All Gain, No Pain

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All Gain, No Pain

Taking quick stock of this mismatched crowd standing awestruck on a grassy mountain ledge at 7,500 feet, I wonder, "How did we get here?" There's a 70-something grandfather, a fit heliskier, a famous chef, an overweight businessman, an elderly lady and a family of five. You'd never guess that in just a couple of hours, this wildly diverse group will scramble to the summit and stand together on a lofty peak in the remote Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia, 330 miles due west of Calgary.Think what you want about helihiking. I've heard it all: It's for lazy people, for cheaters, for soft-bodied millionaires with no better way to spend their money. It mocks nature. I understand these charges, because I used to think this way myself. After all, the fundamental premise of active sports has always been that no one should get the prize without putting in the hard work.

Who says? Certainly not Hans Gmoser, the grandfather on our trip and the legendary founder of the company that runs these adventures, Canadian Mountain Holidays. Gmoser invented helisport in the mid-'60s by taking powder-thirsty skiers onto the creamiest slopes on Earth. Tales of ski runs previously seen only by hardcore alpinists spread like an avalanche. The intrigue was irresistible. Suddenly the ultimate ski experience was available to anyone with enough cash. By 1978, a few ambitious guides got the idea to use helicopters in the summer to go hiking and mountaineering in remote areas, but it didn't spark the imaginations of adventurers the way magazine spreads of fantastic peaks inscribed with powder eights inspired skiers. We can all go for a walk in the mountains, so why would anyone pay thousands of dollars for a helicopter to short-circuit the meat of the journey?

The answers become clear the moment the copter disappears into the distance: The heart of the mountain experience is ours instantly - with zero suffering. And the experience is no longer limited to fit mountaineers with months to spare. In the thin air tinged with the smell of tundra flowers, our eyes dart to waterfalls pouring from glacier spouts. The mountain sun beats down on our cheeks. After all, to reach the same spot without a helicopter would have required weeks of bushwhacking through thick timber infested with huge bears and even bigger and more irritable moose while toting spine-crushing packs full of supplies. Suddenly, a helicopter doesn't seem like a bad idea at all.

Our first drop-off is on the side of a mountain called Sugar Peak, a famous heliski run in the winter and a spectacular wildflower field in the summer. We're only minutes into our four-day adventure, so we take it slow, enjoying every beardtongue and buttercup flower, sliding on snowfields like kids, studying the twisted metamorphic rocks beneath our boots and getting into the rhythm of the mountains. Our goal is the summit, a thousand feet of easy hiking above, but the wild beauty surrounding us makes reaching it feel like an afterthought. The hours pass easily, and soon the sun is low in the sky as we stand on top at 8,500 feet. The view makes you think the Earth is entirely covered with range after range of craggy peaks and dazzling glaciers.

I've been carrying packs up and down mountains with my father, a mountain guide in Colorado, since I could walk. Typically, the moment I step onto a summit, my knees start aching in anticipation of the long walk home. Not this time. The helicopter picks us up from a grassy knoll below the top, and we're back where we started in nearly the time it takes to tighten my boots for the descent.

Our base camp is the posh post-and-beam Cariboo Lodge, complete with a gourmet kitchen, bar, game room, climbing wall, massage room, hot tub, sauna and fishing pond, yet the camaraderie is much the same as at any outpost in the world's great mountain ranges. Small groups laugh and chat about the day while getting to know each other, others relax with a drink on the ck. Guides share their thoughts about the weather forecast and tell stories about run-ins with the local wildlife. "You have to get between a mother and her cub to piss off a bear," says Ernst Buehler, the lodge manager. "But a moose will attack you just for the fun of it!"

When the storytelling subsides, the guides reiterate our main lesson of the day: how to behave in the pristine, and often fragile, alpine environment. When we're following a trail made by big critters like moose, bear and caribou we stay in line, but where no trail exists we spread out to avoid making a new one. The guides track animal herds and rate hiking areas according to their durability on the same computers they use to chart avalanche cycles during the heliski season. (A few weeks after our trip, CMH receives both national and local awards for sustainable tourism.)

I've spent enough nights in the mountains to know that even the most pedestrian of meals tastes better than it should after a day's hike. So when dinner is a filet mignon served with artistic elegance instead of ramen in a plastic bowl, accompanied by cabernet sauvignon in place of Gatorade, my taste buds rejoice. Crème brà»lée for dessert ensures dead silence as the guides prepare us for tomorrow. My group will try mountaineering on a technical climb, so we'll gather in the gear room at 7 a.m. to fit climbing harnesses and helmets. Another group is going on a moderate snow climb, while the rest will embark on a long, scenic hike. Guests are matched by ability level, so no one need worry about slowing down the group.

We return to hors d'oeuvres worthy of a day on the mountain: hearty egg rolls and spicy chicken wings. Around the dinner table, workaday discussion of careers and money is refreshingly absent, replaced by tales of safaris and ski trips and sailing holidays. A couple of guides break out guitars, an impromptu tournament rages in the ping-pong room and a late night unfolds with little regard for tomorrow's endeavors.

Bad move. After a breakfast of omelets, Canadian bacon and fresh-baked biscuits, I'm introduced to the one downfall of helisport: There's no long uphill hike to get the blood pumping. Instead, the helicopter drops us on a knife-edged ridge below a striking 9,500-footer aptly named the Little Matterhorn. Since we're stepping out of the lodge and onto a technical climb, we all start slowly to adjust to the sudden transition from down comforter to uphill trek.

