Canada's Columbia Mountains, which run along the western side of the Rockies, do not have the name recognition of their more famous counterparts. That's too bad, because the mountains, which are actually older than the Rockies, are stunning, with imposing granite spires, sweeping glaciers and opalescent lakes. Still, the remote, densely forested mountains have largely remained a mystery to most hikers. Now, thanks to heli-hiking, that's beginning to change.
Not for the faint of heart (there are, after all, serious heights involved) or wallet, the sport uses a helicopter to deposit hikers at otherwise inaccessible spots. It's not exactly an eco-vacation (there are no alternatively fueled helicopters -- yet) but it is an incredibly intense wilderness experience.
Heli-hiking was born in the Columbia range about 30 years ago as an off-season offering from the heli-skiing outfitter Canadian Mountain Holidays. Today, the company says heli-hiking makes up 10% of its business and it is the biggest company in the area, spawning an industry that spreads from Alaska to the Alps.
At some point during the first days hike, flush with enthusiasm, I expressed an interest in trying some climbing and mountaineering. Later, I would think about this moment when I found myself whimpering on a rock hanging over what was more or less a sheer wall of granite some several thousand feet high, wondering exactly how I wound up there to begin with. But by then it was too late. (I know because I asked if the helicopter could swing by and take us back to the lodge, preferably the bar.) It was for the best. My traverse across Pigeon Feather Ridge an all-day hike over glacier and rock at an altitude of about 10,000 feet that required crampons for walking on ice, a helmet, ice pick and harness was unforgettable a rare chance to experience the kind of landscape that I had only ever seen from miles away. It was also incredibly challenging, mentally as much as physically, requiring a laser-like focus from start to finish.
For hours, I literally followed in the footsteps of my guide, Hans Hortenhuber. (Not only was I connected to him by rope but he knew where the footing was surest and where we would avoid tumbling into a crevasse.) Despite his long history of climbing, starting in the Alps, Hans was possessed of a preternatural patience, which came in handy when he coaxed me into rappelling down that pile of granite. For days after the hike I was so sore it was difficult to walk up and down stairs. I never felt better.