When the ebb and flow of the urban densities that wash over us start to feel like riptide, we yearn for nature’s open spaces. Do kids – does pre-teen daughter Katie Jane – share that quiet panic sorting out a place in the world amid all the cultural noise, the school and family pressures? Sooner or later she will, living in the middle of Washington, DC, and dad wants to impart early the tools of realignment. Nothing against the plains or oceans, but if you want to hypnotize a kid with nature, go for three-dimensional spaces with high vertical, try the Bugs – Canada’s Bugaboos – one of the continent’s premiere hiking and climbing arenas.
Throw in a helicopter chauffeur, a magician in rarefied air who puts a twin-engine Bell 212 into a dive that threads a needle eye of granite spires like a biplane. Imagine that sight through the eyes of a child, jaw dropping, this new wow factor tumbling theme park thriller rides into second tier memory files.
Pressures ease as they thin out over an infinity of gray granite peaks wrapped in white glaciers. They sink amid colorful valleys with a rich palette of greens – from cedar and hemlock and larch – the latter in fall sliding into yellow – to stream-drenched moss and lichen, punctuated by meadows of wildflowers driven in August by the reds and yellows of Indian paintbrush, columbine, monkey flower and fireweed.
These are the views that jerk the rugs of ho-hum usual, that will put everything else in perspective. It’s a lasting comfort that there are very different places that, properly shepherded, will endure and wait for us for when we need them most. When KJ, a patent pending perpetual motion machine, is on the road with me, she’s overtaken by serene calm. But the underlying energy still bubbles, positively, and the Bugs can take whatever she dishes out.
Consider the vastness of the area, spilling beyond the Bugaboos into adjoining ranges of the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia. This includes the world’s only temperate inland rainforest, running amid the rugged peaks which are a couple hundred million years older than our upstart Rockies.
The purveyor of this experience, Canadian Mountain Holidays, operates twelve lodges, mostly for the main bread and butter of helicopter skiing, across an area nearly half the size of Switzerland. Roll all the European Alps together, and that’s about the size of it. And there is a similarity to the Alps, being at the top, seeing an array of peaks to the horizon. But no people. Five lodges also do helicopter hiking and mountaineering, and KJ and I signed on for one of the family specific offerings, at Bugaboos Lodge. We flew to Calgary and motored to Banff and then a couple hours on a motor coach took us past Radium Hot Springs to a helicopter that took us the remainder.
The 35 room lodge is nearly a mile in elevation and looks up at the remarkable Bugaboos Glacier, flowing around the stunning Houndstooth outcrop, which tops out at 9,250 feet, all framed by a forest bowl and higher granite spires. It’s a dang impressive swath of white for August, even if considerably trimmed from prior glory by global warming.
The guides, most of whom are also ski pros who never let career stand in the way of a good life, exhibit a genuine joy, and skill, at working with young people, from early grade school to teens. I marveled at the heights they could coax KJ to climb, beginning with the daunting four story climbing wall that runs alongside a high stairwell.
Rooms are spartan but comfortable and roomy, ours had two big beds and a nice bath, and incredible views through windows that open wide. Zero television anywhere! Each room has a portrait of someone with a local mountain connection. Ours was an English WWI military nurse, Edith Cavell, with a mountain named for her. She became a English hybrid of Patrick Henry and the Alamo after she was executed by the Germans who claimed she helped Brit soldiers escape. The bath is nice, but we usually showered by the roof deck with the hot tub, and adjoining steam and sauna rooms.
Our days at the lodge began early. We were summoned by a bell ringer strolling the halls, prompting us to a stretching class and a hearty breakfast – the meals will make your lips quiver and dinners can honestly claim gourmet status. We then scramble into queue near the copter with our equipment. Weather changes on a dime and for most hikes one carries the necessary options in addition to plenty of water and energy snacks – chocolate to your heart’s content. Packs with warm, rainproof parkas, rainpants, and poles are provided, as are hiking boots and, if needed, climbing shoes, ice axes and helmets.
Groups take off in fast succession, like a precisely timed military assault, no one dares tarry. Which party one is in depends on general abilities or preferred activities, sorted by a joint assessment of guests and guides. For some efforts families stick mostly together, for others, kids can split off with special hikes and activities, including a lake swim and games like capture the flag. Guides impart a deep knowledge of the local ecology.
Camaraderie thrives along mountain slopes, and in a few short days of long hikes, usually two a day – four copter rides – people from very different walks of life connected to their feel for nature soon know each other. Most return, including for ski season. One guest told of a ski group introducing themselves at dinner, tossing out what they did, and one fellow sheepishly mumbled he was a king – for the rest of the week most thought Carlos of Spain was a wiseacre.
One late afternoon, an English barrister and his wife celebrating their 25th anniversary invited everyone to join them for champagne. The mom then beat the pants off her son, a college athlete, at ping pong.
