Unlike the Cascade volcanoes viewable from the I-5 corridor--the peaks that stretch from SW British Columbia to Northern California--the North Cascades are older and lesser known than their more accessible brethren. The mountains are tall and jagged and geologic maps of the area resemble a chaotic Jackson Pollock canvas. Deeply carved u-shaped valleys, dredged from 1000 foot ice sheets, come to life from the ridge tops above. Often described as the American Alps, many people come during the summer months to mingle with the endless, buttressed spires, climbing the snowless crags and near-perfect rock.
A lucky few, however, know that the same terrain provides steep, deep, sustained backcountry skiing and make the trek for some of the best snow in the country. By the time moisture-rich air sweeping over the Pacific Ocean arrives over the eastern edge of the North Cascades, the skier's dream of cold smoke falls in the mountains west of Mazama, WA. Here, after nearly 15 years of hiking for my turns, I found a way in to the backcountry that was a lot easier. When my co-worker, Gordy Skoog, and I signed up for a heli-ski trip with North Cascades Heli-Skiing (NCHS), I never imagined that I'd be dropping into the driest, air-choking powder of my life.
Despite a foot of 12 degree powder that fell overnight, the snow stability was stellar the day we flew. The 3500 foot ski from the top of Silver Star glacier is one of NCHS's hidden treasures and entranced us with a seemingly endless run. Glacial claw marks of Silver Star's crevasses and bergshrunds require navigation during the summer but go dormant during the winter, filled-in by the 400-700 inches of annual snowfall in the North Cascades. On our first of three drops on top of the glacier, we stared onto the upper steeps like an anemic over a side of beef, and took the plunge into two feet of wafting crystals. A mix of wide open powder fields, 30 foot wide chutes, and tight trees on the lower slopes should have landed this glacier higher on the podium- It was pure gold.
NCHS guarantees 12,000 feet of vertical skiing per day, and can have multiple groups skiing on the same day with their one helicopter. Hence, each load/ unload was snappy and methodical. The faint thwoomp, thwoomp, thwoomp of the chopper blades gave way to blowing snow and concise instructions by guide and co-owner Paul Butler. "OK, get down into the semi-circle around the packs and get ready for the blast," he warned. Clinging to the ridge crests during the unload and huddled together for the load back up, the gale force winds of the rotors would snow blast our jackets and take our breath away. Any exposed skin was left flash frozen before the blow-back calmed. Once the chopper lifted, the squall of snow calmed to beautiful vistas in all directions, once again leaving us to catch our breath.
Paul had been in the mountain/ ski guiding business for 18 years before buying into NCHS. "I enjoy facilitating guests and friends in hitting untracked powder--all in an amazing mountain environment," he said. His calm demeanor put our group at ease before dropping into our second run, a 40 degree cirque clogged with 2 feet of powder. Skiing 3-4 days per week and mountain guiding these same peaks during the summer months, Paul seems to know every slope and feature. He would ski first, on our outing, cutting the convex slopes below us and giving instructions on where to ski and how to approach our lines. Paul never missed a beat as we reveled in snow-choked, untracked lines every run.
Located towards the end of Hwy 20 that closes during the winter months, NCHS's intimate, small scale operation fits well in the town of Mazama, WA. The big mountain terrain, incredible snow, and half day's drive from big metro areas such as Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver keep clients returning year after year. Paul and fellow co-owner Ken Brooks revel in turning people on to the world of the steep and deep country of the North Cascades. This is their canvas, and everyday they take great joy in painting new lines.
Shamus O'Daimhin was our guide in the air for the day. NCHS's pilot and fellow skier, Shamus used to fly choppers in Vietnam as a young man. He now flies the A-Star B2 helicopter with precision and grace. "Flying the chopper through blinding snow and high winds and girdled by jagged peaks is easy compared to a cloud of whizzing bullets in ‘Nam," he told us. After the first 30 seconds of flying, my trepidation of the jostle and bounce of the helicopter faded as Shamus masterfully circled skyward like a giant turkey vulture riding a supercharged thermal. Swooping changes of direction, the jagged cliffs just tens of feet outside the windows, made for incredible views, elbow-grabbing backseat driving and a few uncontrollable "wahooos!" The skiing is what we came for, but the rides to the top alone were worth the price of admission.
NCHS always flies with a 4:1 guest to guide ratio. Jake, the fifteen year old son of the other guest, Jim, seemed in a euphoric daze most of the day. Growing up in Seattle, he's skied his fair share of "Cascade concrete," the wet, heavy snow that can plague Pacific Northwest ski areas. On our second run after 20 continuous face-shots, he asked, "These are the Cascades?" I smiled and wondered why I had waited so long to discover this hidden Central Washington powdered treasure. Flying just outside of North Cascade National Park, landing on knife-edge ridges and dropping into big lines was the perfect introduction.
We logged 17,000 feet of skiing that day. Dry, choker snow and blue skies made it hard to load up on the final flight back to NCHS's quaint staging barn in Mazama. Everyone was tired but we knew that we were leaving one of the best ski days of our lives. In the words of Gordy, "It was as close to perfect as it gets. But then again, nothing in life is perfect."
North Cascades Heli-Skiing
The heli-skiing season in Mazama runs from December 27 to March 15, and prices run from $700 in early season to $900 regular for the 1-day program, $2400 for a 3-day trip.
NCHS contact: http://www.heli-ski.com/. Phone: 1.800.494.HELI