Heli-Hiking in the Bugaboo Mountains with CMH Heli
Heli-Hiking in the Bugaboo Mountains with CMH Heli | Words and Photos by Julie Boyd
This summer, I was invited by CMH Heli to attend their Content Summit at the Bugaboos Lodge in British Columbia.
The trip was an absolute dream! I spent three days heli-hiking in the Bugaboo Mountains with an incredibly talented group of photographers, and expert mountain guides. In the evenings, we shared the stories of our photography journeys, attended workshops led by travel photographers Callum Snape and Katie Goldie, and were wined and dined by the welcoming lodge staff.
CMH Heli has tons of resources on their website to help you plan your trip to the Bugaboo Mountains, but I thought I would share my experience to help inspire you to journey to this incredible destination.
Heli-Hiking in the Bugaboo Mountains: DAY 1
Getting to the Bugaboos
Since Brian and I were already staying in Canmore prior to the trip, I decided it would be easiest to meet the crew at Banff Park Lodge. Based on your trip plans, you can arrange pickup from the Calgary Airport, a few of the lodges in Banff, or you may choose to meet at the helipad.
It was a cool, cloudy morning when the van arrived from the airport carrying some of the others who would be apart of the Content Summit: Allison, Rylan, Callum, Katie, and Becky. After a quick coffee run, we boarded a bus that took us on the scenic drive to the helipad.
We picked up Karl and a few other passengers in Lake Louise. After a few quick introductions, and a little bit of casual talk, everyone sunk into their seats and napped – sleepy from the early meeting time.
I listened to music and took in the sights. Since I don’t get to see views like those in the Canadian Rockies very often, I fought against my heavy eyelids to take in the landscape on the drive. I watched in amazement as the light broke through the clouds in a few places to reveal a soft golden glow on the nearby peaks between Banff and Yoho – a sight definitely worth staying up for.
When we arrived to the helipad just outside of Radium Hot Springs, the helicopter was waiting for us. We eagerly boarded, squished together, and vied for views of the landscape as we flew up the tree-lined valley to the lodge.
Arrival at the Bugaboos Lodge
The Bugaboos Lodge is nestled on a ridge that overlooks a stunning group of peaks in the range. Houndstooth is the most striking of the peaks, as it emerges from a glacier and is shaped like a sharp tooth.
Denny, the lodge manager, greeted us and gave us a bit of a rundown for the day. Our group went upstairs and got snacks while we waited for our rooms to be ready. Over charcuterie spread, I met others from our group: Jamie, Kyle, Megan, who took an earlier flight up to the lodge since they drove to the pad. After lunch, we were able to settle into our rooms and get ready for our first hike of the trip.
CMH Helicopter Travel
Before boarding our first flight in the Bugaboo Mountains, the pilot went through safety procedures. The way passengers are picked up is pretty incredible: you leave your bags on one side of the pad to be placed in the cargo basket by the guide, then you crouch-down in a huddle with your group on the opposite side of the bags. With precision, the pilot lands between the two piles, and after a “thumbs-up” the group makes their way into the cabin. Landing is a similar experience, done in reverse.
I don’t think I ever got used to the thrill of squatting there as the helicopter approached. The landing space was small, and to sit there as such an enormous machine approached went against my natural instinct to get out of the way. Add in the deafening sound and the gargantuan gush of wind that presses you back as the heli gets lower. The novelty of that experience never wore off for me the entire trip!
Rainy Ridge-line Hike
A short ride later, we were dropped on a rocky ridge with 360-degree views of the Bugaboo Mountains. In the distance a storm approached, and after a small hike up to a peak, a soft rain began to descend on us.
One of the great things about staying with CMH is that they provide you with gear, so we were prepared for the wet weather and quickly slipped into our rain jackets and pants.
After a leisurely climb along a ridge, and tons of photo taking, we made our way down into a meadow, and were picked up and taken back to the lodge.
Workshop Day 1
At Bugaboos, it is impossible to ever feel hungry. The chef had laid out another spread of charcuterie for guests, along with some specialty drinks. I grabbed some cheese and fruit as a snack, freshened up a bit, and then headed to our first workshop in the Museum.
Today was a getting to know you session. We all introduced ourselves and discussed where we are in our careers, and what are goals are. It was inspiring to listen to the stories of others, and to see how our shared love of nature and capturing it bonds us all together as landscape photographers.
Dinner was delicious. An appetizer of clams served in a broth with bread, salad, and the main course was chicken with veggies and risotto. For dessert, there were several options laid out including pain au chocolat and flour-less chocolate cake.
