A Magical Heli-Hike into the Bugaboos


Flying comes in many guises. Today the tarmac is a helipad in British Columbia where nearby bear cubs swat at dandelions.

You’ve heard of the Bugaboos. This is the to-die-for heart of Canada’s world-famous heli-skiing. The winters are long and dazzling.

In summer, waist-deep snow is replaced by hip-high wild flowers and you come for the heli-hiking.

The twin-engine, 14-passenger Bell 212 swoops up through spokes of sunlight towards Bugaboo Lodge at the toe of the glacier.

Wilderness scrolls beneath us like a satellite photo – forest, glaciers and glittering streams of green-blue water. Granite rock spires grandstand on the horizon.

Emergency equipment onboard includes a locator beacon and a fishing pole.

Much of the world is a sea of Columbia lily, red mountain heather, purple saxifrage, alpine gentian and glacier lily. One meadow is wall-to-wall buttercups.

After check-in and lunch at the lodge (“make this your home”), we helicopter above tree line, beyond the range of all-business mosquitos.

Our guide is hard-eyed and half-boiled Austrian-born Roko Koel. With his rocker-messy longhair and lanky physique, Roko looks every bit the mountaineer and heli-ski guide he is.


“I consider the helicopter a tool to get me to places that would take two or three days to walk to,” says Roko. “Then I don’t want to see it again until I want to get back to comfort.”

Someone asks why it’s called Grizzly Ridge. Roko points out fresh digs where grizzlies have been hunting lily bulbs and squirrels.

“Bears are the least social in this environment,” Roko says. “We do things so bears can see us. We gather in a group and allow the bear to communicate by watching us. But if harassed, I’ll call in the helicopter.”

The next morning dawns Technicolor bright. A deer strolls outside our window. Hikers mill by the heli-pad after a breakfast of all you could wish for.

“The remoteness of it all,” says Chip Johnson, a Las Vegas real estate developer. “The glory of the whole thing. This has been one of the dreams on my bucket list.”

Today we’re flying to the via ferrata. Popular in the European Alps, but little known in North America, via ferratas are shoulder-to-the-wall steep mountain routes with fixed cables and ladders. Hikers cleave to a mountain face while tethered to a steel cable.


We land at the base of the via ferrata and Roko helps don our helmets, harnesses and energy-absorbing lanyards for clipping into the continuous cable.

“It’s good to learn new things,” Roko says, while teaching us to move. “I’m going to trust you guys. You need self-responsibility.”

The route is at times horizontal ledges, at times vertical and often somewhere in between. The via ferrata is where sport becomes the ultimate mirror.

After a gripping couple of hours of unfolding beauty we’re on the summit. Living in the arms of the mountain, into the lunch in our rucksacks and into ourselves together.

“There are defining moments in life that you don’t forget,” says Thomas Wolford, a 57-year-old banker from London (who always wore a white shirt).

“Ten years ago I had cancer. But this, too, is one of those defining moments.”

On our third day we’re given an omelet of mountain clouds and rain. The summits look like those scenes captured in snow globes at Banff souvenir shops. We fly to a far-off ridge and hike. The weather worsens. We radio for a pick-up and fly back to the lodge for mid-morning cappuccino.

Within an hour the sky clears and we fly back to the ridge. But by mid-afternoon rain is coming down like nails. Roko radios the helicopter.

Thomas looks me in the eye and says:  “Let’s walk back. I’ve come 5,000 miles from London to be in this wilderness.”

We wave off the chopper and hike seven downhill miles to Bugaboo Lodge. Legs weary and soul purged. The world is right as rain. Dinner is five stars and counting.

Morning brings clear skies and the helicopter to take us down to the valley.

Thomas scrambles in next to the pilot looking like a kid with a sun-coppered face. He was young again. It was yesterday.

[Photos: Gerry Wingenbach]


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Comments (Showing 1 of 1)

  • duniawala at 11:26pm August 13, 2013

    “Emergency equipment onboard includes a locator beacon and a fishing pole.” LOL

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