Words And Video By Joseph Mara
In a cut-off corner of north-central Washington State, a little known heli-skiing operation has been flying under the radar for nearly thirty years. North Cascade Heli (NCH), located in the town of Mazama, operates in a 300,000 acre permit area just south of North Cascades National Park. Pioneered by Harris Sanford in the early 80’s and then named Liberty Bell Alpine Tours, the outfit is now run by owners and guides Paul Butler and Ken Brooks. Their multifaceted operation now offers several different experiences ranging from a single heli-day (seven guaranteed runs or money back) and private flight time charters, all the way to extended guided touring trips at their two-story backcountry yurt. Planning a longer trip is recommended because weather conditions in the North Cascades vary drastically from day to day. The operating season is short, only seventy days from mid-January through March. Space fills up quickly so plan months in advance if you can.
NCH offers a wide variety of terrain for all ability levels. Their longest run is 3,800 vertical feet, touring through high alpine peaks, glades, and trees. Bowls, couloirs, and slide paths are also on the menu. Snow? Yeah, they have plenty of that. The Cascades receive huge deposits of white gold every year and boast some impressive totals, including the single season world record snowfall of 1,140 inches held by Mt. Baker, situated just west of the helicopter permit area. The Cascades are the most glaciated mountains in the lower forty eight and are one of the few mountain ranges in North America with active volcanoes, including Mt. Rainier rising to over 14,000 feet. This makes the Cascades one of the most dramatic mountain ranges in the world, and there is no better way to experience them than by helicopter.
You will be in good hands at NCH with some of the most experienced guides in the business. Pilot Seamus O’Daimhin, a Vietnam Veteran who flies for logging and fire-fighting operations in the summer, has eyes in the back of his head. You will buzz low over mountain peaks and watch the bottom drop out as you cross ridges between runs. With such a large permit area and a max elevation of 9,000 feet, NCH can always find the good snow, even after a big warm up. conditions. If you get lucky, your guide just might take you to Stair Step, and Seamus will drop you off on a tiny mountain peak landing that may test your faith in him.
The typical one day trip begins in the heli-barn at 7:30 AM with a review of the day’s schedule and backcountry safety protocol, followed by weigh-ins and outfitting of all guests with the necessary safety equipment. Afterwards, a short review of proper beacon, shovel, and probe use takes place outside. Once everyone has completed the safety training, the pilot will go over the dos and don’ts of riding on board the A-Star B2 helicopter. Around 9:00 AM, up to three groups of four guests each will take turns loading the bird and flying out to their first run. Seven runs with lunch provided is a typical day, and additional runs can be purchased on the spot with time and weather permitting. Expect to arrive back at the heli-barn by mid-afternoon with a huge grin and a hankering for cold beer (BYOB). If you will be enjoying an extended stay with NCH, you will be shuttled to the Barron Yurt to begin your multi-day backcountry tour. The touring packages can often include an extra “heli-bump” or two.
NCH’s location in Mazama is why it’s one of Washington’s best-kept secrets. Mazama is relatively isolated during winter months due to the closure of the west side of the North Cascades Highway. The Washington State Department of Transportation cannot maintain the road because of the massive amounts of snowfall. Most guests come from the Seattle area and make the four and a half hour drive around. Lodging can be found in Mazama at the Freestone Inn, or The Rolling Huts if you are looking for a more rustic experience (outhouses and no sink). Nearby Winthrop is a charming old western town which is well worth a stop for lodging, hot air balloons, the oldest legal saloon in Washington State, city girls on vacation, or the rusty old cowhands and their classic cars. Make sure to check out Kelly’s restaurant at The Rolling Huts outside of town for the best Irish food around, not to mention Steve’s signature cocktails which may or may not include real absinthe (ask for the “Aviation”). For anglers, this is prime steelhead country as well. The nearby Methow River offers excellent fishing and the latter half of NCH’s operating season coincides with the start of the fishing season. The cross-country skiing is also world class possibly more popular here than alpine skiing (if you happen to know someone who is into that). This seldom seen corner of the country is more than worth a visit. Combine the skiing, the natural beauty of the North Cascades, the uniqueness of Mazama and Winthrop, and NCH’s nearly three decades of heli-operation experience and you might just leave with a new annual tradition.