We ended our day taking sunset photos at the pond. The storm had passed through, and since the sky was cloudless no interesting colors popped. After a long day, I made my way back to my room for a much needed shower, and good night’s sleep.
Heli-Hiking in the Bugaboo Mountains: DAY 2
My phone woke me up at 5:15 a.m. to shoot sunrise. I quickly threw on my gear, and made my way to the pond. One-by-one others from my group arrived and set up their tripods along the shore. The scene was cloudless, but there was a nice alpenglow on the peaks, and I tried creating an interesting composition using some of the rocks along the shore.
The Via Ferrata Hike
This would be our first full day of hiking. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, I packed up a lunch from the spread the chef laid out (sandwiches, dried fruit, and protein bars), loaded up my pack, and made my way down to the helipad for a 9:00 a.m. flight.
The helicopter took us up to a peak with stunning views of the Bugaboo Range. After getting our fill of taking photos, we hiked down through a larch-laden hillside, to a beautiful meadow with a stream running though. Here we had a snack, and put on our climbing gear for the Via Ferrata (Italian for “Iron Path”).
Denny, one of our guides for the day, gave a speech about turning around at this point if you are afraid of heights. While I don’t consider myself to have a fear of heights, I have definitely been in situations hiking before where the terrain did not feel comfortable to me, and I was afraid of slipping and falling.
I asked others what their thoughts were since I hate scrambling, and have been in a few situations on hikes where I decided to turn around, and they all thought I would be okay. So, I pushed forward, excited to take on this new adventure.
After crossing a boulder field, Denny gave a brief demo on using carabiners at the start of the Via Ferrata. The beginning of the route wasn’t too bad, initially, but there were a few steps up that hurt my knees. Denny reminded me to use the cable to pull myself up, which I completely forgot that I could do as long as someone else wasn’t locked into the section.
After going through a flat section, we rounded a sharp corner. Then it got real. The next section was completely straight up on an open rock face. I was nervous, but I controlled my breathing and took it slow. When I made it to an outcrop, a wave of relief swept over me; that had to have been the worst part.
Denny noticed I was struggling a bit and came to talk to me. He advised we were at the point of no return and that the pair of us should turn back and hike up to the top of the peak. I protested, but he said it was about to get more challenging, and we had two more hours of the climb (we were only about an hour in at this point). He reminded me that I should think about my experience today. Why put yourself through that when we can go down and have a nice day hiking? I had two reasons: I hate giving up, and going back down seemed scarier to me than up. He said that he could belay me so I would feel secure, but ultimately it was my decision. I really, really wanted to keep going, but I knew he had more experience than me on this mountain, and I should listen to expert advice, so I agreed to descend.
I felt embarrassed and defeated. I wanted to try. Was it nerves or just beyond my skill level? Denny was very kind though, and reassured me that it happens often.
The descent was a bit scary at first, but I could feel the tension in the rope from him leading me down. After the first two steps, I felt completely safe, and his words of encouragement kept me going.
We were back down before long, unhooked, and continued to cross the boulder field. In another embarrassing moment, my foot slipped, and I fell. It wasn’t too bad – just a little shocking. Denny was nervous that I’d hurt myself though, and he made me sit down and checked me for injuries. I was fine, although a few hours later my knees showed bruising, and started to hurt a bit more. He again reassured me and said that even the best guides fall in sections like this. At this point the only thing injured was my ego.
Back at the meadow, we both sat down to rest and have lunch. Our plan was to continue and hike up to the top of the ferrata around the gentle slope of the mountain, but since we had stopped to chat so much on the way down, the group made it up ahead of us. Denny arranged for a helicopter to take us up there, and soon we were all reunited.
Everyone was kind and encouraging, but I still felt incredibly embarrassed that I had to turn back. I am determined to return one day and fearlessly make it through the route.
The views from the top were a grand distraction though, as from this spot we could see several blue alpine lakes surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Bugaboo Mountains. The most striking was the aptly named Cobalt Lake, and we all sat in a wildflower field gazing at its beauty for the rest of the afternoon.
Workshop Day 2
At the lodge that evening, a few of us grabbed a beer and snacked on the ribs and potato wedges that were laid out for guests.
With full bellies, we made our way down to the seminar for the day, which was on Storytelling and lead by Callum. Gathered around the CMH artifacts from the past (wooden skis, old cameras, the cast of a bear paw print, black and white photos), we listened to him share his tips for incorporating storytelling in travel photography images. Then it was time to practice in the field, so we headed out to the pond with some of the products that YETI provided for us until it got dark.
Dinner included lentil soup, salad, and fish with bacon-wrapped asparagus and risotto. Dessert was a delicious lemon custard with raspberry, whipped cream, and mint. I hopped into bed soon after in order to rest-up for another day on the mountain.
