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| | |-+  Mar 23, 2014, Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades
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Author Topic: Mar 23, 2014, Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades  (Read 4229 times)

Posts: 707

Mar 23, 2014, Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades
« on: 03/25/14, 05:53 PM »

Heli-skiing has been on my bucket list since I moved to the Pacific Northwest almost 8 years ago. In college, I was lucky enough to score a single day of cat-skiing in with my family out of Sun Peaks, BC. It was an eye-opening experience which initiated my interest in backcountry snowboarding. A few years later, the annual Mt. Baker Splitfest convinced me that splitboarding was worth the time, money and effort. I put together a split and began working on making turns all year. Now, three years out of school and two full-time jobs later, I've finally experienced the magic of heli-served snowboarding - and on a perfect March day, nonetheless!

Our adventure began on Saturday, when we set-out from Seattle for Mazama with a stopover at Stevens Pass to put in what we assumed would be a handful of soft groomer laps in the spring sunshine before hitting the road for another 3 hours to our final destination: a cabin down the street from North Cascade Heli's barn. One lap through the trees on the western boundary of the resort changed those plans as we found faceshot-dry, knee-deep powder in the trees with a soft bottom and cloudless skies overhead. Our handful of groomer laps turned into a handful of laps outside the ropes in the usual locations. By any account, the day would've been top 10 on the season, except all we could think about was how good the next day was going to be.

Practice makes perfect. Admiring my turns in the Stevens sidecountry:

We rolled-in to Mazama just in time for our 7pm dinner reservation at the Freestone Inn. Our waiter didn't seem too pleased with our apparel, but it was either eat in ski pants and base layers or be late, and we were hungry. Some might question why you'd pick such a fancy and expensive location for a meal when a day of heli-skiing alone sets you back a grand. To us, it seemed important to enjoy what could possibly be your last meal. While NCH has an excellent safety record (no heli incidents and only a few partial burials), when you're flying in a twin-rotored bird full of extremely flammable jet fuel to landing zones with little margin for error and riding big, exposed lines in avalanche terrain, the potential for something to go wrong is definitely present and weighs heavily on your mind.

After a quiet night of sleep, I awoke at dawn to the smell of bacon frying. As we walked down to the heli-barn the sun peeked over the hills and bathed the valley in sunshine. Over several cups of drip coffee, we signed away our lives, discussed backcountry travel protocols, avalanche rescue and helicopter safety. Finally, we practiced beacon searching and recovery before hopping into the bird and taking off for the peaks of the east slopes of the North Cascades.

A (blue)bird morning at NCH:

Our first run of the day was from the saddle atop Silver Star Mountain, down its northern flank to a pickup location just above treeline. The conditions were bluebird, the views million-dollar and the snow conditions worth twice that - untouched knee-to-waist-deep blower all the way down. To be honest, we could've spent the entire morning lapping the same zone and I would've been completely happy. But the guide had better plans and so after one incredible warmup run, we headed east over Cutthroat Lake to a north-facing zone on the northern end of Cutthroat Pass they call "Stairstep".

The guide leading by example onto the lower pitches of our first run:

The drop-off point for Stairstep is barely wider than the skids on the heli. So narrow that the guide asked us to wait until she'd finished unloading the basket before sliding out of the bird. Since the cabin of the heli is slightly in front of the skids, the view out the front windows is straight down the backside of the ridge. Unnerving doesn't begin to describe it, esp. when the heli lifts off to collect another group and the wash from the rotors tries its best to knock you off the high point of the ridge. The Stairstep zone features a steep entrance from the drop-off point followed by mellow, undulating terrain which breaks-over through rocky knolls with narrow chutes between them. It's very similar to the terrain of the Alpental back bowls, just with a lot fewer tracks.

Looking back up the Stairstep zone:

Heli picking-up another group after our second lap:

After two laps in the Stairstep zone, we headed across the closed highway to the Lyall Glacier above Rainy Lake. With the warm weather and light winds, we decided to break for lunch at the top of the glacier next to Frisco Pk. and take-in the view of the North Cascades NP off the back of the ridge. The heli brought another group over while we were eating and they snagged the first tracks down the fall line and ate their lunch in the warm sunshine at the bottom. Oh well, we still made incredibly nice turns next to theirs before fanning-out to both the left and right of the fall line on a subsequent pair of laps.

