North Cas­cade Heli serves up a truly re­mote ex­pe­ri­ence within 100 miles of Seat­tle.


SKI - - CONTENTS - By Heather Hans­man // Pho­tos by Keri Bascetta

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.

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