Landing near Hadley Peak
Ben Geier (left) and Gary Brill unload the helicopter near Hadley Peak with Mt Baker in the background.
Ben Geier (left) and Gary Brill unload the helicopter near Hadley Peak with Mt Baker in the background. (Click photos to enlarge.)
My earliest climbing mentor was Gary Brill, a friend who I met through my brother Gordy. Gary was several years older than me, and he'd received basic mountaineering instruction from The Mountaineers. Gary was also an avid skier, and his enthusiasm for skiing and mountaineering led him to try helicopter skiing with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), a company started by Hans Gmoser in the 1960s.

In the late 1970s, Gary skied with CMH in Canada several times. Those experiences led him to consider the possibility of heli-skiing in Washington's North Cascades. In 1981, Gary made arrangements with Tony Reece, a helicopter pilot based in Darrington, to fly a group of skiers to the glaciers of Mount Baker. (For more about Tony, see this 2006 story in the Northwest Mountaineering Journal.)

Gary contacted several friends who I suppose he knew through his CMH trips. In addition to Gary, there were Greg Baker, Eric Cornthwaite, Ben Geier, Olav Torstveit, and Hans (last name unknown).

Mt Baker
Approaching Mt Baker in the helicopter, Black Buttes left, Squak Glacier center, Boulder Glacier right.
  Steam rises
Steam rises from Sherman Crater as the helicopter climbs above Easton Glacier.
  Crater landing
Gary Brill watches Tony Reece approach the landing site next to Sherman Crater.
Approaching Mt Baker in the helicopter   Steam rises from Sherman Crater   Helicopter lands next to Sherman Crater

On the morning of February 28, 1981, Gary and I drove from Seattle to the small airfield at Darrington, where we met Tony. We loaded our skis onto the helicopter and flew from Darrington to Mount Baker. Though I didn't record details in my journal, I presume the other members of our party drove to a staging area closer to the mountain, probably near Baker Lake. That would have provided a pickup point just a few miles from the glaciers of Mount Baker. Tony flew a Hughes 500C, which is five-place helicopter, so it's likely that Tony transported our party in two loads, one with three passengers and the other with four.

The leftmost picture above was taken from the helicopter during our flight toward the mountain. Mount Baker's Squak Glacier is in the center of the photo. The craggy Black Buttes are on the left skyline and the pointed summit of the volcano is to the right of center. The center picture (above) shows steam rising from Sherman Crater as the helicopter ascends the southwest side of the mountain with Roman Wall visible above. The rightmost photo shows Tony's helicopter approaching the edge of Sherman Crater to unload skiers. (Click any photo to enlarge.)

Our first landing spot was on the southwest rim of Sherman Crater. As Tony flew back for the second load of skiers, I walked up Sherman Peak, where I captured the photo above of Tony returning with the second group.

Skiing Easton Glacier
Gary Brill skis Easton Glacier as Lincoln Peak rises in the distance.
  Skiing Boulder Glacier
Gary Brill skis Boulder Glacier below Sherman Peak.
  Skiing Mazama Glacier
Gary Brill (left) and Lowell Skoog ski Mazama Glacier.
Gary Brill skis Easton Glacier   Skiing Boulder Glacier   Gary and Lowell ski Mazama Glacier

During our ski day, we worked our way counter-clockwise around the mountain. Our first run was down the Easton Glacier (left photo, above). This was followed by runs on the Deming Glacier, Boulder Glacier, Park Glacier (two runs), Mazama Glacier (from below The Cockscomb), Mazama Glacier (from below Pt 7842ft), Hadley Glacier (two runs, from northeast and northwest of Hadley Peak), and a final (tenth) run down Cougar Divide to Deadhorse Creek. The final two runs were skied by Gary, Ben and me only.

After our final run, around 4pm, Tony flew back to the fuel truck (presumedly near Baker Lake) to drop off Ben with the other skiers. Gary and I few in the helicopter with Tony back to our car at Darrington. We received the bill, $207 each, for a day that was unforgettable.

It was also unrepeatable. Three years later, the terrain we skied was included in the Mount Baker Wilderness by the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act. I'm a firm supporter of Washington wilderness and I've climbed Mount Baker on foot or by ski at least a dozen times since our 1981 heli-ski outing. But it's interesting to contemplate what was—and what might have been—before Mount Baker was designated as a federal Wilderness Area.

Two years later, during the winter of 1983, Eric Sanford, owner of Liberty Bell Alpine Tours in Mazama, introduced helicopter skiing to the Methow Valley, on the east flank of the North Cascades. Sanford's operating permit was transferred a few years later to North Cascades Heli-Skiing, which continues to operate out of the Methow Valley as the only heli-skiing operator in Washington's Cascades today.

—Lowell Skoog, June 2023

Skiing Mt Logan
Ben Geier (left) and Gary Brill celebrate a day of heli-skiing on Mt Baker in February 1981.
Ben Geier (left) and Gary Brill celebrate a day of heli-skiing on Mt Baker in February 1981.
The Alpenglow Gallery