Even biologists have to take a break sometime. My wife and I do not do warm vacations…we gravitate to the snow. Furthermore, if sharp metal objects, remote locations, and verticality are involved; so much the better. This is how I found myself stepping into a Bell 212 helicopter along with 7 other people, many pairs of skis, climbing gear, FAR too much alcohol and food, and arguably one of the most experienced pilots to be found in the Canadian mountains.
One does not actually step into a helicopter. Rather, one runs – bent as low as possible so as not to loose one’s hat to the rotor wash; grabs at anything available and scrambles into a seat. The sound is deafening and ear protection is rather useful. They used to have headsets that were patched into the pilot’s communication channel but in the past passengers would forget that they were wearing them and exit with the headset still on their heads. This tended to break the fragile cable and so now you must bring your own.
The rotor is surprisingly fragile. Something as small as a ball cap, should it get caught up in the rotor, could create thousands of dollars of damage. Needless to say we listened closely to the safety instructions and did exactly what we were told.
The helicopter flew out of Golden, British Columbia which is along highway 1, the big trans-Canadian highway that goes through Banff and Lake Louise. Golden is just west of Yoho National park and the drive there is extraordinarily beautiful. The company that supplies the helicopter and pilot is called Alpine Helicopters. Our pilot was Don McTighe who has been flying various routes in the surrounding mountains for almost 30 years. Don knows all the guides and has worked closely with them getting clients such as ourselves into and out of remote spots in almost any kind of weather.
Our destination was a hut called Battle Abby. The flight, all 15 min of it was quite exciting. With the rotors slowly rotating, various people scurried around the helicopter loading supplies in the tail compartment and the side baskets. Then as they moved away, the sound of the rotor got louder and a fine vibration traveled through the compartment. Our helicopter, as it rose, tilted to begin its trajectory away from Golden. It is that tilt that tells me the adventure has really begun. We are flying and it feels really fast.
The mountains surround Golden. To the east are the Canadian Rockies and to the West is the Purcell range. Just after the Purcell range comes the Selkirk range and this is our destination. The mountains rise quite sharply but we don’t really bother to gain altitude until we are fairly close. Then, in breathtaking fashion we rise up, following a gully and pop over a pass. The snow is only feet below us. As we level off, we see the trees drop downward to a valley perhaps 1000 feet below us and then just as quickly rise up as we approach the next mountain pass. We are not really above the mountains at all. They rise on either side. We are flying among them – between them – almost within them. The Purcell range is fairly tame. We cross the great valley that separates the Purcell Mountains from the Selkirk range and the peaks get really sharp. We see hanging glaciers above us. I fell like I could reach out the window (was it open) and touch the sharp rock face as we fly by. The peaks are several hundred feet higher. We are that close.
We don’t approach the hut from above. We approach from below. The slope is very close now and we seem to be brushing the tree tops as we rise upward. Then suddenly, we come about and there is the bright green roof of the hut just below us. We come down oh so gently and I thank the mountain gods that we did not have to fly in fog or a storm. If the weather is too bad the pilots do not fly and we made sure to give ourselves an extra day before catching our flight back to the US just in case. The definition of “too bad” however is not up to me and I gather that Don can get us into places in all kinds of weather. Basically if he can see anything and the winds are short of gale force, he can get us there. Luckily it was a beautiful day and we got to see everything.
The rotors did not stop. We got out of the helicopter like soldiers in the battle field, running to our safety zone. I saw several bodies prone over piles of gear and from past trips recognized that they were protecting the gear from being blown by the rotor wash as well as protecting the fragile helicopter rotor. This was the outgoing group. From our safety zone by the door of the hut we watched as our gear was expertly piled once the rotors had slowed somewhat. The out going group ran one by one to the helicopter, heads down and torsos bent forward, scrambling as we had done. The rotors kicked up the snow and, as if in a blizzard, we had to turn our heads to keep from being blasted.
We watched as the helicopter first rose, then circled just above the hut, and then soared down the hill – its roar fading. We looked at the glistening peaks around us. Ours now. A smiling face beaconed us and we turned from those white flanks and walked down the snow steps into the welcoming glow of Battle Abby.
(I’ve attached a short video of our take off from the hut after our trip was concluded. Simply click on the link below. You can see a fellow sprawled over the gear of the incoming group and the snow blowing everywhere. As we come around, you can get a good view of Battle Abby perched upon the side of the mountain.)