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 ), 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 dream. They make big swoopy turns, and pop off little ridges, hollering along with us.
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North Cascade Heli has changed a bit since its inception in the ’80s. It now operates a yurt on Harts Pass, one of the only backcountry ski huts in the state. The op also became one of the first to offer heli-assisted backcountry touring drop-offs.
The skiing feels truly untracked, and like we’re onto a secret that few people know about. We’re not, obviously. We’re only 100 miles from Seattle, as the crow flies, and the back of the flanked ridges drop into North Cascades National Park—even the government knows the mountains here are rad. In the summer, Route 20 rolls over Washington Pass, and when they plow it in the spring you can ski tour from the road, but in the winter the road’s closed, and the never-ending ridges of the North Cascades are a long walk from anywhere. The spiny peaks feel like they’re all ours.
In the afternoon, Butler takes us into a couloir we’d been eyeing from the air. We traverse around the backside of the peak and scramble through a gap into the chute, which is narrow, steep, and sustained. “What’s that called?” I ask, as we wait in the pickup zone after the run. “I don’t know, we don’t usually ski it,” he says, as we watch Blair power the bird in. “Too many other options.”
Getting There North Cascade Heli is headquartered in Mazama, Wash., about five hours from Seattle and eight hours from Portland. Due to winter road closures, access is only from the south or the east.
Sleep The heli op partners with the nearby Freestone Inn, a 120-acre ranch in Mazama with rooms, cabins, and private homes to rent.
Cost Three-day trips start at $3,450 per person, not including lodging.