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Tuesday March 20th, 2012  
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   Volume 82 - Issue 11   email:   $1.00   
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Quote of the Week
"If you have no training or experience, now is a good time to be very conservative."
- Shannon Werner  
Canadian Avalanche Centre   


John Kinnear photo
105 mm Howitzer's used in Rogers Pass avalanche control
Looking Back - John KinnearThe mountains have become a treacherous place to be in these days as fluctuating temperatures and multi-layered snow packs raise the spectre of avalanches. The three recent fatalities remind us all that even the best equipped adventurists can be caught by their
 Of all the avalanche areas I have read about the Rogers Pass has to be the deadliest, at least in the early days of the pass' development.  Avalanches or "the white executioner" as the Pass railway workers referred to them, were a constant hazard there and despite construction of 6.4 km. (4 miles) of massive snowsheds in 1885/86 the Selkirks and their ancient worn slopes took a terrible toll of men and equipment in the years to come. 
On January 30, 1899 an enormous avalanche swept through the old Rogers Pass train station killing the station master, his wife and two children, a night telegraph operator, a section foreman and two workmen in the nearby roundhouse. The woman was found with a rolling pin in one hand and pastry in the other, testimony to just how fast and powerful an avalanche can be.  Later that day a second slide at the summit smashed through a snowshed and killed a Italian workman inside.  These events were an ominous preview of worse disasters to come.  Some winters in Rogers Pass were relatively peaceful but not in 1910.  Hundreds of slides in late January and all through February continually blocked the tracks.
C.P.R. rotary plow crews and extra gangs of Japanese and Italian labourers were continually called out in the middle of the night to attack new slides and open up the tracks for the train traffic. 
In late February and early March the Selkirks were hammered by a storm that left two meters of snow at the Pass in nine days.  On the afternoon of March 4, 1910 a transcontinental passenger train waiting at Bear Creek station got word that a slide had come down off of Cheops Mountain opposite snowshed seventeen burying the tracks up to 20 feet deep.  A rotary plow was dispatched and cleared the bulk of it away and then the extra gang of 63 men, 32 of which were Japanese, went to work assisting the rotary with picks and shovels.  At 11:30 PM another monster slide roared down off of Avalanche Mountain (on the opposite side of the valley) over the plow train and workers, engulfing a quarter mile of track.  The second wave of white death buried the relief workers in the twenty- foot- deep trench they had just excavated.  
Watchman Joe Godfrey who had just called from his telephone shack that the first slide would be clear in a few hours discovered the second disaster and immediately ran to call it in.  
A relief train of 200 men, nurses and doctors was sent out from Revelstoke.  C.P.R. officials, afraid that a rotary plow would cut through bodies trapped in the slide called upon the nearby logging and mining camps and 600 men responded. By morning the enormity of the tragedy was apparent. The avalanche tore apart the locomotive and snow plow and tossed the plow onto the roof of the snowshed which was forty feet higher and sixty feet away from the line.
The findings of these men in the nearly 30 foot deep snow as they dug were macabre in the extreme.  Some men were found in the hard packed snow with their own picks and shovels still in their hands.
Two Japanese workmen were dug out wrapped in each other’s arms and another was found with a knife in one hand and a plug of tobacco in the other.  Two engineers, a fireman, a conductor, a road master, 3 foremen and all their crew; 58 men in all, perished that night. They were all found frozen in time in a grave they had dug for themselves.
In 1913 C.P.R. moved to eliminate the hazardous and costly Rogers Pass summit loop and its miles of snowsheds by starting the construction of the Connaught Tunnel which is five miles of double width track in solid rock.  When it opened in 1916 the Connaught reduced the summit track elevation by 540 feet and got rid of 2300 degrees of curvature.  It also thwarted the threat of avalanches in the summit area.
In 1953 the Federal Department of Public Works built snow research stations in the pass and there studies revealed 74 danger areas and an average annual snowfall of 960 centimeters (350 inches) !!   Their studies also showed that unseasonal thaws and wind erosion precipitated most of the slides and that dealing with the slides was not an insurmountable problem.  So in 1958 surveyors appeared in the Rogers Pass at the behest of the B.C. government, to design a highway route through the pass. 
They had chosen to abandon the onerous 300 mile route, still incomplete, known as the Big Bend highway which was the only connection between Golden and Revelstoke.  When it opened in 1962 the Rogers Pass Highway shortened the trip by 208 miles as well as providing some spectacularly scenic driving.  Once again a series of snow sheds were constructed, the longest of which is over 2500 feet long.
Today the Rogers has a sophisticated monitoring system and a deliberate avalanche precipitation program that makes travel through the pass relatively safe. Year round climate studies, detailed weather and snowpack observations and remote sensors high in the mountains that continually pass radio weather information to a central forecast headquarters, all contribute to "Snow Wars" in the Rogers.  Avalanche forecasters issue warnings to park wardens and gate attendants and occasionally close the highway in order to attack unstable slide areas.  And I mean attack!
Parks Canada uses 105mm Howitzer guns manned by professional soldiers of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery to
bombard the "trigger" zones high up in the avalanche paths.  It is the largest mobile avalanche control program in the world.  
Howitzers are deadly accurate and guarantee the trigger zones are hit. With 130 avalanche paths and an average of 15 meters of snow per season it is a pretty intense assault. This program, along with seven permanent avalanche sheds protects us all as we travel through this amazing pass.
Editor’s Note:
Last Thursday the Canadian Avalanche Center put out a warning for the whole Rocky Mountain area from Mackenzie to the U.S. border and from the Alberta border to Pemberton and Hope. They stated that: “there’s up to two meters of new snow in the high country that has not yet stabilized, on top of those same deeply buried weak layers we’ve been concerned about for the past months.”
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