Drive over the North Cascades Highway this week and you’ll encounter a welcome sight. After a grueling summer of heat waves and wildfires, last weekend’s first fall storm sprinkled the peaks with snowfall above 6,000 feet in elevation. That autumnal hint of the deep winter to come, when the mountain highway closes to cars as the snowbanks pile up, is precisely what draws dedicated skiers and snowboarders to the so-called American Alps.

Last season, the wintertime pilgrims included a film crew from Teton Gravity Research (TGR), a Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based adventure sports media company. They bunked down for three weeks in the Methow Valley in January and February during the peak of our prodigious 2020-21 winter and were blessed with stable avalanche conditions. The results landed the North Cascades a coveted spot in TGR’s 26th annual preseason ski and snowboard film, “Stoke the Fire,” which will make an early Seattle stop on its world tour with two showings on Friday, Sept. 24, at the Neptune Theatre.

“What I love about that area of the mountains is that it has a lot of variety,” said pro skier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa via video chat from his home in Bend, Oregon. “And it’s off the beaten path, which makes it somewhere even more special.”

With previous on-camera experience in the steep slopes of the North Cascades, Cattabriga-Alosa led a team of two other athletes — Aspen, Colorado-based Colter Hinchliffe and Los Angeles by way of North Idaho actor K.C. Deane — with the support of four production crew. The trip was Deane’s first sojourn to this corner of Washington, but he delivered arguably the most jaw-dropping ski line of the eight glorious minutes where the North Cascades take center stage. After a helicopter drops him on a knife-edge ridgeline, he points his skis downhill, GoPro set to record, where he carves tight turns on a spine barely wider than the length of his skis before launching into the abyss below — and sticking the landing. The first-person point of view delivers truly heart-in-your-throat action.

The whirlybird ride came courtesy of North Cascade Heli, one of the few U.S. heli skiing operations outside Alaska. “Previous to my first trip with North Cascade Heli Ski some 10 years ago, I had only heli skied in British Columbia and Alaska,” said Cattabriga-Alosa. “My reaction: Holy cow, we have heli skiing in the Lower 48 that has amazing terrain and it’s right here?”

“Right here” is a matter of perspective, of course. The launchpad in Mazama is a long five hours from Seattle in winter and comes at a steep cost. The highway itself, of course, is closed all winter long, making the prime backcountry skiing terrain a kind of “so close, yet so far” destination. “Right here is a little crux with the pass being closed in the winter,” said Cattabriga-Alosa. “That’s the beauty of it — the population base can’t get there in the winter.”

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More popular, and perhaps practical, are snowmobiles. Like many winter visitors to the Methow Valley, the TGR crew came with sleds in tow. Most days, they rode the 15 miles each way from Mazama to Washington Pass before setting out for a day of ski touring. Their meticulous approach to finding the kinds of features that yield adrenaline-rich film segments impressed Paul Butler, co-owner of North Cascade Heli.

“Those guys go way deep into the micro terrains,” Butler said. “I don’t think anyone knows the valley around the Highway 20 hairpin turn better than they do now.”

The TGR team quickly got to know the hardcore regulars who make the winter commute along Highway 20 to get their skiing fix — as well as observe some of last winter’s challenges, when closure of the U.S.-Canada border resulted in an influx of snowmobilers that led the U.S. Forest Service to close off snowmobile access for nearly a month.

“We would see people going out no matter what — whether it was stormy, wet, warm or cold, people were getting after it,” Cattabriga-Alosa said. “Everyone just leaves their sled at the trailhead. That shows the unique local scene.”

While the pandemic winter inhibited indoor filming at any local watering holes, there are familiar shots of Winthrop’s wooden boardwalk and a chance for the pros to embrace their inner child by sledding at local guide Sid Pattison’s backyard rope tow. 

For the film’s editors, who were stitching together footage from freeride skiing hot spots like British Columbia, Jackson Hole, Cooke City, Montana and Seward, Alaska, the Evergreen State held its own.

“The North Cascades was a standout segment,” said production lead Charlotte Percle. “It’s gorgeous. The skiing is amazing. There are pillows in the trees, couloirs up high and everything under the sun as a skier you would want, depending on the weather.”

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Teton Gravity Research’s “Stoke the Fire”

Showings:

  • 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at Skyline Drive-in, 182 S.E. Brewer Road, Shelton; tickets from $30 per vehicle; 360-426-4707, skylinedrive-in.com
  • 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; tickets from $18 ($8 youth tickets, early showing only); 206-682-1414, stgpresents.org
  • 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Chalet Theatre, 1721 Wells St., Enumclaw; tickets $12; 360-825-3881, chalettheatre.com
  • 7 p.m. Sept. 30 at The Triple Door, 216 Union St., Seattle; tickets $75 (includes whiskey tasting); 206-838-4333, thetripledoor.net
  • 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 at Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St., Bellingham; tickets $15 for adults, $10 for 15 and under; 360-734-6080, mountbakertheatre.com
  • 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Oct. 18 at The Barnyard Cinema, 729 Highway 20, Winthrop; tickets $15 for adults, $12 for kids; 509-996-3222, thebarnyardcinema.com
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