Although visitors flock to the Alberta Rockies throughout the summer, winter in the mountains is one of my favourite times of the year. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the very talented travel writer Liz Carlson and try out a new winter adventure – heli-snowshoeing. Here’s how it all went:
Our guide checked out the conditions of the ridge with our pilot, and upon his approval, the helicopter approached the flat, wind-swept area at just below 8,000 feet, to the north of Canmore. The chopper touched down, we hopped out with our gear, crouched down a safe distance away, and he was off again.
Once the buzz of the motor was gone, all we could hear was the cool wind sweeping the snow around our feet. Around us, 360 degree views of our iconic Alberta Rocky Mountain peaks.
Heli-Skiing? Not today, this was an experience to be enjoyed by snowshoe. Heli-snowshoeing? Yes, it exists, and it’s incredible. Heli adventures are often thought to be reserved for those with significant backcountry experience, whisking travellers to far-flung mountain destinations, often at significant cost.
But heli-snowshoeing gives adventurers a taste of the backcountry, even if they don’t have significant ski experience. Perfect for visitors, multi-generational travel and non-skiers, heli-snowshoeing has become a bucket list opportunity for many. If timing is your challenge, not to worry, a heli-snowshoe outing can be done in half a day, perfect for those with limited mountain time at their disposal.
On this particular day it was cloudy, creating a moody, monochrome feel to the place – white clouds, grey rock, black rock, white snow. It was calming and beautiful in its own way.
As the crow flies, we weren’t very far from Banff or Canmore, but the approach from the ground would be difficult, particularly in winter conditions – certainly no roads, and only advanced hiking trails circulate here. We were near backside of Mount Charles Stewart, just east of the Bow Valley and south of Lake Minnewanka.
Once we took in the views, we put on our snowshoes and started inching our way off the ridge and into the sheltered bowl below, which provided deeper snow and surer footing. Snowshoeing has taken off in popularity in recent years, allowing Albertans to venture to some of their favourites hiking areas and access beautiful winter terrain.
Visiting the wilderness by showshoe let’s you experience the traces of all the action that takes place in the area – while you may or may not see wildlife, you are certain to see plenty of zigzags of tracks in all directions, no matter where you roam. On this particular day, we saw Rocky Mountain sheep near mountain tops from the helicopter, and ptarmigan tracks on our walk.
Heli-snowshoeing is offered by White Mountain Adventures, in conjunction with Canmore’s Alpine Helicopters. According to White Mountain Adventures President Gord Stermann, they can accommodate groups of any size. “Heli-hiking and heli-snowshoeing lets anyone access beautiful mountain terrain. It’s a great option for non-skiers or those looking to do something that’s special, different and unforgettable.”
Depending on your budget, the operator also offers snowcat-accesssed snowshoeing at Fortress Mountain in Kananaskis, or lift-accessed snowshoeing at Sunshine Village as an alternative to the helicopter option.
We made our way down the mountain slope for a couple of hours, experiencing a variety of terrain and the stillness and beauty of our wild Alberta terrain. After a hot chocolate break, we made our way even further down, where our helicopter came back to whisk us back to civilization.
On the flight back, the chopper took us around iconic peaks, letting us peer down to snow-capped summits and rocky ledges, showing us vistas few have the chance to experience. As we touched down back in Canmore, I looked up at the mountains and started plotting my return.
You can also read this story on the Calgary Herald.