Huddled on an unnamed ridge high over the Pasayten Wilderness, the prop-wash whips a cloud of fresh powder upward in a swirling vortex. His passengers unloaded, the pilot of the French A-Star helicopter hovers parallel for an instance, flashes a quick wave, then canters his chopper down-slope and away.
Seconds later, the helicopter is gone. The air is quiet and the scene has changed dramatically.
The silence is ethereal as the wind settles and the world opens up in a cathedral vista. All around, dozens of unnamed, snow-covered peaks -- spanning miles across the North Cascades -- lie bathed in stark sunlight. An up-slope fog conceals the valley basin, and the pristine white snow in the glacial bowl below beckons impatiently. The scene is otherworldly.
Time stands still. For an instance, each thought feels like a prayer. Skiing almost takes a second seat, as simply "being" comes to the forefront of one’s thoughts. It’s difficult to shake awake, but you’re soon reminded that deep powder skiing is the business of the day. Burning the majesty of this place into your memory cells, you step through the cornice, launching into some of the best powder skiing that the west coast has to offer.
Randy Sackett, co-owner of North Cascade Heli-Skiing (NCHS), has the privilege of replaying this scenario each winter. Sackett, a civil engineer by profession, started his alpine career as a glacier guide at the age of 18 on Mount Rainier. In time, he and a small group of his colleagues began offering guided mountaineering tours in the Swiss Alps and other international locations. Sackett eventually left the state to work as a ski patrol guide with the Wasatch Powder Brigade in Utah. While there, Sackett learned the distinct art of Helicopter-assisted skiing, and returned to Washington in 1988 to start NCHS. Today, NCHS operates from late December into March and remains the only heli-skiing operation existing in Washington State.
NCHS is based in the glorious Methow Valley, where 5,000 to 6,000-foot peaks and rugged wilderness ranges are commonplace. "Our guests come here for untracked snow – the deep powder that’s uncommon in the traditional ski areas now-a-days," says Sackett. "And with heli-skiing, you’re getting the additional bonus of flight-seeing one of the most impressive terrain in the country."
Operating with seven guides and two leased A-Star helicopters, Sackett’s operation covers 300,000 permitted acres on the Okanagan National Forest, and his guests are exposed to virgin powder runs starting at altitudes between 7,500 and 9,000 feet. A typical day of helicopter skiing with NCHS includes a minimum of five runs, averaging from 2,000 to 4,000 vertical foot drops. All skiing is done in the company of a professional guide who is mountain rescue-trained and thoroughly equipped with avalanche rescue equipment.
While heli-skiing does expose skiers to more dramatic alpine and avalanche-prone surroundings, Sackett and his guides painstakingly scout each bowl, chute or run and plans trips to avoid times and circumstances when these dangers traditionally occur. "Undeniably, avalanches and powder skiing go hand-in-hand," says Sackett. "The key is to not be there at the times when the danger is the highest."
Sackett starts each tour with a thorough briefing on backcountry skiing/snowboarding, avalanche safety and rescue techniques, the use of avalanche beacons (each client is equipped with one) and helicopter safety. After this basic training, guests are divided into groups of four (three guests and one guide) and loaded into the helicopters. "What sets us apart from other operations in Canada is our small guide-to-guest ratio," says Sackett. "Our largest groups are 16 guests (four helicopter loads), but we generally ski with only two loads (eight guests) at one location.
This philosophy is what sets NCHS apart from some of its competitors in British Columbia. "Our niche is in catering to the smaller groups, providing a more personable and flexible atmosphere," says Sackett. "Most notably, our main program is a three day package, including lodging and meals, which ends up being a lot less expensive than our competitor’s programs, which routinely last a week as a minimum."
NCHS also offers a variety of other programs, ranging from more affordable one-day helicopter ski tours, to their full three-day packages which include accommodations and meals. NCHS also offers private charter tours for private groups, an overnight ‘Yurt’ tour (which includes a flight to a remote Mongolian hut located near Harts Pass at 6,000-feet) as well as guided Nordic and custom Telemark and Radonee packages. With the variety of options and packages available, Sackett is cautiously optimistic that heli-skiing will continue to gain popularity over the coming decade, "It’s definitely among the pinnacle categories of skiing experiences," Sackett concludes, "Once you try it, it’s tough going back!"
Directions to NCHS
Highway 20, the summer route, usually closes around the second week of November. NCHS is reached by traveling to the heliport at the Freestone Inn, situated west of Mazama, Washington, 15 miles northwest of Winthrop, on State Route 20. From Seattle take I-5 North and exit for Highway 2 - Stevens Pass. Alternatively, take the I-90 east to Snoqualmie Pass, then take the exit for Highway 97 Blewett Pass. Before you reach Wenatchee, take the exit for Highway 97 North. Just before Pateros, make a left onto SR 153. Go straight on 153 (20 West) through Methow, Carlton, Twisp, to Winthrop. At the 4-way stop in downtown Winthrop, turn left. Follow Highway 20 West for approximately 15 miles past the Mazama junction and look for the Freestone Inn on the left. Trip takes 4.5 hours.
* For those interested in shortening their trip, NCHS offers a West-side helicopter pick-up option from Diablo Lake, located before the winter road closures on Highway 20. This location is only 2.5 hours from Seattle, but additional helicopter flight charges are involved. Please call NCHS for details about this option.
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Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf
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