“Grizzly bear fur,” Walter, one of our guides, says, pointing to a frizzy hair caught in tree bark on the trail. It’s a healthy but unsettling reminder that we’re only visitors here, though I hope the hair on the tree and scat farther down the path are all we see of this valley’s full-time residents during our outing. What trail we’re on, I’m not really sure. My trust is in Walter and the other guide, Zoe, as our small group of outdoor journalists roam around the woods near Icefall Lodge, a backcountry hut about 45 miles north of Golden, British Columbia.
A helicopter—the only way to access the lodge—dropped us off only a few hours ago after a 20-minute flight over two mountain passes. It was my first time in a helicopter, a mode of transportation I’ve never considered, especially for hiking, mostly because it’s out of my budget. I’m also conscientious of my carbon footprint, and a helicopter ride doesn’t necessarily ease my climate anxiety. But once we were in the air, I began to understand the appeal. Heli-hiking can take you places that would otherwise be treacherous and complicated to reach by foot.
From the front seat, I spotted turquoise lakes pooled in rocky crevices and boulders perched precariously in the paths of past rockslides. The pilot pointed out the lodge as we approached. Solar panels faced the sun on the two upper levels’ balconies, and a stack of chopped firewood nearly reached the ceiling around the front door. Icefall Lodge is at least a full day’s walking distance from any roads, with no obvious trail leading back to civilization.
The other hikers and I are here at the invitation of Danner, which believes this is the perfect environment for us to try out their new Mountain 600 Leaf GTX, a lightweight boot with a recraftable tread. I normally prefer light hikers over boots, but I’m glad to have the protection of Vibram outsoles and waterproofing in this variable terrain. Just a few miles in, my blister-prone feet are feeling no discomfort. Good thing, because we have many more miles to go.
Along the trail, which I discover is called Sunny Ridge, the bears have left behind a smattering of wrinkly huckleberries, which we pluck and pop into our mouths. They’re both sweet and earthy as I bite into them. We’re still in the trees, but a few hundred feet more, we’ll rise above the treeline on our way to the La Clytte Glacier. We pick our way across several streams, and cup our hands to drink straight from their glassy waters. The dirt path turns to chossy gravel and boulders, and the meadow opens up into stark alpine terrain. In the distance behind us, 10,000-foot Arras Mountain stands out with its tilted strata, its stripes of snow and rock resembling tiramisu on its side.
Arras becomes my waypoint as we approach the glacier in the other direction. We finally see La Clytte up close, a sugary bowl nestled between the sharp brown peaks. At the snowfield’s base, a milky tan pool of snowmelt spills into a trickling creek. As cold as it is, I have the urge to dive in. One of the other hikers is already peeling off her socks and sinking into the mud beside the ice. Her heavy breathing confirms that it’s not just cold, but bone numbing. I stay on land instead.
It’s my first time ever standing on a glacier, which feels foreboding given that researchers at the University of Northern British Columbia predict that most of Western Canada’s glaciers will disappear in the next 80 years. Walter, who has been guiding in this area for decades, estimates that this particular glacier has receded about 40 feet in the last year alone.
We make our way back to Icefall Lodge, our basecamp for one night. The lodge isn’t one building, but a whole compound, including three outhouses, a sauna house, a family building, the old lodge, and the new lodge. Larry Dolecki, a Canadian mountain guide who spent years leading trips in BC, the Alps, the Himalayas, and elsewhere, first scouted this scenic spot in 2005. Dolecki says he “more or less built a hut and worried about the business side afterward.” Even if it didn’t make money, at least he’d have the hut all to himself.
But the business worked itself out. Six more satellite huts have been built since the first—Snowfall, Alexandra, Lyell, Mons, Rostrum, and the newest in the collection, Kirwan—making up an extensive network of accommodations for exploring the area. Skiers come from all over the world to complete the Icefall Traverse, a guided multi-day, hut-to-hut route that books up years in advance. Now, the hiking side of the business is taking off.
I may be their ideal client. I haven’t been as active as I’ve liked to this year, occupied with work and other stressful life events, but hiking trips like this one reignite my fire for high-altitude adventure. Moving my body, sucking in the thin mountain air, and feeling tiny below the ridgelines always puts things in perspective and helps me return to myself again.
Complete solitude is one of the many draws of heli-hiking. I spend a half hour or so away from the other hikers sitting next to the river, savoring the alone time. Night falls quickly, but not before we watch the sky light up with pink and gold clouds. The next morning, we wake slowly, giving the sun time to burn off the alpine chill. We start walking around 10:30 a.m., and the goosebumps on my bare legs fade quickly as we begin our descent. We cross several bridges built by Walter, and we marvel over the delicate orange xeromphalina campanella mushrooms.
Over the next five hours, we lose 6,000 feet on our way to the Kirwan Hut. We’ll be only the second group to stay in the new cabin, built by Larry’s team earlier this summer. The ice climbers who visit to ascend the frozen waterfalls in the winter will be thankful for its stove.
After we leave, Zoe and Walter will spend the next week building a via ferrata traverse along the canyon walls above the waterfalls. They’re hoping to attract more visitors during the summer months to share the beauty of this area in all seasons. As our group is finding out, there’s plenty to appreciate once the snow melts.
I let out a gasp when we emerge from the woods and I finally look up from my feet. We are in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped canyon with 2,000-foot-tall walls dripping with waterfalls. I count one, two, three, four, five in the distance with many more appearing as we get closer. Like white ribbons unfurled over the limestone, they empty out into a brook that bisects the canyon.
We drop our packs at the hut and hike a mile or so to get closer to the waterfalls. I want to feel the mist and hear the crackle of the water bottoming out. There’s very little vegetation, only low bushes growing out of the boulders. I try not to twist an ankle navigating the loose rocks.
A half hour later, we’re at the base of the biggest rapid. This close, the cascades sound like thunder, and we have to raise our voices to hear each other. Our heads tilt back to get a good look at the full length of the falls all around us. I scramble up even closer to get a little wet and wash my face, making up for not submerging myself in the glacial melt the day before.
Hungry after a big day of hiking, and now chilled by the waterfall mist, we turn back toward Kirwan. Beyond the V-shape where the valley ends, there’s Arras Mountain again, rising to the south. It’s in the direction we will fly in the helicopter tomorrow, out of the backcountry and away from this remote oasis. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in this exact place again, but I recommit myself to hiking more often the rest of this year—even if it’s my legs and not a helicopter taking me there.