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Snow Wars

by Ray Dick

Top: The Rogers Pass; Members of the avalanche control team from the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in Shilo, Man., fire their 105-mm howitzer to bring down dangerous snow build-ups in the mountains of the Rogers Pass area of British Columbia.

The big Snowcat clawed its way up Mount Fidelity near the summit of Rogers Pass in the British Columbia interior. It was manoeuvring cautiously over metres-deep snow on a winding trail leading up to a weather station where Parks Canada scientists keep an eagle eye on snow conditions. Those conditions have produced life-threatening avalanches and marooned travellers in the high-danger area on the Trans-Canada Highway between Golden and Revelstoke in this vital western railway and highway corridor to the Pacific.

It was a slow climb, too, because the Snowcat was towing on tether ropes several members of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery from Canadian Forces Base Shilo, Man., who this day are mounted on inner tubes. They are hitching a ride up the mountain. After reaching the summit, they point their hard-to-control sleds down hill and hurtle the winding mountain trail at potentially bone-breaking speeds. “It’s called tubing,” says 2nd Lieutenant Nichola Goddard, the officer in charge of the tubers behind the Snowcat and others back at their base at the Parks Canada facilities at the summit of Rogers Pass. “It’s fun,” she says, having tried and survived the sport herself. And the 12 young troopers she is in charge of enjoy it too. “It keeps them interested when snow conditions are such that they are not working round the clock.”

Working means firing their 105-millimetre howitzers, the vibrations from whose high explosive shells bring down the buildup of snow on the steep-sided Selkirk Mountains towering some 10,000 feet above this narrow valley.

This trek up Mount Fidelity, however, was anything but routine.

An ominous “clunk” is heard in the cab, and the Snowcat shudders to a stop barely a third of the way up the mountain. A quick check underneath tells a grim tale. A coupling has failed, and one of the driveshafts that powers the Snowcat dangles over the snow. What to do? No problem for the tubers, who release their rubber mounts for a fast return trip to the highway. Surveying the situation and leaning into the mountain to maintain a precarious balance are Goddard and myself. We debate the merits of walking back to the highway along the packed tracks of the Snowcat, having learned via radio that the spare Snowcat is also out of action.

Not to worry, however. It was Parks Canada employee Tom Chalmers, avalanche control section, to the rescue. After a quick trip down the mountain on skis stowed in the Snowcat, Chalmers returned with a snowmobile for the mountain rescue.

The rescue provided some added excitement to my visit during the third week of March, a time when avalanche danger turned out to be low and when the troops of the RCHA fired not a single round from their howitzers to bring down the snow from the mountain peaks. But this was a far cry from recent weeks when two separate avalanches in the area claimed 14 lives. As of April, 27 people had died in one of British Columbia’s worst avalanche winters on record.

In mid-March, snowslides closed the Trans-Canada Highway for several days at both ends of the Rogers Pass, stranding thousands of motorists and miring some large transport trucks that drove into the deep snow.

Although the fatalities and the stranded motorists were outside the Rogers Pass control zone for Parks Canada and Goddard’s troopers, it was still a hectic week along the 42-kilometre stretch of highway with its eight snowsheds that cost about $40 million each to build, and serve to carry sliding snow over their tops which cover the road. “We had lots of shooting,” says Goddard. “We fired 338 rounds in four days, at night and during the day,” she says, adding that the two gun crews under Sergeant Rob Huseby were “dusted” six times. Dusted is a term used by the gun crews when they can feel the icy pellets from the slide hitting them as their gun position is enveloped by a snow cloud accompanying the avalanche they have just brought down. “It is especially scary at night,” says one of the troopers.

But it is an avalanche control system that has worked well over the years, both for Parks Canada and the RCHA from Shilo which has been involved in the process since shortly after then-prime minister John Diefenbaker officially opened the Rogers Pass section of the Trans-Canada Highway in 1962. It is the only place in Canada that the military is involved in avalanche control, and the success is evident in the statistics.

