"You're going to do what?" the Canadian customs official asked. In disbelief she stared at my obviously newly broken nose, bandaged ankle and the cane I was using to lessen the back pain of a fractured vertebra.
"I'm going helicopter hiking in the mountains of Western Canada," I repeated. She continued to stare.
I wasn't in that broken-up condition when I made my plans two months ago, but 10 days before takeoff an ornery horse and I came to a parting of our ways--the hard way, for me.
I decided to go anyway.
Why not? The trip was advertised as something that the athletic and sedentary alike could enjoy. Tauck Tours has letters from 80-year-olds raving about their adventures.
The sport began with helicopter skiing. Wouldn't you know? That was the brainstorm of Austrian Hans Gmoser, who in 1955 found the mountains in British Columbia to be among the most beautiful he'd seen. He also realized that they were blessed with untouched, deep powder snow, perfect for skiing.
To overcome the minor obstacle that the areas were almost inaccessible, he got the idea of taking skiers to them by helicopter and building lodges for his guests to stay in. His entire operation closed down in the summers.
It remained for Arthur Tauck of Tauck Tours to think of using the same helicopters, lodges and guides in the summer to give people incredible firsthand experiences with those mountaintops, glaciers and ice-cold waterfalls.
So here I was with three cameras and a small suitcase (the lodge supplies the heavy stuff), ready to soar in the mountains while I could barely walk through customs.
From our gathering place at the airport in Calgary, our bus took us to Spillmachine, from where we'd fly to our secluded lodge. It was the first time most of us had met the big bird, a twin-turbine 412 Bell Helicopter.
Helicopters can be dangerous, fatal even, we were told. Rules regarding behavior around it are strict. The outfit had never had an accident and they planned to keep it that way. We grew respectful.
We didn't meet the helicopter face to face. We were shown how to put our belongings in a pile and kneel over it until we resembled supplicants at prayer. That position protects gear and self from the 40 m.p.h. wind and whirling debris the rotors cause as the giant metal tadpole with blades landed practically on top of us.
Then it was up and straight up. Something we got used to very soon.
Heli-hiking is not touring the mountaintops via the machine, but making a series of drops and pickups, with the mountaintop visits lasting an hour to several hours. The helicopter ride each way is usually 5 to 15 minutes.
The ride is spectacular enough. We'd see mountains coming straight at us, and only at the last possible minute we'd rise above them.
The hiking part depends on the people involved. A tour of 40 to 44 people is divided into four groups based on physical ability.
"The whole idea behind what we do is to give people enough exercise so that they feel as if they've accomplished something, but not get them overtired. It's a thin line," says Jim Johnson, guide. "Some tours have almost no walking. If the people can't walk, we don't. We enjoy the view, identify flowers or throw snowballs."
Our first drop was on the top of a 9,000-foot snowcapped mountain. It would have taken a good climber two days to get there.
To say the view was incredible is an understatement. We could see for hundreds of miles--and for hundreds of miles all we could see were more snowcapped peaks. We took dozens of pictures and threw snowballs.
Not a Trace of Human Beings
The area is immaculate; not a trace of human beings. I noticed smokers putting their burned matches, as well as cigarette butts, in their pockets out of respect.
When we stopped to think, we realized we were cold. Out of our backpacks came the rubber storm pants and down-filled parkas that had been given to us at the lodge, along with our hiking boots. Our ski caps and mittens were added. We started off downward--as is nearly all the walking.
In a short while we felt warm. Off came the parka and storm pants. More photos. It started raining. Back on came the parka and pants. In less than two minutes, without missing a beat the rain turned to large, cold, beautiful scraps of snow.
We played until the helicopter whisked us up to meet another group for lunch next to Malloy Lake. It gets its name because one of the glaciers that feed it is the Malloy Glacier.
There we sat, leaning against rocks warmed by the sun, eating sandwiches and fruit in shirt-sleeves, while less than two football fields away, glaciers left over from the last Ice Age slowly melted. They will still be melting when our children's children see them.
Another day we walked on a glacier that was more than 1,000 feet deep. As the 10-mile-wide, snow-covered chunk of ice melted, the water flowed into a waterfall that dropped 200 feet.
Such is heli-hiking in British Columbia. It is different from any place else in the world. As Gmoser says, "The mountains in Europe are beautiful. But over there would be cows grazing, over there little villages. Here, it is just nature--and us."
No Phones, No TV
Back at the lodge we were still away from civilization. The 22-room inn, only large enough for the heli-hiking group, has no phones, no TV and no video games. More a home than a hotel, meals are served family style, joined by innkeepers Leo and Lynn Grillmair and the rest of the staff. It felt so family that I always hesitated a moment before picking up my fork in case Leo were to give the blessing.
Most evenings we spent talking, sitting around the fire and playing Trivial Pursuit. One special time we went back to the mountains to watch the sunset. Saunas revived our tired bodies.
Speaking of bodies, how did mine hold out? Very well, thank you. With the aid of a ski pole (with its pointed tip), the strong arm of guide Jim Johnson and his encouragement and praise, I got along fine. By the end of the trip I was no longer using my cane.
Should you follow suit?
No. If you have a temporary disability, by all means wait until it heals and you can walk and climb normally. You'll enjoy the trip much more. For example, I remember standing and watching my group slide down glaciers on the seat of their pants. Something, in my state, I dared not do.
If, however, you have a permanent disability--one that you have learned to live with--don't let that stop you a minute.
"We've had people with all sorts of medical problems, strokes, artificial limbs and diabetes," says Johnson. "Age is not a deterrent either."
In 1903, Margaret and Harold Sackett climbed 11,620-foot Temple Mountain on their honeymoon. Two years ago Margaret, a widow now in her 90s, again reached the peaks of British Columbia, this time via heli-hiking.
Walking on a 10,000-year-old glacier, throwing snowballs on the top of a 9,000-foot high mountain or watching an avalanche while picnicking from the safety of a few hundred feet are experiences anyone can enjoy. From the youthfully fit to the not-so-sure-footed elderly, heli-hiking is for everyone.
Layered is the only way to dress. The lodge outfits each member with comfortable, lightweight hiking boots, storm pants, parka and backpack. (The clothes are given back, the backpack becomes a memento.) Take sweat shirt, sweater or flannel shirt, ski cap and gloves. One dressy outfit should be included for evenings other than those at the lodge.
You will want sunglasses, sun screen, mosquito repellent, alarm clock, Kleenex, thermos, cigarettes (lodge does not sell them), warm nightclothes, binoculars, chapped lip balm and heavy socks.
Heli-hiking tours are available from June 21 to Sept. 4 to the Cariboo, Bugaboo and Bobbie Burns mountains in British Columbia. Contact your travel agent or Tauck Tours, P.O. Box 5027, Westport, Conn. 06881, phone (800) 243-6110.
Eight-day Bobbie Burns Mountain tour with five days devoted to heli-hiking, $1,225 per person double occupancy. Eight-day Bugaboo Mountain tour with three days heli-hiking, (double) $1,145 per person. Nine-day Cariboo Mountain tour with two days heli-hiking, (double) $1,225 per person. Full single costs are Bobbie Burns $1,428, Bugaboo $1,299 and Cariboo $1,521. The days not scheduled for heli-hiking are spent touring by motor coach some of the most stunning and unspoiled mountain scenery in North America.