Katie joined my hiking group the first day, getting along well with the adults and keeping up after a guide and I divided her extra gear. The next day she elected to hike with a younger group, no offense, Dad.
One day everyone, kids and adults, ‘coptered in after their first hikes – each copter group goes to a different locale so they don’t see anyone else on the hikes – to lunch at a fantastic locale where a barbecue was set up and the lady chef hard at work on steaks and sausages. The surrounding mountains were deceptive, as the copter lifted away it looked like it would collide with granite any moment, but it just kept getting smaller and smaller, the canyon we were in growing larger and larger.
After lunch, most kids remained to climb area cliffs, most adults coptered to their second hikes, though they could stay, as I did, with the kids, climbing with them, some of the cliffs quite challenging in the moves they required. KJ, now a human fly, wouldn’t believe she made it to the top of one very high granite cliff, belayed with a rope, until I later showed her photographic proof of the sun coming through her hair as her head popped above the edge.
Later that night, after a swim in lake by the lodge and a grand dinner, we joined families at a campfire for sodas and wine and stargazing.
KJ proved a marvel to the guides, who confided to me they wanted to bottle her and wished other kids were more like her. Guides deal with their share of privileged kids whom some might regard a bit spoiled, and teens in particular aren’t shy about griping. Katie never complained, despite her pack and despite having considerable blisters – though well-tended – owing to our discovery of too tight shoes before she was fitted with boots. The airline lost our luggage, so for the entire trip Katie had only what she was wearing and what I could find in the lost and found bin of a Banff hotel. Wide-eyed and open to everything the guides said, and easy with conversation, the guides couldn’t get enough of her.
But I was most proud of the attention she showed a young lad with aspergers who was there with his grandparents and who took a shine to her. He’s the age of her younger brother, who’s recovering, splendidly from a medical fright that’s been a long tension, and her blossoming empathy was the prettiest wildflower on the mountain.
A grandfather who treats his family to a yearly hiking session confided to me that the mountain tonic worked well for one of his grandkids. The teen had gone off his rails, heading to trouble in school and with a tough crowd. The Bugaboos entranced him, and remain a carrot that keeps his school work up and his behavior in bounds so he can return the following year. Along the way, he’s become a different kid, a pleasure to be around.
CMH’s empire of solitude began with Austrian Hans Gmoser, who in the 1950s became a guide for Canada’s Matterhorn, Mount Assiniboine. During his off-time, he performed little mountain feats like the first Wickersham Wall ascent of Mt. McKinley. One has to be in awe of such climbs, particularly given the difference in equipment decades ago. In 1965, helicopters seemed like a good idea, and he flew with it. CMH now catches about 7,000 skiers and 3,000 hikers a year, most of them repeat customers.
This 53 year old pressed his luck with a rocky all day climb led by Mikey Olsthoor, a seasoned skiing and mountaineering guide. This wasn’t a venture I let Katie in on. Mikey used the occasion to spank a college kid he’d heard complaining the day before that he wasn’t adequately challenged. Though an innocent bystander, I was spanked as well.
I was stunned by Mikey’s sure-footedness up glaciers and cliffs, skimming the edges of crevasses and their deceptive optical illusions, his guardian angel an ice axe he wields like a sculptor. Great to watch, then one remembers where Mikey goes, I got to go, wishing all the while I’d skipped the last couple drinks offered by the copter pilot filling in as bar keep the night before. A gastrointestinal confrontation during the final nail biting climb forced me to summon a Zen concentration I’d thought beyond me. I began to mull the multiple meanings of bugaboo, first a business scam in old England, then when a miner’s treasure vein runs out, finally the fears and anxieties one challenges oneself to move past. It’s not the mountain we conquer, wrote Sir Edmund Hillary, but ourselves.
Mikey looks at a mountain, it’s like reading a book, with near psychic reading of his clients’ abilities and reservoirs of remaining strength. Though one can’t recall exactly which crack in the rock he tickled or goosed with his toe, one at least knows there’s something somewhere one can grasp for a moment and advance inches here, a foot there, ultimately to find out no, that’s not the summit, more thrillers to come, but first a pause for views one struggles to commit to memory, with density now defined as someone up the rope, and someone below, and, things being relative, being the middleman seems crowded.
Post Script: Catching up on our timeline, the celebrated Katie is currently finishing a masters in social work at Catholic U., and brother Jack is well and studying art at SCAD. Canadian Mountain Holidays is now booking for summer of this year, and for skiing, for winter ’21-’22.
Tel: (403) 762-7100
Fax: (403) 762-5879
Toll Free: 1-800-661-0252
E-mail Inquiries: Info@cmhinc.com
Canadian Mountain Holidays
Tel: (403) 762-7100
Fax: (403) 762-5879