Yes. It is true. It is not just the Bavarian town of Leavenworth that makes the North Cascades feel like the Alps; these mountains are seriously immense and engrossing. I went to North Cascades Heli to check it out.
My first mistake involved a severe miscalculation in driving time from Bellingham to Mazama the day before my heli trip. In the summer, Washington’s Highway 20 takes you in just three short hours to the east slope of the Cascades, but winter creates a plethora of challenges when trying to cross the mountain passes. Consequently, a three hour drive transforms into seven, down towards Seattle, over Stevens Pass, up through Leavenworth and Winthrop, and then you find yourself in the small town of Mazama. It actually resembles more of heaven than a town if you are a skier; a store, a heli-skiing operation, and 300,000 acres of accessible terrain in the North Cascades. Mazama has all that you really need.
The circumstances that launched me into this drive on this day in February are quite unique. Last summer working on a blueberry farm on Highway 20 I met Anne Keller, an AMGA guide and truly inspiring woman skier. We exchanged emails during the past seven months, mostly involving me asking her about guiding. Then she sent me THE email asking if I wanted to fill a seat in the bird at the end of February.
As I am driving towards Anne house, that she has invited me to stay at for the next couple of days, I am in disbelief that I met such an incredible person. I show up late, get introduced to Anne’s dog, and head to sleep for an early morning.
I wake-up at 6:45 and Anne is already gone, but she has laid out breakfast for me and left coffee in the French press; Once again, what an amazingly cool and hospitable woman. Along with breakfast is directions to the heli-barn, so I grab a bite and head over, stopping at the store in Mazama to pick up sandwiches and one of the tasty pastries for second breakfast (for some reason skiing has convinced me that second breakfast is necessary, especially when it involves pastries). If you are ever in Mazama and can’t go heli-skiing, check out the store; it will not impress you on the same level as powder in the mountains that loom above, but the selection of products and baked goods will make you feel better.
I arrive at the barn and immediately meet the other three women that will be in the heli; Vikki Buzzard, a paramedic on the east side, Hannah Dewey, a rappeller and wildland firefighter, and Sara Knapp, a hotshot crew member. Wow, and I thought I already knew some badass ladies. Nikki, Hannah, and Sara, showed no signs of ego, but seemed overwhelmingly humble, even though they have all been involved in situations that could make an entire NFL team weep.
We went over helicopter safety, did some beacon and probe drills, watched as the bird was unveiled, and got in the chopper. If you haven’t been heli-skiing yet, you absolutely must before your time on this Earth has passed. Never, ever, have I experienced the exhilaration of being lifted into the sky in a heli and then getting to ski untouched snow amidst the grandeur of mountainous peaks. It is really unfair to other events in life; this was the giant, juicy, everlasting, Maraschino cherry on top of it all. I imagine one could eventually become numb to the smell of fuel and the sound, but for now it is a topper.
Our first run involves a drop-off on Silver Star Glacier. I was so excited and when I got out of the heli I left my seat belt dangling outside. Words from the wise, always listen intently to the heli-briefing and don’t leave your seatbelt hanging or you will forever be in debt to the pilot (Seamus I still owe you that beer!)
The day continued, the clouds rolled in slowly, and my satisfaction in life grew like the snow banks in the Northwest often do, quickly and overwhelmingly.
Thank you to Seamus our pilot, Anne for being the knowledgeable and experienced guide that she is, John Devlin for being there to chat about skiing, and Sara, Vikki, and Hannah for the inspiration.
The beacon drills.
The rotor wash.