holder of one of these records, had brought her grown daughter and fiancé on this trip, passing along her love of the mountains to the next generation in her family. Another guest, a seven-time return guest, had fallen in love with rock climbing after her first CMH experience, and had spent the following years becoming an excellent technical climber. Her reward - the guides took her on a private, more technical hike that most other guests didn’t have the skill to navigate.
This willingness to customize, accommodate, encourage and serve guests is a trademark of Canadian Mountain Holidays.
An experience like this can be a travel budget investment for many travelers. But it truly is an experience, and provides a unique exposure to alpine environments that you simply wouldn’t get without backpacking in from lower elevations over several days. And some experiences, like the via ferrate adventures at Mount Nimbus and Conrad Glacier, are exclusive to this organization.
Canadian Mountain Holidays does a great job at reminding guests that “Remote wilderness is closer than you think” providing unique access to incredible, uncrowded alpine areas. And when I look back at the attentive manner in which they do it, the professionalism of the guides and the level of service that they provide, the value was apparent in every aspect of my stay. So as much as we travel in a given year, enjoy new experiences and look to maximize our own travel budget, we know that we, ourselves, are hooked on heli-hiking and plan to return to see the rest of what Canadian Mountain Holidays has to offer.
If you would like to see our entire 6 week Canadian Rockies road trip itinerary, go here.