Bugaboo visitors can travel light and prepare to be stunned, writes Katrina Lobley.
As pilot Jens Gessner lowers his Bell 212 helicopter onto a ledge that looks fit only for mountain goats, we heli-hikers in the back give each other wide-eyed looks. With earplugs in, the best communication is through facial expressions. And we're all asking the same thing: "Is he serious?"
It's our third day of exploring Bugaboo Provincial Park in the Purcell Mountains near the Rockies and things haven't yet been this hairy. We're also wary because of an incident the previous day when a visiting artist didn't huddle low enough to the ground. The chopper's powerful downdraft - or the down-whoosh, as Jens calls it - flipped the woman over. "She was in a giant poncho so she was like a sail," says a witness. Luckily, the elbow she's icing doesn't belong to her painting arm.
Our not-very-wide landing pad falls away to a valley below, so we huddle as we've never huddled before, hanging on to each other's wrists and legs, clinging to the nearest pair of shoulders. As Jens lifts his craft and angles away to his next mountain-top pick-up, we wait for the inevitable gust, yank out our earplugs and laugh out loud at just how ridiculous and awesome this adventure is in equal measure.
To reach this pristine part of the world, we've bussed westwards from Banff, through forests populated by moose, bear, cougars and elk, into British Columbia to hop on a helicopter up to Bugaboo Lodge, where, even though it's summer, a thermometer says it's just nine degrees outside.
Accommodation is grander than expected. Built on the site of a former logging camp, Bugaboo Lodge's first incarnation went up in 1967 to cater for the then new sport of heli-skiing. With each addition over the years, the lodge morphed from dormitory-style rooms with communal showers and toilets into what it is today - a luxurious haven with in-room bathrooms, an outdoor jacuzzi, a climbing wall tucked into a tall stairwell, and Wi-Fi faster than I have at home.
I'm doing the Bugaboo half of World Expeditions' seven-day heli-hiking adventure, which includes another three nights at the Bobbie Burns Lodge - located somewhere out there beyond the gothic, glacier-carved granite spires that attract the world's climbing fraternity. Almost all of my fellow guests are North Americans, with many drawn from moneyed-up Calgary and Vancouver. For some this isn't their first heli-hiking holiday at the lodge - not by a long shot - and their unwavering loyalty is something to behold. An elderly widower from California has formed such an attachment to one guide over the years that he books his holiday to coincide with the guide, Lyle Grisedale's roster.
With 40 guests to ferry around in the chopper, we're split each day into three or four groups to be dropped at various points (and re-dropped during the day). One group spots a mother bear and cubs speeding away from them. Occasionally, we encounter the visiting artists who are struggling to fit such a vast expanse onto their tiny working canvases.
Each hike offers a different highlight. We stroll through meadows bejewelled with wildflowers, cross a stream using a ladder, pick our way up a snowpack and slide down the other side. We skirt alpine lakes that are startling shades of blue, examine a boulder studded with aquamarine, feldspar and tourmaline, and tuck into our lunches - sandwiches, fruit, chocolate and more - next to Kickoff Glacier.
Before arriving, I'd worried about my fitness for this high-altitude adventure. I soon discover that the best part of heli-hiking is that it deletes long, hard, uphill slogs from the day, condensing the experience into a series of jaw-dropping sights.
I'd also worried about how much gear to lug from Australia, but you could rock up to this place in normal walking gear. The equipment room is filled with waterproof jackets, pants and boots in every size. We're also given day packs, lunch bags and water bottles.
What I enjoy just as much as the great outdoors are the family-style dinners with a staff member hosting each table. "It's such a great gift to give to yourself," says hiker Jean, and we all nod, knowing exactly what she means.
The writer travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Air Canada flies direct from Sydney to Vancouver with connections to Calgary; see aircanada.com. Road transfers to Banff take about two hours; see banffairporter.com.
SEE + DO
The 2015 heli-hiking season opens on July 9. The seven-day trip, starting in Banff, costs $5790 a person twin share and includes all equipment and meals, finishing at Calgary.