Hiking Canada's High Country

Physician's Money Digest, November 2006, Volume 13, Issue 11

We're hiking the high country. It's astrange place with a history of furtrappers and where grizzly bears stillchew the bark off arctic willows as acure for toothaches.

"Yes, this is bear country,"says our guide, DeborahAshton, unfolding one of her many wildlife charts tomake a point. "Groups of six or more hikers canintimidate bears to back off, but once when I came upon a grizzly with a group of 11 hikers, we retreatedbecause I wasn't sure the bear could count."

Sparkling Countryside

She picks up a piece of glistening rock and asks,"When you find quartz what else might you find?"

"Wrist watches?" ventures one of her group.

She smiles and talks about fool's gold or iron pyrite,and how the first prospectors came to those PurcellMountains in British Columbia searching for gold.When they found only quartz, they were said to havebeen buggabooed (ie, fooled) and the name stuck. TheBuggaboo Mountains have attracted mountaineers formore than a century. The most prominent was the pioneeringHans Gmoser, an Austrian mountain guidewho created Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH;800-661-0252; www.cmhski.com) in 1967. WhenGmoser died in July 2006, his life was full of extraordinaryaccomplishments, including building six mountainlodges within the 10,000-foot peaks accessibleessentially by helicopter.

Since Banff, Alberta, is situated in a national park,helicopter flights are not permitted. As a result,Gmoser's cavernous Bell 212 helicopter must movehikers from a spot near Banff to his lodges in BritishColumbia. The extra effort is worth it; his guest booksare filled with superlatives. Part of the secret to his successis his guides; they are top-notch and very helpful,whether they are conducting heli-hiking in summer orheli-skiing in winter. And they really love their work;there is hardly any turnover in staff. Many of theguides have been with CMH for more than 20 years.

Getting Ready and Gearing Up

It is the little touches that make this experience somemorable. The outdoor clothing and hiking bootsprovided for guests are of high quality, the meals aredelectable, and even the snacks guests squirrel away intheir CMH backpacks include options like bars ofLindt chocolate and cans of smoked oysters.

Life far above the ground may be a bit rugged,but one can hardly complain when the weathersmiles. The sky goes Kodak blue, the air turns crisp,and the surrounding peaks seem as close as yourbackyard. Hiking with the help of CMH transportationcan be a bit indulgent. One of our group memberscupped his hand to his ear and announced: "Ican hear the MASH chopper! Get the podiatristsready for casualties."

The mountain range of the Bugaboos rises inevery direction. Some peaks are crowned by lowcumulus clouds like bald heads with wigs of whiteabsorbent cotton. Some snow-covered peaks sparklelike silver when the sun hits them; others are toppedwith blue-green glaciers, hundreds of feet thick andhundreds of years old.

It's all there for us, says Dave Cochrane, a mountainguide of 27 years with CMH and manager of itsmost successful resort, the Bugaboo Lodge. "We offeradventure, challenge, education, and fun," he asserts.

Few things could be more fun than hiking at8500 feet through mossy Alpine meadows quiltedwith wildflowers, wandering along lunar landscapecrests, hovering above glaciers, and sliding downcrystallized snow banks, which turn pink when thered algae is exposed.

Why go? "It lets you walk away from the world,"explains long-time employee Heather Moreau, whois so happy to be sending us into the Bugaboos, she'salmost bouncing. She continues, "Our mandate atCMH is to protect the environment, maintain whatGod hath created, and send you forth for what'sgood for the soul."