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Running the Bugaboos–by helicopter

Incredible backcountry running accessed by helicopter

By Joel Vosburg

 

There was no trail in sight, only a slight indent in rock formed by grazing goats and other animals. As a single-line group we ran at a manageable pace while our guide Emily led the way and James followed us at the rear. We ran whenever we could and power hiked when the terrain was too steep or uneven. Like a group of adventurers in The Lord of The Rings, we covered ground quickly high up on the ridge line. It was an unparalleled running experience, made possible by the helicopter access to the backcountry offered by CMH Bugaboo Lodge.

Since June 1978, Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) has been shuttling eager hikers and outdoor adventurers into the alpine by helicopter. On these trips, hikers have been greeted by full days of high alpine adventure without the usual difficulties associated with accessing the high alpine. In 2020, CMH will be launching a new Heli Assisted Alpine Trail Running program to the famed Bugaboo area.

As a runner I have always been more focused on the shorter, flatter distances. My experience on the trails is limited and my expertise on runs over 14 kilometres is minimal. The challenge of running 15-plus kilometres per day at above 2,500 m elevation on rugged terrain scared me, to be honest. I was excited for this opportunity–heck, who wouldn’t be? But I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be like a training camp? Would I suffer at the back, what should I pack? These were all questions running through my head leading up to what would eventually become my all-time favourite running experience.

photo by: Life Outside Studio

Our group of 10 (eight runners and two guides) crouched in a circle, our running packs (Arc’teryx Norvan 14 – Hydration Vests) were piled to the side. We sat on the valley floor in dead silence as excitement grew. Seemingly out of nowhere a low engine-based hum came from around the forest ridge. Our Bell 212 helicopter appeared. With a swooping, banked turn it landed just metres away from our crouched circle. With the twin rotor blades spinning fast above our heads we loaded into the helicopter, one by one. The door behind slid closed with a mechanical thump and our heli took off. From the valley floor, we quickly rose above the tall forest trees and flew between mountains. There were over 946 square kilometres of perfect untouched running terrain to choose from below. Our heli slowly descended until the skids touched the mountain rock, the door slid open and we all piled out and crouched again, only a few metres away from the skids. The blades spun above, creating a wind wash on our bodies and the heli rose again, only to disappear with a sharp bank around a rocky ridge. Ten of us were high above the treeline, having so far put out no physical effort at all. We are all ready to run.

Our heli had dropped us off on Grizzly Ridge, a 20-kilometre-long rock feature that was in places only 30 metres wide. Standing high in the alpine, in the heart of the Bugaboo mountain range, our group looked towards the iconic Bugaboo Spire that sits off in the distance. About 2,000 metres directly below us was the emerald green Vowell Valley, with a bright blue glacier-fed river flowing through. With 20-plus kilometres of trail-less ridge winding towards Bugaboo Spire, this very well could be one of the most spectacular running ridges in Western Canada.

photo by: Life Outside Studio

The run was led by our amazing guides and program creators, Emily Compton, a certified Hiking Guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and accomplished trail runner, and James Madden, a mountain guide with the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations. They gave a brief description of what the day’s run would entail, but emphasized that the possibilities, as we ran, were endless. Distance, route, terrain and final destination were all up to us; no matter where we were, the heli was just a radio call away. Our guides were equipped with all of the relevant and necessary rescue, first aid and animal repellents in case of emergencies. As for us runners, we all had personal hydration packs, multiple layers for constantly changing mountain weather, extra socks and food. All of the risk management was handled by our skilled guides. Our main focuses were to not roll an ankle, keep properly hydrated and fuelled and, most importantly, to take in the views and experience everything the run had to offer.

