Anyone who has been heliskiing with CMH knows there are two seats in the helicopter that are always taken: the pilot’s and the guide’s seats. Nobody questions the pilot’s choice, but why does the guide always get the best views?
To find out what goes on up there, I asked Peter Macpherson, the assistant area manager of CMH Bugaboos. Here’s what he revealed about the coveted front seat:
Why do we ride shotgun? Primarily sitting up front is for safety. It allows you to gain a lot of information about recent avalanche activity, not only on the run you are skiing, but also the adjacent runs and even whole creek drainages. You can view the hazards on the ski line, like crevasses and cliffs, just minutes before skiing it.
Also, if there is an accident, the guide up front can get an aerial overview of the site or the injured skier’s exact location and then radio pertinent information to the guides on the ground and the pilot.
Second to safety is skiing quality. You get a relatively unobstructed view of the run from the air. You can loosely assess skiing quality by getting a look at the snow surfaces. You can determine if there is a lot of wind affected snow and sun crusts, as well as how soft it may look. Skiing all winter on the same terrain gives you a good eye for these subtle changes.
You can also determine which lines have been skied by other groups, adjust accordingly, and take your group to a fresh line or a line that best suits your group’s ability. It provides an opportunity to have an overview of the run and the all-important pick up.
While lead guiding (each day, one guide is designated lead guide) I make a great number of decisions from the front seat. Particularly, if weather and snow conditions are changing or if we're skiing in an area that we have not been to recently. Many times lead guides will decide to ski, or not to ski, a run based on what they have observed from the air.
You can’t learn everything from the air however. Decisions made from the air are generally macro terrain decisions where as on the ground they are micro terrain decisions. For example, I may choose the ski line from the air, but while on the ground I may ultimately ski around certain features on the intended ski line.
With the pilot, all experienced heliski pilots from Alpine Helicopters, we mostly talk about the logistics of the day. Things like flying conditions, landings that will work with which loads, pick ups that will work with which loads, which runs are going to be skied, fuel flights, and how the other guides and groups are doing.
Then there is also the “office water cooler” conversations that occur between people who work together a great deal: sports, music, politics, gossip - the usual.
Because you get in and out of the helicopter 8-15 times a day, you learn things about other guides. How do they wear their seatbelts? Who needs to turn the headset to max volume to hear and who is deafened by max volume? Who drinks water during the day and who does not?
Sitting up front holds a great deal of responsibility, but it is perhaps the best seat in the house.
Photo at the "water cooler" in CMH Adamants by Topher Donahue.