Heli-Hiking in the Bugaboo Mountains: DAY 3
I woke up early for sunrise again, and was excited because this time there were a bit more clouds, and a nice pop of color. Katie hopped in the canoe and paddled around for some lifestyle shots.
The breakfast spread looked heavenly, but I went for a lighter options and had some fruit and yogurt – okay and maybe a small pastry too. It was hard to resist all of the delicious food!
Morning Light Hike
Our first drop of the day was up on a ridge directly across from the peaks. Our guide, Ryan, is a photographer, so he knew this would be an incredible spot to capture the morning light – and it was.
We hiked up a ridge and took tons of photos, then began a longer traverse down into a valley. The way down was a scree slope (my favorite), but once it flattened out the traverse was beautiful and took us through meadows to a lake.
Here we had lunch, before heading back up to another peak were we spent a good chunk of time taking photos and enjoying the views.
Meadows and Peaks Hike
The helicopter picked us up from this location and took us over to the other side of the Bugaboo Mountains. What a ride! It was breathtaking to cross over the range and through the granite spires. When the heli flew off and I could finally stand and see where we were, I was in awe. I felt like I had been transported to Middle Earth as I gazed up at the towering spires. We hiked through marshy meadows under the peaks, stopping often to capture the changing perspectives.
At the end of the meadow, we made our way up a glacial valley. The landscape here was purely stone and water, as glacial runoff ran through this barren route. Above we could see a massive glacier that no doubt had once covered the whole area.
Our final destination of the climb was a small lake. It was heavenly to put my feet in the water, and I decided to wade up to my knees since they were still aching from my fall the previous day. A few brave souls jumped in, which I was eager to do, but I was afraid my leggings wouldn’t dry in the cooler temps, and I didn’t want to be soaked on the helicopter ride back to the lodge. Next time I’ll have to bring a bathing suit!
The ride back to the lodge was my favorite because Megan and I finally got to sit in the jump seat and have a window view during the ride. I’m so glad that she asked if we could have it for this flight, because it turned out to be one of the most scenic!
Workshop Day 3
Back at the lodge, several of us had nachos and beer and said cheers to a fun day out on the trail. I say trail, but really there were no trails where we were hiking. The guides navigated us through each landscape, and they asked us to spread out as we were hiking because that minimizes the impact on the ecosystem and prevents trails from forming. I would have thought the opposite since I have been conditioned to stay on trails, but here it makes sense.
We had our last seminar that afternoon about working with brands. Callum and Katie shared some wonderful insights, which made me excited to return home and focus more on my photography career.
Our last dinner was my favorite: caprese salad, prime rib, bacon-wrapped asparagus, and potatoes. For dessert, the chef served a decadent chocolate cake with a piece of chocolate, and drizzled with chocolate fudge and a raspberry coulis. YUM!
With a full belly, I wandered around the lodge for a bit to explore and take photos. Between an in-house masseuse, a relaxation room, a rock climbing wall, and the pond, it is easy to see that guests could spend a full day at the lodge alone.
Even though I was tired from a long day of hiking, I couldn’t leave without taking the canoe out on the water. Megan followed me up to the pond, and I was glad to have the company and an instructor to teach me how to steer and paddle properly. After a few laps in the pond, some of the others joined us, and encouraged me to try stand-up paddle boarding as well. The last thing I wanted to do was fall in a shallow, mossy pond, so I stuck to my knees. It was a lot of fun though, and I would love to give it a go on a larger lake or in the ocean.
Our group ended the evening at a bonfire back down by the lodge. We were joined by other lodge guests, some of the guides, and a few of the house staff. It was the prefect way to spend our last night, and the highlight was hearing Callum’s hilarious story about a mishap with bear spray.
Even though I was exhausted, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see one last sunrise at the pond.
After breakfast, we had about an hour to pack our last lunch for the journey home, and say our goodbyes while we waited for the helicopter to take us back down the mountain.
It is hard to put into words how incredible this trip was. The scenery was breathtaking. The helicopter rides were thrilling. The accommodations were cozy. The CMH staff made you feel like you were a part of their family. I am so incredibly thankful to have been invited on this trip, not just for the experience but also for being able to make new friends among the talented group of individuals that were on the trip as well.
Be sure to check out their work when you have a chance:
I can’t recommend taking a summer adventure trip heli-hiking with CMH enough! The Bugaboo Mountains were just stunning! This post was not sponsored in any way, I just had such a wonderful experience that I wanted to share it with others.
If you have any questions about my trip to the Bugaboo Mountains, please feel free to reach out via email or the comments below!
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