Located on the east slope of the North Cascades in Washington state, there's a zone that has been nicknamed the Alps of America. This rugged range of the Cascades is filled with huge bowls and jaw-dropping granite spires. It's no wonder North Cascade Heli Ski set up their base of operations at the base of these mountains in the the Methow Valley in Mazama.
The Methow Valley is filled with locals who are inspired by the many other outdoor opportunities the Cascades and this valley offers. This type of lifestyle is what attracted North Cascade Heli owners Ken Brooks and Paul Butler to this area. Both Ken and Paul have been guiding in the North Cascades since the early '90s and during that time, Ken, Paul and their group of highly professional certified guides have guided thousands of skiers, snowboarders and enthusiasts through this impressive landscape.
The North Cascade Heli Ski (NCHS) terrain has over 125 named runs scattered over its 300,000 acres. This zone is set in the perfect location for quality snowfall —and lots of it, according to Paul Butler. "We're on the east side of the Cascades, and we get a lot drier snow than in other parts of the state. A lot of moisture sheds on the west side but we still get bountiful of accumulations, and it's much drier."
Last January, a small group of friends and I had the opportunity to experience heli skiing with NCHS, and our timing could not have been more spot on. We made the four-hour drive from the Spokane area during the tail end of a storm and right before a high-pressure system was projected to soon cover the Northwest.
Our first morning we went through the necessary snow and heli safety briefings at the Heli Barn and by 9:30 am, with snow falling, we were in the Eurocopter AStar B3 headed for the Cutthroat Zone, an area that is perfect for these type of storm days.
For me, there's nothing better than storm skiing in the trees. One, the light and the visibility is usually quite good in the trees, and two, it seems the trees usually block the wind, preventing any wind effect on the snow. This usually translates into deep, bottomless turns. This particular zone is one of several NCHS go-to areas during snowstorms when lighting and visibility can be somewhat limited.
Paul led our group through some old-growth trees, which proved to be the perfect choice. By late afternoon, the snowfall was lightening up, and you could feel the temps dropping as the high pressure was settling in. An incredible first day was had, and we were all very optimistic for Day 2.
Coeur'd Alene's John Richards recalls that second day this way: "We woke to a couple of inches of new snow and and the stars were out before the sun came up. Our first run, they brought us out to Silver Star to ski. The sun was shining ... Just a beautiful blue sky. The two inches we got in town, was more like eight inches up here, and it was amazing blower snow. You couldn't go wrong in it."
To see the look on Tommy Frey's face after his run down 3,500 vertical feet of endless untracked powder was priceless.
One of the many nice features with NCHS terrain is that there's so many bowls and drainages offering a wide selection of routes for riders of different levels and varying weather conditions. "We're fortunate enough to have some of our best terrain only five minutes away from the heli base," Butler says. "We can easily trip out farther, changing zones, finding good snow or better snow is easy."
Whether you're an intermediate powder skier or skilled pro like Jeff Yates from Coeur d' Alene, there's something for everyone.
"I loved the steep sections tucked up along the granite faces but more than anything I loved all the features we could play on, popping airs, riding the steeps and just plain out blowing through many of the wide-open bowls. North Cascade was truly exceptional. It was one of the best days ever. It gave us everything. It was just unbelievable."
NCHS has a wide variety of packages available from one-day packages on up and, if you wish, they can include lodging and dining at the Freestone Inn. After a big day of crushing miles of powder it's pretty relaxing to recharge and reminisce over the day's adventure at the Freestone with its Old World character.
"The architecture is beautiful. It's freestanding logs, a huge rock fireplace, great little bar, and wonderful food and it's only a 100-yard walk to the heli barn. It's all right here. Everything you want," Frey says.
The Freestone Inn also offers cozy two-bedroom cabins that are situated between the lodge and the heli barn.
If you're more of a human-powered adventurer and you want a true backcountry experience, NCHS has a yurt set up in the backcountry where they'll fly you and your gear to.
For first-time heli skier Dan Rihm from Utah, he was just as impressed with flying in the heli as skiing: "My first heli experience was one of the best couple of days of skiing I've ever had. I've been smiles all week. Even flying around in the helicopter, it's just as exciting as the skiing. We were just like buzzing the tower on the ridge lines all week."
If you have had heli skiing on your bucket list, get out there and make it happen. Life is short, treat yourself and enjoy it. Trust me you won't regret it! ♦