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That Time a Rogue Helicopter Pilot Bootied My Basecamp

A late-season climb in the Bugaboos turns south when, while on the wall, a heli lands, packs up our camp, and flies away without a word.

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My professor’s words wafted over me, floating by like the cumulus clouds outside the second-story window. I couldn’t have cared less. It was a beautiful day and the bluebird sky left me thinking not of Ondaatje, but of the Bugaboos. Surely Canadian Literature could wait.

I coerced my dear friend Dave (with relative ease) into neglecting his studies as well that weekend, and we rallied up the winding, dusty Bugaboo road on Friday night. I was craving the exposure of off-balance finger cracks, hand-sized railway-track splitters, and the opportunity to finally climb a 5.10 in the alpine. We settled on the über-classic McTech Arete.

We reached the trailhead and re-packed our bags one last time. They were heavily laden with the requisite climbing gear, camping equipment, food and warm clothing, but we levitated up the relentless approach trail as though on an escalator. We established camp on a barren rocky dome, otherwise known as Applebee Campground, while a waning moon illuminated the spires towering above us. Our loneliness was merely amplified by the absence of any other tents.

Climbers' tents at Bugaboo Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada
Applebee Campground with less snow and more people. (Though still quiet, for Bugs’ standards.) (Photo: Alex Eggermont/Getty Images)

A storm raged that night. The tent walls billowed and the fly flapped. Rain and sleet fell in sheets and when it stopped in the wee hours of the morning, I poked my head outside. Snow sloughed off our tent’s slick fabric and piled up around us—we were camping now, not alpine climbing, and it would be a slippery walk out when we finally emerged from our toasty sleeping bags. I slept soundly knowing there was nothing I could do about it. 

***

The morning dawned cold, silent, and blinding. The Bugaboos were blanketed in a foot of fresh snow, magically transformed under a shimmering cloak of ice. We entertained ourselves by drinking too much coffee and crimping the large-grained granite boulders around camp. It didn’t seem to matter much that we weren’t able to climb in the ice-clad Crescent Towers, but by 11 a.m. the sun was packing heat. The towers that had shone like ice-encrusted diamonds when we awoke now shed their frozen cloaks with violent crashes of pitch-long sheets of verglass. It was impressive and terrifying. We watched the show and drank more coffee. 

The Crescent Towers were completely dry within the hour, and realizing we were both bouldering in tank tops and T-shirts, we figured it was time to go alpine climbing. We ran out of camp slipping and sliding on the fresh snow and soon scrambled to the base of the route. McTech Arete was better than I could have imagined: rough, biting splitters, a beautiful vista, and not another soul around. From the belay atop the crux pitch, we watched a helicopter land in Applebee, its pulsating rotor wash cutting the silence we’d grown accustomed to. We watched quietly, and then I joked, “I hope they don’t touch our stuff. …” Laughter followed, because that would be absurd. 

The bird touched down and took off a number of times while we climbed and descended, and once we arrived back at camp I was shocked to find seven people buzzing around the campsite. A friendly Alpine Club of Canada employee informed us that the campground’s water system was being shut down for the season and the last of the outhouse’s poo barrels were flying out. We continued hiking toward our camp but stopped suddenly—first stunned, then panicked. Our tent had vanished. We sprinted through the campground, checking food lockers and bear hangs, and asking everyone we met where our things had gone. Along with our tent, food, and clothing, someone had also taken our wallets, car keys, and Dave’s iPhone. They left a note in a food locker that read, “Items left after September 25th can be collected by calling BC Parks.” How the fuck am I supposed to call Parks? I wondered. You took our phone!

We sprinted the steep kilometer down to the Kain Hut with our few remaining accoutrements in tow. Only bad news greeted us there, so on we ran, down down down the steep and punishing approach trail. Adrenaline and anger fuelled my speed, but my knees didn’t get the message. We wobbled into the parking lot a short time later, but our backpacks, tent, food, water, clothing, car keys, phones, or wallets were not there either. 

We continued running to a nearby heli-skiing lodge, CMH Bugaboo, where we met the lodge manager. He assured us that he hadn’t stolen our gear, either, and we added him to the list of good guys who didn’t take survival equipment from people in the alpine. CMH let us use their phone to repeatedly call BC Parks (they didn’t answer the phone) and eventually my wonderful parents, who were kind enough to onsight the cryptic forest service-road drive to deliver a spare car key. CMH fed us decadent meals and gave us a place to rest our sleep deprived heads. They absolutely saved our bacon and, in return, we made a small contribution to their woodpile. 

Days later, I managed to contact the parks employee by email. It’s worth mentioning that when this debacle unfolded, climbers sometimes left stashes of gear throughout the Bugaboos. The practice began innocently enough, with a few haul bags tucked out of sight as local climbers returned to the range throughout the summer, but extensive multi-season stashes, left out in the open by indiscrete climbers, began to pop up around the campground. The parks employee called our erected tent, stove, iPhone, and car keys a “stash” and fiercely defended his actions. “I didn’t see anyone around the tent,” he reasoned. “It looked abandoned to me.” I suppose he didn’t consider that anyone leaving a “stash” of gear in the alpine would need their car keys to return home, and that iPhones are expensive and most useful once within cell service. Maybe he just didn’t have enough coffee when he rolled out of bed that day. 

I eventually negotiated the successful release of our gear, which had been taken hostage and flown to Cranbrook, a three-hour drive away. The gear arrived on a Greyhound bus in Calgary shortly thereafter. No legal action was taken against the man who thought he was keeping an already overcrowded alpine-climbing zone pristine and untouched, and no dumb, young climbers were permanently harmed in the creating of this story.

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