As both a helicopter pilot and guide, Christian Cabanilla holds a unique place in the snowboarding industry. The 32-year-old is based out of Valdez, Alaska, chases snow from the Arctic to Antarctica, and fights wildfires as a pilot. Due to his crossover talents honed while guiding for 10 years and flying for three, Cabanilla is known for his ability to scout big, film-worthy lines from the air. We caught up with him talk about his life on the go.
How'd you get into guiding and flying?
I saw that you could either pay a bunch of money to go skiing, or get paid to go skiing [as a guide]. So I just camped out in Valdez and helped out any way I could to learn the ropes of heli-guiding. I was looking for some way that I could support my snowboarding addiction, and one of the pilots at H2O, Wes Conrad, said, "Here's what you have to do if you want to become a helicopter pilot." So I started going to flight-training school in Seattle seasonally so I could still snowboard in Alaska and South America.
Which companies have you worked for?
I started tail guiding with H2O Guides, then I worked with Valdez Heli Camps, then Points North Heli-Adventures. Now I'm with SEABA [Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures]. I've flown for Alaska Backcountry Adventures, Valdez Heli Camps, Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, and I've done a little flying and guiding for Alaska Powder Descents in Juneau.
So are you the Alaska heli scene whore?
[Laughs] You could say that, I suppose.
How common is it for a guide to be a pilot?
I don't know of anyone else. I wish I did. I'd probably ski a lot more.
How do you split your time?
I've been splitting the season in half. I'll guide for six weeks, fly for six weeks. It would be difficult to ski one day, fly one day, ski one day, fly one day.
Which one's more stressful?
Flying. It just is. There's more things that can go wrong, more things that you worry about.
What's the key to guiding from the top down?
It's really about knowing where your line is. You have to train yourself to look at everything on the way in so you know where to go into the blind rollovers, the big bowling balls -- where to initiate your run or initiate the next couple turns, given the rock cliffs, the ice cliffs, crevasses. When I'm flying around [as a pilot], that's all I'm looking at: ski lines.
Spent time with any film crews?
Two winters ago, I got to fly around with Ueli Kestenholz, the guy who ski glided off the Matterhorn, and Seth Wescott. Over the years I've guided for Burton, Standard and some MSP stuff back in the day. But film crews, while rewarding because you get to see cool lines and people rip, they're not always the most fun to guide or fly. Just because you're not riding as much -- you're waiting for the camera to get set up.
For me, the best skiing is usually done with high-end private groups where you can fly a little farther. You tend to get better skiers, so you can tee off pretty hard.
What was this spring like in the Chugach?
It was just high pressure after high pressure. So it would snow, but then we'd get all these winds that blew away all our snow and made it extremely cold and dry. I was looking out my window in February, and it looked like the second storm of October. Then as soon as that pattern broke down in April, I think we got six feet of snow in a week and it stayed pretty good for most of April.
How do you identify yourself, as a pilot or snowboarder?
The flying is still a means to an end. It's how I support my snowboarding addiction. So I'd say I'm a snowboarder first and foremost.