Marsha and Michael Laub, a retired couple from Banff, Jen Wasylyk, a forestry expert collaborating with CMH to study the alpine environment, and I tie into the ropes behind the guides. Our guides, Brian Keifer, an old hand at mountain arts with a penchant for pipe tobacco, and John Mellis, a man with more energy than most power plants, tie in to take the lead. "There's a bit of loose rock up here," Brian mentions casually.

When I get to the point he warned us about, I find an automobile-sized boulder that vibrates with the slightest nudge. We're climbing the ridge of what feels like a 1,000-foot pyramid built by a lazy god. Perched boulders and precipitous snowfields in the foreground give way to glaciers and craggy peaks in the distance. Looking down feels more like looking out the window of a plane than off the side of a mountain. Sometimes we move together, and for the more difficult sections we climb one at a time with the security of the rope held by the guides anchored above. As we move higher, nervousness gives way to complete euphoria. Marsha and Jen grin so widely that I wonder if mountaineers ever sunburn their gums.

The summit is too broken for a helicopter pickup, so we scramble down the other side of the peak to a snowfield, where we're met by the helicopter and whisked back to the lodge.

Mountaineering, though exhilarating, isn't this sport's true lure. Older couples go helihiking with their grandchildren and get to see the world in a manner that reduces the generation gap to a few minutes of flight. Entire families find that it's something they can all do together. Baby boomers love that they can make the trip as strenuous-or relaxing-as they choose. The experience is as diverse as the people who try it.

One hiker, Reb Forte, has been heliskiing for two decades, usually a couple of times each year. "I'd have never thought to use a helicopter to go hiking," he admits, "but I'm so surprised by how exhilarating it is that next year I want to come back for a full week."

The next day is the notorious barbecue, a picnic on a snowfield with all the food that can fit inside a Bell 212 helicopter. At least one group is going mountaineering, and my group will hike to the 9th Hole, one of the more scenic spots in the Cariboos. It's a fitting name for what is a natural green perched seemingly in space. The short tundra grass would make for decent putting, but a long shot would send the ball a thousand feet down into the maw of a broken glacier. Leave your clubs at home.

Wandering amid one of the most intense settings I've ever seen, it occurs to me that one of the benefits that hiking has over skiing is the chance to soak in the location. Skiing is a speed sport that makes us focus so hard that we often miss the world around us. Hiking, on the other hand, slows the world down and lets our powers of observation rule. We can exist in our surroundings without distraction.

By now, we've grown accustomed to the scale of the peaks. Our pilot takes us to the barbecue via a scenic route along the edge of the glacier. We make a spiraling descent past a waterfall flowing from the ice. Disembarking the helicopter, we're greeted by a table-sized grill piled with burgers, chicken and brats. After lunch some hikers recline against boulders while others cool off in a clear pond a few feet away. Our guides are busily rigging a "Tyrolean traverse" between two cliffs. We then clip in with harnesses and slide across to begin the trek that'll take us to our pickup spot - and the end of our helihiking trip.

The rotor accelerates with the now-familiar vibration of a helicopter defying gravity. We detach from the Earth, and I consider the impact such power has had on recreation. Helicopters have done for mountain sports what passenger jets did for travel. Just as we can take a two-week vacation to Europe and spend 90 percent of the time completely immersed in the destination, in one day we can ski and hike more mountain faces than a man-powered mountaineer can tackle in a month. And the best part is, we can all do it - no matter who we are.

tion gap to a few minutes of flight. Entire families find that it's something they can all do together. Baby boomers love that they can make the trip as strenuous-or relaxing-as they choose. The experience is as diverse as the people who try it.

One hiker, Reb Forte, has been heliskiing for two decades, usually a couple of times each year. "I'd have never thought to use a helicopter to go hiking," he admits, "but I'm so surprised by how exhilarating it is that next year I want to come back for a full week."

The next day is the notorious barbecue, a picnic on a snowfield with all the food that can fit inside a Bell 212 helicopter. At least one group is going mountaineering, and my group will hike to the 9th Hole, one of the more scenic spots in the Cariboos. It's a fitting name for what is a natural green perched seemingly in space. The short tundra grass would make for decent putting, but a long shot would send the ball a thousand feet down into the maw of a broken glacier. Leave your clubs at home.

Wandering amid one of the most intense settings I've ever seen, it occurs to me that one of the benefits that hiking has over skiing is the chance to soak in the location. Skiing is a speed sport that makes us focus so hard that we often miss the world around us. Hiking, on the other hand, slows the world down and lets our powers of observation rule. We can exist in our surroundings without distraction.

By now, we've grown accustomed to the scale of the peaks. Our pilot takes us to the barbecue via a scenic route along the edge of the glacier. We make a spiraling descent past a waterfall flowing from the ice. Disembarking the helicopter, we're greeted by a table-sized grill piled with burgers, chicken and brats. After lunch some hikers recline against boulders while others cool off in a clear pond a few feet away. Our guides are busily rigging a "Tyrolean traverse" between two cliffs. We then clip in with harnesses and slide across to begin the trek that'll take us to our pickup spot - and the end of our helihiking trip.

The rotor accelerates with the now-familiar vibration of a helicopter defying gravity. We detach from the Earth, and I consider the impact such power has had on recreation. Helicopters have done for mountain sports what passenger jets did for travel. Just as we can take a two-week vacation to Europe and spend 90 percent of the time completely immersed in the destination, in one day we can ski and hike more mountain faces than a man-powered mountaineer can tackle in a month. And the best part is, we can all do it - no matter who we are.

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