“We have never had any members of the public killed by avalanches on the highway,” says David Skjonsberg, manager of avalanche control for Parks Canada at the Rogers Pass facility and the man who calls the shots on when to send out the military with its big guns. Back in the 1960s, however, two avalanche control employees were killed on the job. “They were clearing up after one slide when another one came down and buried them,” says Skjonsberg.

It has been a different and much more tragic story for the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose chief engineer A.B. Rogers traversed Rogers Pass in 1882 and overcame the last great obstacle facing the transcontinental railway. The first train crossed the Pass in 1885, and between then and 1911 more than 250 people died in avalanches along the railway line. The CPR bored the eight-kilometre Connaught Tunnel through the Pass in 1916 to allow safer train passage, and the 14.7-kilometre Macdonald Tunnel was added in the 1980s.

It’s a story that Skjonsberg knows well, having worked in the Pass for the last 32 years. His section was created in 1959, back when the highway was being constructed, and at that time the planners were not yet sure how they would protect the highway as it passed through the 4,000-foot elevation of the Pass that can have snowfalls of more than 30 feet annually. “They knew there would be a lot of avalanches, and they expected one or two people a year would be killed,” says Skjonsberg. The solution they came up with was a combination of snowsheds and the Canadian military. “Without the snowsheds we couldn’t keep the highway open,” says Skjonsberg.” And we couldn’t do it without the military.”

He is referring to a system that has evolved and worked well over the years. Parks Canada pays the military, in this case the RCHA from Shilo which has been involved in the avalanche control program in the Pass since its inception, about $70,000 a year from its Rogers Pass budget of about $1 million. That covers the direct costs for the military manpower, such as accommodation and food. It does not cover the cost of ammunition, which can exceed $200,000 a season when you consider that it costs $400 per shell.

In this unique but effective partnership, about 20,000 artillery shells have been expended in what the RCHA in Shilo calls Operation Snow Wars. The number fluctuates with snowfalls, and in the 1970s on average about 800 rounds of 105-mm howitzer shells per winter were fired, says Skjonsberg. That figure dropped during the 1990s to about 500 rounds a season. Most of the overall Parks Canada budget for avalanche control goes for staffing and equipment for road maintenance crews, public safety and information officers and scientific staffers who operate and maintain 10 automated stations throughout the Pass and the observatory on Mount Fidelity that monitor snow conditions and analyse the avalanche danger.

“Our job is 80 per cent scientific,” says Skjonsberg, whose teams compile weather, snow pack and avalanche occurrence inputs, monitor wind speed and direction and humidity precipitation values. Also field teams go out on skis three or four times a week to do stability tests on the snow pack. With the avalanche data analysed daily, that’s where the troopers of the RCHA enter the battle to keep the Pass safe for the public.

This week, however, it’s just another day of waiting for Goddard. She nonetheless has been busy keeping her troopers occupied and entertained with maintenance duties, training films and with recreational activities at the barracks indoor volleyball court, the mess and a room off the Snow Punchers Bar. “They worked hard last week, some times day and night,” says Goddard, “firing 338 rounds in four days.” It is a break welcomed by the young gunners and bombardiers.

Maintenance means keeping snow and ice clear of the grooves in the 18 permanent circular concrete gun rings that have been installed at pre-set locations throughout the Pass. “There are 18 rings, but we have been firing off 14,” says Goddard. “The others are there for when avalanche paths change.” When the word comes down from Parks Canada’s avalanche control that a snow slide danger exists, the gun crews hook up their guns and tow them to the desired location. A Parks Canada official accompanies the gun crew. The lieutenant controls the guns and the Parks Canada official tells them what to aim at. As the resulting avalanche thunders down the mountainside, over the snowsheds or across the closed highway, Parks Canada cleanup crews wait in the wings to quickly clean up any debris and open the highway to traffic.

