With a soft bump, the helicopter lands next to a glacier in British Columbia. You scramble out, duck to avoid the whirling blades, and gather your gear. As you watch, the helicopter thwump-thwumps a few times, lifts off, pauses, then turns to sail away. In a moment, the sound fades and you, your guide, and a small party of fellow hikers are alone in the vast silence of millions of acres of remote rocky mountains, looking out across the white-capped peaks.
The sense of isolation is real. There are no buildings in sight, no towns, no roads, no electric lines. At night, there will be no hazy light from a distant city, not even the lonely lament of a train making its way across the vast nothingness. You simply can’t get here unless you’ve come in on the chopper. The only other choice would be to bushwhack through dense forest and grizzly bear habitat for a week or more, carrying everything you need on your back.
Of course, helicopters have been flying in the backcountry for decades: doing search and rescue, transporting people and supplies, and hauling tourists around. But today, there’s a whole new raft of helicopter-assisted outdoor recreation, enabling people to access more remote, private areas, optimize their vacation time, and customize activities such as skiing, hunting, hiking, fly-fishing, climbing, golfing, and wildlife viewing.
The helicopter’s advantages—speed, convenience, accessibility, not to mention thrills and views—are obvious, but they stir up controversy. It strikes some outdoors lovers as a sacrilege, and indeed, helicopter trips aren’t appropriate in already crowded and accessible recreation areas, where they just add to the noise, congestion, and air pollution.
But like snowmobiles in the Alaskan tundra or bush planes in the African savannah, helicopters make sense in remote areas that would be otherwise inaccessible. Not to mention that they often do double duty in emergencies, with pilots and guides volunteering to help with avalanche emergencies and lost hiker alerts. On the environmental front, as activists have long known, the best way to mobilize groups to support wilderness preservation is to show people what’s at stake.
And what’s at stake is awesome, as you’ll see if you helicopter into British Columbia, where heli-skiing got its start. Canadian Mountain Holidays pioneered the idea of heli-skiing in the 1960s, combining the comforts of a traditional Swiss-style ski lodge with the vast scope of undeveloped New World terrain. Today, heli-skiing shows up on the dream trip list of practically every skier who’s got the chops to handle it. Ideal heli-skiing terrain is remote and big: New Zealand’s Southern Alps, Greenland, Alaska, and British Columbia stand out as marquis destinations, but the idea has also traveled full circle, back to the world capital of serious downhill skiing: Switzerland, where skiers from intermediate level to extreme experts can test their skills on isolated Alpine peaks.
Meantime, back in British Columbia, CMH realized that skiing only took up half the year, and started offering heli-hiking trips in the summer months. This softer option has appealing advantages: You don’t have to be a crackerjack outdoorsman. You don’t have to be in great shape. You don’t even have to have specialty backcountry gear (CMH provides it for you). Or you could choose the high challenge option and sign on for a climb with a couple of adventure junkie friends. Either way, you get to hike in some of the most spectacular, remote terrain in the world—and finish the day off with a massage, a glass of wine, a gourmet meal, and a comfortable bed.
Using helicopters makes the most sense in places where the spaces are big. So the Alaskan backcountry seems tailor-made for helicopters. In Valdez, for example, or Skagway, outfitters will whisk you away to a glacier for dog sledding, ice climbing, hiking, and just about any other mountain activity you can think of, but skiing and snowboarding are king, taking advantage of heavy snowfall, long winters, and virtually unlimited terrain. The whirlybirds chew up Alaska’s legendary big distances and turn them into manageable chunks, not to mention they land right on top of the glacier where you’ll be stepping into your boards.
Accessing remote areas is only part of the equation. Helicopter trips also make sense for those on a mission: Take golf, for example. In course-rich places like Hawaii or Scotland, golf is quite clearly a matter of too many options, too little time. Heli-golf packages, available through major resorts, tour operators, and helicopter companies, minimize travel time and let you pick which courses you’d like to play, regardless of whether they are on the other side of the country, or on a different island. It’s possible to hit a different course every day—or even customize your trip to get in 36 holes.
With hunting and fishing, choppers add flexibility, increase your range, and make it easier to get to the place where the fish are biting or the deer are grazing. With its big distances, inaccessible mountains, and rivers teeming with fish, British Columbia (again) is a prime destination for heli-assisted fly-fishing. On the other side of the world, New Zealand has a long history of heli-hunting, dating from 50 years ago when populations of non-native game species ran amok and the government gave out bounty to encourage hunting to keep the numbers in check. Those days are gone, and instead of a bounty, the only thing you’ll be getting from the government is a permit (required). But hunting red deer, chamois, and maned tahr (A type of wild goat) in New Zealand’s Southern Alps is a singular experience, combining the thrill of large game with a spectacular and remote high-mountain environment.
And what if your animal chasing adventures don’t involve hooks and bullets? If your idea of hunting involves a camera and a couple of telephoto lenses, check out heli-safaris. This new upscale spin on the traditional safari maximizes your wildlife viewing time and minimizes the time you spend bouncing over bad bumpy roads over long distances. In South Africa, for example, a customized heli-trip might take you to the famed Addo Elephant National Park one day, where you can trek on horseback in search of elephants, then move clear across the province to the lonely, rugged Wild Coast, and end your trip with a visit to a private game reserve to see lions, rhinocerosand leopards.