As the yurt at 6,200 feet in Washington’s North Cascades comes into view, the A-Star B-3 helicopter – the only craft to land on the summit of Mount Everest – banks into a turn and lightly touches down. We’re only on the ground for a second to unload gear before it takes off again and drops us off on a peak 1,200 feet above our accommodations for the next four days. Welcome to North Cascades Heli and the new trend of heli-assisted backcountry touring.
North Cascade Heli, which operates in a 300,000-acre permit area in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, is pioneering a new way of earning your turns by combining heli-skiing with hiking. While its bread and butter is still traditional heli-ski operations, which it’s been doing since the early ‘80s, it’s branching into new territory by letting its chopper help backcountry skiers access the goods.
A growing portion of its business is dedicated to heli-assisted touring, where it flies guided groups into some of the country’s best mountains and lets them skin all day before getting flown back out. The drop costs $375 per person, and for an additional $85 per person groups can also get a “heli-bump” to the top of a nearby peak, letting them access even more remote basins. The company also offers this fringe benefit on its guided yurts trips ($900), including a peak drop-off as part of the program. Instead of friends with benefits, consider it touring with benefits.
“It’s definitely a growing part of the business,” says co-owner Paul Butler, adding that traditional heli-skiing companies like Points North and CMH are also venturing into these new heli-touring waters. “There’s a slow realization by the touring community that it’s a great way to access terrain that’s otherwise unreachable, with the added benefit of an occasional bump. Plus, it lets us take better advantage of our helicopter time.”
There’s no need to convince us of the system’s merits. Skiing off the peak’s backside and flanked by the majestic crags of the North Cascades, we rip fresh powder down a run called Duck Soup before skinning back up to gain the ridge again. From there, legs fresh from our heli-assist, we lay tracks all the way back to the yurt for four more days of pristine touring before the bird, between drop-offs for other traditional and heli-touring trips, comes back to take us home.
--Info: (800) 494-4354; www.heli-ski.com.