Would you believe there is a trip that both experienced...

February 07, 1993|By Jane Wingle | Jane Wingle,Contributing Writer

Would you believe there is a trip that both experienced climbers and novice day-hikers can take and enjoy? And that this same vacation has appeal to family members of all generations?

It's called heli-hiking -- hiking by helicopter -- and it offers participants excitement, adventure, splendor and beauty.

The advantage of such a trip is that a high wilderness region can be reached in a matter of minutes instead of after a number of days of bushwhacking. People who are not able to or not interested in doing the work necessary to arrive at an alpine expanse have an opportunity, thanks to heli-hiking, to know what it is like to get a view from the top.

My husband and I chose a trek in the rugged but majestic Purcell and Cariboo mountains of eastern British Columbia in Canada. The trip, through a tour company specializing in heli-hiking and heli-skiing, included accommodations in one of four luxurious but rustic lodges in magnificent settings.

After being flown to the lodge area and getting settled in comfortable rooms, hikers meet each other at a gourmet lunch. The staff presents an overview of the days ahead, and from there, it's take-off.

The first swoop over the mountains is unforgettable. It affords a panoramic view that competes with any scene on an IMAX screen. Each person has a turn at an unobstructed look from the front seat next to the pilot. Vistas vary but may include a glimpse of moose with their calves breakfasting at lakes in the morning.

Flights are well-planned and coordinated by the staff, who are trained mountain guides. Safety is No. 1 to them, but simultaneously they seem to have a sixth sense that promotes and encourages everyone to test a limit or take a risk.

Groups are arranged primarily on two levels. The first takes a relaxed pace; the second focuses on more physical challenges. One can choose according to interest and ability.

Often there are three-generation families as well as experienced alpinists. On our trip, a woman in her 70s had been to each area at least twice, and a group from Boston had chosen heli-hiking as their annual vacation together. The hikers come from North America and abroad, so the groups vary; camaraderie is high.

The guides make sure the trip is filled with fun and laughter. At one point, after landing, we donned our rain pants and slid down snow fields. One group formed a human bobsled, screaming and laughing as though on a roller coaster.

Others showed unparalleled grace as they glissaded down the snow in their hiking boots as if they were skiing. And some just got out of the helicopter and walked around to take in the breathtaking view.

Especially memorable was a day of walking on the glaciers. Looking down seemingly bottomless, blue crevasses while fastened securely with a rope was exciting for the non-climbers. The more adventurous went with their own guide for a day's climb of one of several peaks.

As one can imagine, photographic possibilities abound. Due to the late snow melt, there is a dazzling palette of color in the number of wildflowers, and even the smallest of flowers brought grown men to their knees and macro-lenses out of packs.

During the summer, two photography workshops will be held. Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris has a tour planned for Aug. 10-17; (206) 463-5383. And Ecosummer Expeditions has a trip scheduled for Aug. 26-Sept. 1; (800) 688-8605.

Beginners and advanced amateurs will stay in lodges and get hands-on experience to sharpen their wilderness photography skills.

As for each day's schedule, most people go for a minimum of two helicopter landings in the morning and two in the afternoon with a stop in between at the lodge for lunch. Or there may be a barbecue that day on a mountain -- with a window seat no restaurant can beat.

At day's end, a sauna and whirlpool await guests at each lodge, and they can relax with the memories of the beauty experienced while hiking.

tTCHD: Hitting the high trail with the help of a helicopter

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