If you’ve ever wondered how the CMH guides agree on what is safe enough to ski, or noticed that piece of paper (just right of the guide's elbow in this photo), covered with red, green and yellow words and taped to the inside of the helicopter in front of the guide seat in every Alpine heliski helicopter, you need to know about the CMH Run List.
For 28 years, the little piece of paper has been as much a part of the CMH heliskiing experience as good food and deep powder. To get an insider’s perspective on the CMH Run List, I caught up with Thierry Cardon, a French ex-pat who is working on his fourth decade of guiding for CMH.
TD: What exactly is the CMH Run List?
TC: It is the printed, color-coded outcome of the terrain hazard evaluation done at every morning guide's meeting.
TD: When did CMH start using a Run List?
TC: In 1982, in the immediate aftermath of the "69" avalanche in the Bugaboos.
TD: What does each color indicate?
TC: In theory:
- Green: No particular concern other than specific terrain features .
- Red: Enough uncertainty to warrant closure of the run or specific line and terrain feature for the day. Can only be re-opened with thorough discussion, significant snow stability change and/or additional observations. (In other words, stability must improve dramatically for a Red run to be changed to Green.)
- Yellow: Enough uncertainty to warrant further information such as natural avalanche activity removing the hazard or unknown new snow amount or wind effect which can be way less than anticipated. A Yellow run can be changed to Green in the field by unanimous consensus of the guide team and documented. Yellow coding is NOT used with persistent weak layers and buried facets or mid-pack surface hoar conditions (Avalanche factors that are best assessed through long-term trends rather than last minute decision-making or observations in the field). Last winter (a season with unusually poor snow stability in the Columbia Mountains) taught us that reloaded avalanche bed surfaces should be given the same cautious treatment.
TD: How did guides make decisions differently before the Run List?
TC: There was only a general, cursory discussion on the snow stability but no terrain discussion or specific hazard evaluation. This was up to each guide's evaluation and that, of course, varied greatly due to experience, personality and operational pressure.
TD: How does the Run List help the guides?
TC: It prompts systematic, focused discussion at the guide meeting (accompanied by photos of every run in the Snowbase database) and the printed copy sits in front of the guide on the helicopter instrument panel. It is a binding product of the collective hazard evaluation process. Each guide has a power of veto to make a run Red if he feels that it is warranted. (In other words, every guide has the power close runs they are not comfortable with at any time.)
TD: How quickly does the Run List change?
TC: Typically the Run List is established every day at the morning guide’s meeting but it can be re-evaluated and changed if conditions change rapidly or are way different from what they were assessed at the morning meeting. To change runs from Yellow to Green, a guide's meeting in the field is required. However, to change from Green to Red, the power of veto exercised by one guide in the field is enough.
The CMH Run List is just one element of the standard-setting CMH safety program. Besides area-specific systems, CMH guide teams share observations between areas in a daily conference call; and snow professionals from ski resorts, other guide services, and road maintenance crews publish daily observations that are studied by ski guides across the region and used by avalanche forecasting services for public bulletins. This cooperative information network is a big reason for the increased popularity and safety of helicopter, snowcat, lift, and touring access to the thrilling world of backcountry skiing and snowboarding.