North Cascade Heli serves up a truly remote experience within 100 miles of Seattle.
NORTH CASCADE HELI VENTURES DEEP INTO THE REMOTE CASCADES FOR SOME OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST’S MOST EXCITING TERRAIN.
Washington’s Methow Valley splits off the edge of the Columbia River, brown and lined with out-of-season apple orchards. Driving into it from the east, through rolling fields, it can be hard to imagine that you’re going skiing. But that’s the secret, you just have to keep going. The geology flips as you head west, and tucked into the throat of the valley, at the end of a winter-closed road, is some of the Northwest’s best skiing: North Cascade Heli.
There is no faffing around at the low-key operation. Put your boots on, grab your lunch bag (including a sandwich from the legendary local Mazama Store), and stand by for your avalanche safety briefing. Once we load the bird at the heli barn—an unassuming building stacked with ski racks—we start rising immediately. We float up into the toothy spines of the North Cascades, leaving the mellow roll of the valley behind. The terrain changes fast: peaks jag upwards, steep and snow covered, streaked with couloirs. The pilot, a surly southern-born ’nam vet named Blair, who, according to co-owner Paul Butler, doesn’t like snow, alights on a micro ridge in Silver Star Basin. It barely seems wide enough for a pair of skis, much less a helicopter, and we slide out along a fin of rock and snow. The craggy terrain of the basin spills out below us. Butler raises his bushy eyebrows and asks, “Well, what do you want to ski?” like we have any idea about what we’re getting into.
He and co-owner Ken Brooks ease us into open flanks of creamy snow first, slightly wind affected but solid. As we drop below the highest ridges the terrain opens up into wide bowls, then rolls into glades of perfectly spaced larches. They pull us up on the edge of the treeline, and we move into a tighter zone full of pillowy drops, and then into feature-lined gullies. By the time we get back down to the pick-up zone, nearly 4,000 feet below, my legs are gassed from a single run. It has everything.
Heli skiing started here in 1988. In 1992 Brook and Butler, who were both mountain guides in the area, took over the operation. Their tenure is 300,000 acres. Butler says they have about 124 runs, but they use about 40. The A-Star helicopters hold six people, including the pilot, so the groups are small. There are three other groups out with us, and we all get as much skiing as we can handle.
The skiing here echoes the vibe of the remote valley. A little cowboy, still casual, deceivingly hardcore. The guides seem the same, like they’re living an unadulterated version of the ski bum
Rory Bushfield gets after it in North Cascade Heli's Silver Star area, part of the operation's 300,000 acres of permitted terrain.