The Wild, Wild Northwest
Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades
Our pilot, Chuck Stratton, positioned the heli over the tiny landing zone, sandwiched between a rock wall and deep powder-covered slopes. Chuck had flown UH-60 enhanced Blackhawks in the army during the early '90s. I imagined the types of situations he must have been in were pretty sketchy, but I was sure the soldiers felt safe and secure with Chuck at the controls, so I figured I should do the same.
He attempted to set our ship down. As he zeroed in, wind from the rotors mixed with local gusts to put us in a total whiteout. We sat in purgatory for what seemed an eternity; my buddy Hans called it the white room. After a few minutes, Chuck decided to pull out, and he aborted the landing with a maneuver straight out of Apocalypse Now.
Our guide, Randy Sackett, owner of North Cascade Heli-Skiing, claims he can still find powder weeks after a storm. He didn't have to look hard today 12 inches had fallen the night before; conditions were supreme.
For my friends, Hans and Brian, this was their first trip in a helicopter, and their first day of riding, sans lifts, sans skins, to the best backcountry in Washington. We shared the heli with two other clients, Terry and Lowell, who were celebrating Lowell's 40th birthday with a gift from his wife, a full day of heli-access skiing.
That morning, after coffee, donuts and a safety meeting, we walked from the main cabin, past 20-foot high snowbanks, to the heli pad. We all climbed into the A Star as Randy loaded our skis, poles and packs into the basket. He climbed in last, seated himself next to the pilot in the front seat and shut the door.
After putting on the headset he uses to communicate with the pilot, he pulled out the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center report a faxed sheet he receives religiously like the daily newspaper. Soon the rotors kicked in and the cabin began to vibrate. The sound reminded me of the dentist's office, without the pain. Randy studied the avalanche report as we lifted off from the heli pad into overcast skies.
We arrived at the top of Silver Star Glacier, the biggest glacier east of the Cascade Divide. Chuck set us down in our first landing zone of the day. We were in paradise with gobs of powder below us, and beautiful peaks above us.
Silver Star, the alpine climax of the Methow Mountains, is a grand mountain fortress of magnificent diversity... Despite a chaotic appearance, Silver Star has a finished design on an immense scale. Fred Beckey, Cascade Alpine Guide, Volume III
The glacier sits in a huge, high basin that catches snow from Pacific storms. In the middle of the basin, building-sized rocks divide it into two bowls that spill into lower faces and the valley below.
I stepped out of the heli and immediately sank into powder up to my hip. After several attempts to clear the snow out of my bindings, I finally clicked in and put on my pack, which contained a couple of extra layers, some Snickers bars, Jolly Ranchers, an extra hat, extra pairs of goggles and glove liners, an avalanche probe, shovel, camera and a bottle of water. Even though Randy supplies lunch, and keeps snacks of chocolate, beef jerky and string cheese in the heli, I carry my staples like a security blanket.
We started out on a gentle slope in order to introduce ourselves to the terrain and make sure everybody was comfortable. Randy led the way and we descended one-by-one. I went third. The pitch was not very steep, but just enough to keep good speed as we cruised through the thigh-deep powder. Face shots were abundant and the snow was so light I felt like I was in another state. When you live in Washington, you get used a some viscosity in the Cascade powder due to the high water content. It's usually not as light as in the Rockies, but here on Silver Star, the slopes felt like silk. It was so light I choked on it; it was totally different than the west side.
Every run started with another flight up to the jagged pinnacles. We set down at several landing zones, including The Slot, Sweet Meat and Caribou, which access runs all over Silver Star glacier. In the helicopter, between runs, there was a lot of extreme smiling going on.
On our second run, we headed through a medium-sized chute called The Slot that opened up to 1000 feet of vertical on the wide-open glacier. Hans went first. He pointed it straight down, nailed a somersault at the bottom, then continued on in a cloud of powder. I counted 12 one-thousands before it settled, so I called him Pig Pen for the rest of the day. I followed, crossing his tracks, and eventually we hit the treeline and went another thousand feet past scrubby alpine larch trees that are characteristic of the high, drier eastern slopes.
After four runs on the northeast side of Silver Star, Randy wanted to check out Amy's Bowl on the backside. We loaded the helicopter and flew along the wind-sheltered northeast walls of the mountain, picking our way up and over the Wine Spires. We flew over Burgundy, Chablis and Chianti with our nose pointed due west. A wall of wind hit the ship as we crested the serrated ridgeline. Chuck steadied us and flew head-on into the wind. The peaks were so close, it seemed like you could reach out and cut your finger.
Once we were over the ridge, we flew closer to Amy's, but the wind was too rough and we couldn't land. It would have no doubt been even deeper than the bottomless turns we'd already made, but if it ain't safe, it ain't worth it.
So we went back the way we came. Once we were over the glacier again, I looked down from the heli at the terrain we'd been skiing all morning and saw skin tracks that led to a lone skier slowly making his way up. We'd done four heli runs in the time it must have taken this poor soul to climb that high. The man of the mountain turned out to be Gordy Skoog. Gordy was in the 1974 ski film Assignment K2, by Dick Barrymore, in which Wayne Wong tried to teach Jean Claude-Killy ski ballet in Zermatt. Since his days on the K2 demo team, Gordy has put in at least two decades climbing and skiing in these mountains.
"This is the best I've ever seen it," Gordy said.
Made us feel pretty good about blowing the bankroll on flying.
We finished our day with one last run down the lower faces, then the heli picked us up and brought us back to the hut for some hot cocoa. Jeremy Jones and Temple Cummings were hanging out by the fire. They had just finished filming a segment for Standard Films' TB8, Infinity. To see some great riding in the North Cascades, check it out.
That night when I went to bed, and I was still high. I laid in the dark, eyes closed, and still felt a floating sensation all over my body. I realized I never really touched the ground that day, either in the heli or in the bottomless snow.
I used to think earning your turns meant slapping some skins on the bottom of your skis and paying for sweet, backcountry lines with your uphill sweat. But now I save my shekels every day in a coffee can for a few rides to heaven each year.
Millennium Package: Made your Y2K plans yet? How does four days of exclusive, private heli access in the North Cascade mountain range sound? End the millennium with a luxury, all-inclusive package with North Cascade Heli-Skiing. For more information about North Cascade Heli-Skiing, call 800-494-HELI (509-996-3272 outside the US). Ski/lodging packages are available.
For more information about North Cascade Heli-Skiing, call 800-494-HELI (509-996-3272 outside the US). Ski/lodging packages are available.