Our guide stabs at the air with a ski pole, pointing to an enormous glacier spilling over the mountain in front of us, its face scarred by deep cracks. “Some of those crevasses could be 200 to 300 feet deep,” says Tom Gruber.
But Tom might as well be talking to the waterfall that noisily courses down one of Zillmer’s flanks. After trying to get our attention for a few minutes, he gives up. “No one’s listening to me,” he moans in mock frustration.
It can’t be helped. We’re so smitten with the glacier’s raw beauty that we’re all eyes, no ears. Ignoring Tom, we scamper across the rock-strewn slope where, moments earlier, we were dropped off by helicopter. We snap photo after photo, trying to capture every facet of the extraordinary landscape we’ve been dropped into.
This is why you heli-hike. Not to cheat by enjoying a cozy ride to a viewpoint, but to get to places like this—the heart of the Cariboo mountains of eastern British Columbia. The ice fields, mountain peaks, and alpine meadows here are as inaccessible as they are stunning. Simply put, we wouldn’t be here without a helicopter.
The Cariboos are older than the Rockies and not quite as high. But what they’re lacking in metres, they make up for in grandeur. “We have a lot of ice, massive glaciation,” Tom says.
Hans Gmoser, the founder of Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and the man credited with inventing heli-skiing also started heli-hiking, and this is where he brought his first guests.
Next year, 40 years after those first hikers were awed by the splendour of the Cariboos, CMH will once again welcome guests in summer (after the economic downturn of 2008, heli-hiking in the region was put on hiatus, to resume summer 2018).
After walking for about an hour, Tom tells us the helicopter is coming to take us to a different location. I could happily spend the rest of the day under Zillmer’s icy gaze, but Tom has hinted at other spots that are just as magnificent.
After another short flight, we touch down again, this time in a mountain-rimmed meadow with a river running through it. It’s lush and green and carpeted with wildflowers; a shockingly resplendent contrast to the black-and-white beauty of Zillmer.
And here too, we’re alone, just 11 of us—the number the helicopter can hold—in a private natural oasis, untouched by the rest of the world. When we ask Tom where we are, his face lights up: “Joy Valley”. The name is perfect.
Back at the lodge we enjoy more contrasts—this time between the steamy hot tub and the cold water of the swimming pond. Later, over dinner around the communal dining tables, we swap stories with two other groups of hikers and raise a toast to our hosts. CMH’s main business may be heli-skiing, but fortunately for hikers everywhere, they’re once again happy to share these mountains in summer too.
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