North Cascades NP from atop the Lyall Glacier:

Rotor wash + snow = blizzard:

Lyall Glacier:

North Cascades or Moon? You decide:

Finally, the heli took us just one ridge south of Silver Star Mtn on our way back to a zone called "Amy's". The entrance to the zone requires dropping a large cornice into a chute next to a massive rock spire before it opens up into rolling terrain and breaks-over through a series of steep chutes and pillows to the treeline and pickup zone. After one of our group members took a hard fall and lost a ski on the last face above the pickup location, we agreed that an extra "redemption" lap was in order. I took a tumble after sending a juicy feature halfway down, but brushed it off and sent a great line at the bottom to close out the day.

Yours truly, riding- not sliding it:

Heli lifting-off from the bottom of Amy's:

Guide's-eye view on the way back to the barn:

Our guide stayed out to bag a lap with the regular heli pilot, who was skiing instead of flying Sunday, and our group plus one guy from another group who was wiped-out were flown back to the barn. We stepped-out of the bird right at 2pm, headed back to the cabin to get cleaned-up, grabbed the beers out of the fridge and hit the hot tub in the afternoon sunshine. I split ways around 4pm to head back to the city under the farce of needing to go to work in the morning and made it back home just in time to catch the start of "Cosmos" (of course, not before stopping at Scott's Dairy Freeze in North Bend just in time to place the last order of the day and scoring all the remaining fries and chicken strips with my 'shake).

The lights were off and nobody was home at the Summit as I passed through the pass at sunset with an entire generation of bugs splattered on my cracked windshield:

As Neil deGrasse Tyson waxed poetic about the origins of our solar system and, ultimately, universe, I contemplated my own existence and realized just how lucky I am and how good I have it. There are many parallel universes in which I would've traveled through time-space differently and never ended-up flying in a helicopter under cloudless blue skies on a spring powder day in the North Cascades. Maybe those paths would go somewhere better, but for now, I think the one I'm traveling along is the best Smiley

More photos:
North Cascade Heli:

Moral of story is don't ski when you can snowboard
Andrew Carey

Posts: 1418

Re: Mar 23, 2014, Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades
« Reply #1 on: 03/25/14, 07:19 PM »

Wow, trip of a lifetime!  We've skied from the col on Silver Star down to Hwy 20, but Stairstep looks fantastic!  We were most of the way up to Cutthroat Pass this September but stopped when the snow became knee deep (we were out for a fall hike!).

... want your own private skintrack? Better move to the yukon dude. (B'ham Allen, 2011).
...USA: government of the people by corporate proxies for business.

Andy Carey, Nisqually Park, 3500 feet below Paradise

Posts: 361

Re: Mar 23, 2014, Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades
« Reply #2 on: 03/25/14, 10:04 PM »

Looks like you hit it good! Very envious. Nice photos too!

Posts: 93

Re: Mar 23, 2014, Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades
« Reply #3 on: 03/26/14, 09:41 PM »

Nothing better than a road-trip that involves a stop over to ski some lines and take a heli-ski!  I'll bet you'd have loved to extend this road trip!  Great write-up.  I enjoyed the read.  Makes me want to knock it off my bucket list too!

Posts: 304

Re: Mar 23, 2014, Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades
« Reply #4 on: 03/26/14, 11:09 PM »

Nothing better than a road-trip that involves a stop over to ski some lines and take a heli-ski!  I'll bet you'd have loved to extend this road trip!  Great write-up.  I enjoyed the read.  Makes me want to knock it off my bucket list too!

That looks sick!
Jim Oker

Posts: 1552

Re: Mar 23, 2014, Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades
« Reply #5 on: 04/01/14, 03:56 PM »

Nice report, thanks. Looks like you had some good fun!

FSG, were those heli crashes with clients on board, do you know?

I've talked with some guides up in BC about heli incidents up there, and they didn't know of any with clients on board, but I did learn of one pre-season "hut preparations" trip up near Golden where the heli went down in some forest with a few guides on board (no injuries). Haven't talked with NCH folks about their fun with choppers.
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