boots and helicopters give mountaineering a twist by Elliott
on photos for more images of Manhattan
Koell held my life in his hands. Literally.
Clutching one end of the climbing rope that ran through
the carabiner on my own safety harness, the Austrian-born
Canadian mountain guide issued last-minute instructions
on how to do something I’ve never done: repel down
the face of a 120-foot vertical cliff.
“Valk to ze edge of ze cliff,” Roko shouted,
his heavy Austrian accent echoing between mountain peaks.
A moving speck amid the massive Purcell Mountains, I
crept toward the edge of the cliff. But I refused to
look down. Gone was the helicopter that had dropped us
off at 7,000 feet atop the Syphax Glacier. Gone was the
comfort of the Bobbie Burns Lodge. All that remained
was me, Roko, two female hikers, and the challenging
trek through the snow-crusted mountains that surrounded
“Okay, turn around,” Roko said. “Lean
backvard and valk vertically down ze cliff face.”
Gripping the rope with both hands, trembling in a pair
of borrowed climbing boots, I turned my back to the precarious
cliff. I heard my heart beating in my ears. Felt a sudden
need to urinate.
“It is better to die on your feet zan to live on
your knees,” Roko shouted.
With these words of encouragement, I took a deep breath
and threw myself over the edge...
More than 25 years ago, the folks at Canadian Mountain
Holidays combined hiking boots and helicopters to create “heli-hiking”—a
uniquely exciting wilderness experience. Each morning
during summer months, CMH guests are flown by helicopter
from one of five remote lodges in British Columbia to
high-altitude starting points in the Purcell, Selkirk,
Columbia, and Cariboo mountain ranges. Led by expert
guides like Roko—a former coach of the Austrian
National Alpine Ski Team—guests are divided into
groups based on desire and hiking ability.
Some groups walk leisurely along the shore of a glacial
lake, and enjoy a lunchtime picnic in a flowering meadow.
Others hike up snow-packed slopes to cross ancient glaciers.
Those in search of an adrenalin rush can climb summits,
repel down vertical cliff faces, and inch along rocky
walls during a mountaineering trek.
At the end of each day, heli-hikers are plucked from
the mountains by a 12-seater Bell 212 helicopter. They’re
flown back to the lodge for a sauna or a well-earned
massage, before sitting down to a gourmet dinner prepared
by a CMH chef.
Without the helicopter, this hiking experience would
be impossible for greenhorns like me. Within 15 minutes
of boarding the chopper at the Bobbie Burns Lodge, my
group was airlifted 7,000 feet to the Syphax Glacier.
(An expert climber might need an entire day to reach
such an inaccessible area; a novice would be a fool to
make the attempt.)
Through the helicopter windows I saw snow-capped mountains
that fanned out in every direction for as far as the
eye could see. Glaciers spread beneath us like massive
When our chopper touched down, the four of us leapt to
the ground and knelt together in a heli-huddle, shielding
our faces from swirling snow kicked up by the thwacking
For an urbanite like me who has never slept outside in
a tent—let alone, attempt a technical climb—the
rest of the day was an eye-opening thrill. We hiked east
along a snow-packed ridge. Trudged uphill through steep
snow. Climbed up an almost vertical rock face, using
ledges and a few pre-inserted handholds.
the way, Roko prodded us with inspirational Roko-isms. “Pain
is only veakness leaving the body,” he said, after
I whined about a foot blister. When I cried out breathlessly
and asked, “How much farther to the summit?” the
6-foot, 5-inch mountain man seemed to chuckle. “Ze
grass is greener on ze other side of ze road, but it
still has to be mowed.”
When we reached the 9,500-foot summit of Mount Syphax,
I felt as if I’d conquered Mount Everest. A light
fog rolled in, drawing a translucent curtain across a
kingdom of snow-dusted spires that stretched to the horizon.
After descending Mount Syphax came the scariest part:
repelling down the 120-foot vertical cliff face.
Refusing to “live on my knees” as Roko had
warned, I grabbed hold of the climbing rope, leapt backward
from the edge of the cliff, and walked down the vertical
face like a Navy Seal who had consumed too many drinks.
Eager to conquer a bigger challenge, I decided right
then and there to sign up for one of the heli-skiing
packages offered by CMH each winter. With heli-skiing,
experienced skiers are flown by helicopter to an otherwise
inaccessible mountain perch. From there they leap onto
fresh powder, skiing down virgin slopes like madmen and
I quickly trashed my heli-skiing plans after remembering
one important detail. I don’t know how to ski.