The high explosive shells from the l05s do their job well, triggering an avalanche when the snow conditions are right and allowing the snow to thunder down the steep slopes without harming any travellers. “We’ve tried other military hardware over the years,” says Skjonsberg, including mortars and the smaller 75-mm howitzer. But for control, accuracy and range nothing seems to beat the 105. “It’s the Cadillac of avalanche control.”

This week, however, the Pass is peaceful, and the troopers of Goddard’s group are in a small television room off the Snow Punchers Bar watching the television series Band of Brothers, a true-to-life vision of WW II action spiced with reminiscences by veterans. But this is not just for entertainment. Each one has been assigned a part of the movie to critique and write a report on. “We’ve been having a great time so far,” says Goddard, who joined the Canadian Forces in 1998 in Nova Scotia. It is her first trip to Rogers Pass, and she is about to pack up the troop and head home to Shilo after leading the third and final rotation to the Pass this season. The first rotation in November/December brings the guns and the trucks. The third rotation brings them back to Shilo, transported on flatbed trucks.

It is also the first trip for most of the young troopers from Shilo, who fill in their time when not firing their guns or maintaining their equipment with outdoor pursuits such as skiing, snowshoeing or hiking among the scenic Selkirk Mountains. In any case, there is not much else for them to do. There is a modern motel as well as a small museum across the street from the Parks Canada offices, dormitories and maintenance buildings, but outside of that there is the Snow Punchers Bar and Master Corporal Mike Ottar’s mess facility which guarantees the troopers a steak cooked on an outdoor grill at least once a week.

And while the facilities may seem sparse for first-timers to the Pass, it seemed like a western metropolis to this journalist who had accompanied former prime minister Diefenbaker when he opened the $1 billion Trans-Canada Highway. At that time the scenery was beautiful, the highway was smoother and the only structure at the summit of the Pass was an arched monument, still standing, to commemorate the historic event. “I try to get the boys to town at least once a week to meet normal people,” says Huseby, a 19-year veteran of the RCHA who is second-in-command in this rotation from Shilo. In this case, the town is Revelstoke, a short drive to the west, and Golden, a short drive to the east. The trips to town double as supply runs for the mess and bar. “The days can get monotonous,” he says, “but when times are slow the men have the gym, the badminton and basketball courts, there is snowshoeing and skiing and some of the troopers have brought along their electronic games.”

The sergeant is one of the few in this troop who have been to the Pass before, a week of duty filling in for someone else who had to leave, and he is enjoying his first full rotation at Avalanche Control.

“It’s better than sitting around kicking the gun box,” he says, a reference to earlier days in the artillery when each gun kept its stores in a big box.

There is no mistaking the feelings of Bombardier Kevin Pierce, a gun crew leader who was serving his third rotation to Rogers Pass since 1999. “Every winter I would come here if I could,” he says. “I love the outdoors–that’s why I picked the military in the first place. The scenery is great, the shooting is great and I’m interested in mountain climbing and downhill skiing.” After six years in the Canadian Forces and a five-month tour in Bosnia as driver of a Grizzly armoured personnel carrier, Pierce is beginning to think that maybe he’s in the military for the duration. “The military is getting a lot better.”

The leader on the second gun crew, Bombardier Sebastian Perreault, is a first-timer on Avalanche Control and is equally as enthusiastic about his rotation to Rogers Pass and his future in the military. “It’s a great place, and I love it,” says the five-year veteran of the Canadian Forces who spent the same five-month tour as Bombardier Pierce in Bosnia. He was planning to stay in the military, coming from a military family in the Montreal area. He was especially impressed with being dusted during the current rotation. He had never before seen an avalanche come down.

“Dusting is something special–any closer than that and you’re in the avalanche.”

There was one thrill he had yet to try while in the Rogers Pass–tubing. He did that, being one of the five troopers whose hectic ride down Mount Fidelity was shortened considerably by a broken down Snowcat.


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