Where we started down Grizzly Ridge, the terrain was a mixture of hard and loose rock (quartz and granite). Our guides had already let us know in the day’s briefing that if the pace was too much, we could easily split into two groups. The day was more about enjoying yourself and appreciating where you were and what you were doing than an all-out race or training camp workout.

photo by: Life Outside Studio

Our topline ridge came to a fork and there were multiple ways down towards a lush, green, grassy plateau. A steep, downhill switchback jog over uneven ground at a bounding run on mud and shale rock was one option. Our group unanimously opted for the second option. Emily quickly stepped up to show all of us the technique of downhill mountain running. With a stance similar to the upper body position of downhill skiing (arms out, weight over feet) we bounded downwards, doing S turns the whole way. Our descent sounded like being out on a waist-deep powder-snow day. “Wooo” sounds came involuntarily from everyone’s mouth. What only minutes ago looked super-intimidating and too steep to possibly run, we all came flying down at top speed in complete control. Thanks, Emily.

The terrain quickly changed and we ran in lush grass with mountain streams every few metres. The terrain felt more like a manicured golf course than an area where not many humans have ventured. Looking back on the mountain face behind us, we saw faint outlines of our S-line descents. At the end of this grassy plateau, the heli had dropped off a bit of extra food and some water refills. The running scenery and terrain from here was out of a fairy tale, with wildflowers of all colours and shapes surrounding the small trail. Between trees and tall plants, you could see numerous mountain lakes and snow-covered peaks. With no watch, no real timeline and a variable planned route, our group moved forward with a mixture of running and power hiking, depending on the terrain.

The final stretch of our 25-plus-kilometre adventure was now in sight. To our right was a slight downward slope towards a cobalt blue alpine lake. To our right was a steep cliff drop-off, the terrain a mixture of uneven granite rock. Just ahead was our final destination, a flat peak sitting parallel to the base of Bugaboo Spire. This spire sitting between the Vowell and Crescent Glaciers is perhaps the most spectacular feature in the whole mountain range.

The Bugaboos are often called one of the greatest alpine playgrounds in North America. First explored by mountaineers in 1910, the area became an alpine playground for legendary climbers such as Conrad Kain, who ticked many first ascents in the area. In the 1950s through the 1970s–the golden age of rock climbing–icons such as Fred Beckey and Yvon Chouinard pioneered routes on the wild rock faces. Since then, pro climbers such as Alex Honnold and Conrad Anker have made their own pilgrimages.

photo by: Life Outside Studio

Our day ended with lots of celebrating and photos. A quick call by James on the two-way radio and our air taxi was on its way. Smiling ear to ear, everyone in the group shared stories from the day, until we heard the heli’s twin rotor blades rise from the valley floor. The group crouched again, the heli descended right above our heads. Skids touched only feet away from where we sit, propeller wind wash pushing down upon us. Our packs were loaded and we all climbed in. Engine noise increased and the heli rose above the trees. With a swooping banked turn, we were headed back to the comforts of the lodge. From my window seat I could see our full running route: ridges, lush valleys, and steep descents that we had done all in one day. With the heli assist, our group was able to tackle a route that would take most hikers multiple days and a ton of gear (camping supplies, food, water) and planning. For us it was all accessible during seven-ish hours of running.

Only 15 minutes after the heli doors close shut our whole running group was back in the comfort of the CMH Bugaboo lodge where our day had begun. On the valley floor, below the glaciers and spire, our group sat on the sunny deck, still smiling and sharing stories. Now, with a cold pint of beer in our hands, what just happened earlier in the day doesn’t even feel like it could have possibly been real.

CMH’s historic headquarter located in the famed Bugaboos. photo by: Life Outside Studio

CMH’s historic headquarters is located in the famed Bugaboos. Perched at 1,490 m (4,888 ft), the 32-room log-hewn lodge at the base of Bugaboo Glacier is enshrined as the birthplace of the heli-skiing industry. With mind-blowing scenery that’s captivated mountaineers for over a century, history abounds here – and so do modern comforts such as the hot tub and sauna, which may easily feature the best recovery view in the world.

Joel Vosburg is an account manager at Canadian Running, based in Kelowna, B.C.