'Hiking' -- by helicopter

Something wonderfully new has been happening out in the Canadian Rockies. It's called helihiking, and what it means is that for the first time anyone from the age of 8 to 80 can enjoy the excitement of being airlifted to distant snow-capped mountain peaks, massive glaciers, and flower-studded alpine meadows - effortlessly.

Actually, winter tours of this area are not new. Since 1964, a group called Canadian Mountain Holidays has been airlifting winter and spring skiers to isolated mountaintops to work their way down the powdery slopes. But it wasn't until a tour operator named Arthur Tauck took the skiing trip that anyone was struck by the area's summer possibilities.

''I was amazed at the lodges back there,'' he says - lodges that were closed in the summer. Mr. Tauck decided that the helicopter could make the area - in summer virtually the private domain of experienced mountain climbers - available to ordinary travelers. ''We did it kind of as a lark,'' he says.

Our trip started late last August with a grand and classic tour up through Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper, where we stayed at the ever-popular Chateau Lake Louise and Banff Springs Hotel in their awe-inspiring mountain settings. It was a very civilized beginning for the following helihiking portion of the trip.

There are three different tours into the equally isolated mountain ranges of the Cariboos, Bugaboos, and the Bobbie Burns. The Cariboos, the oldest tour, offers the longest stay at Banff and Lake Louise, as well as the least amount of helihiking; the Bobbie Burns, the newest trip, offers the most helihiking. I chose the intermediate trip into the Bugaboos.

We were divided up in groups of 10, according to interests and climbing ability - those who wished to climb were grouped with a mountaineer, those who wished a less strenuous experience, with a naturalist.

We were told to leave our regular baggage at our last stop and were issued small folding backpacks. A bus took us to the edge of an open field in nearby Spillimacheen, the helicopter staging area for the Bugaboos. As we huddled together in our groups in the center of the meadow, we heard the chopper coming in just over the tree tops. It settled down practically on top of us - a sensation we were to become accustomed to in upcoming days.

Though we were in a remote area of the Rockies, the plush new Bugaboo Lodge with its staff of 16 awaited our helicopter's arrival. We had the lodge, a private resort overlooking the Bugaboo Glacier and the Marmulata spire, to ourselves.

After a brief lunch and a short lecture on helihiking safety, we met our professional guides and were soon on our way. Within minutes of lifting off we were in a dream world of glaciers, snowfields, meadows of wildflowers, lakes, waterfalls, spires, and peaks.

The ride was all too short. A few minutes later we settled gently onto our first summit. The helicopter seemed to evaporate into space within seconds after we got off, leaving us alone in an alpine world that we would otherwise have needed days to reach on foot.

Some of the hardier souls immediately headed for the rocky peaks above. Others wandered down the slopes to mountain meadows below, where they found unspoiled beauty and breathtaking scenery. A few, maybe the wisest, remained close to where they had landed and just absorbed the most spectacular views they had ever seen.

In roughly an hour the helicopter returned for another pickup and drop. Lifts and drops went on for three days - each new location more thrilling than the last. The meadows in the summer are ablaze with colorful wildflowers; few areas of the world have such a variety and profusion. The high point of the trip took place on our last evening. Darkness had settled in over the lodge and the valleys below, but we could still see the sun brightly lighting the highest peaks. It took only one of us to suggest that we take the helicopter aloft to watch the sunset. Once above the top of the ridge, silence reigned as nature played out its final act of the day. It was an experience that will forever be etched on my mind's eye, ready for instant replay.

Practical details

Tours are in July and August, with weekly departures. The Cariboo and Bobbie Burns trips cost $1,195 a person, double occupancy, with the Bugaboos slightly less; this does not include airfare to Calgary from your home city. For more information, write Tauck Tours, PO Box 5027M, Westport, Conn. 06881.

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