Canada

B.C.

Land of the white death

SUZANNE ZWARUN February 7 1977
Canada

B.C.

Land of the white death

SUZANNE ZWARUN February 7 1977

B.C.

Land of the white death

At the summit of Mount Fidelity, towering above the windswept Trans-Canada Highway in British Columbia’s fabled Rogers Pass, Jim Bay is nearing the end of a grueling four-day work shift. In another 24 hours or so he’ll be able to take a short break from what may be one of the world’s more exacting jobs, carried out in one of Canada’s most treacherous areas. But for now it’s work as usual, as Bay and a companion trudge through the snow every few hours, round the clock, measuring the latest falls, recording the wind and temperature and gauging the snow’s density with tools as crude, sometimes, as a cookie sheet and spatula. Jim Bay’s job is to help create avalanches: big, roaring, cascading—but controlled—avalanches along the slopes of

the Selkirks, where snowslides occur with a frequency rarely seen anywhere else in the world. The data collected by Bay will be passed on to the snow research and avalanche warning station at the peak of Rogers Pass, where forecasters pore over the information, painstakingly trying to predict when a potential slide is ready to be triggered.

If and when the forecasters give the gosignal, which often comes in the middle of the night at the height of a blizzard, the Canadian army rolls into action, speeding down the Trans-Canada with a 105-millimetre howitzer in tow. The howitzer is set up at a permanent gun placement site along the highway and its shells are lobbed into a mountain four miles or so away to set off a controllable avalanche before an uncontrollable slide crashes down, destroying everything in its way, blocking the highway and perhaps killing anyone in its path.*

Sheer mountain walls, narrow valleys, perpetual glaciers and dark rain forests have made the Columbia Mountains of BC a no-man’s-land since prehistoric times. Early Indians shrank from the snow spirits lurking in the Columbias, but the white man was not so easily deterred. Canadian Pacific plunged through the Rogers Pass in the central Selkirks in 1885. The TransCanada Highway followed in 1962. Getting through the pass, however, was only the beginning. Sandwiched between the Rockies to the east and BC’S interior plateau to the west, the Columbias trap all the warm, moist Pacific air wafting by and turn it into snow. Then thousands of the slides, weighing up to 22,000 tons and traveling at speeds up to 130 mph, hurtle down every winter, turning entire forests into kindling, mangling trains and track and leaving chaos in their wake. The shooting program, which came into being with the highway, is only half the attack. The lines of defense employed by the railway for almost a century are still in use as well; they include seven snowsheds which shield the highway at hazardous points, and snow fences, earth dams, dikes, mounds and catch basins built on avalanche tracks to contain or divert slides.

Ned Clough, who supervises the 24hour-a-day road maintenance crews, says his men are often hit by the “dust” off an avalanche. He’s been caught several times, buried to the waist once as he stood in the door of a grader. Says Clough: “I got hit with a duster about a year ago. Everything went black. All I could see was the pickup’s dash lights and I was sure I’d been buried.”

Despite the success in controlling slides, chief park naturalist John Woods notes that the avalanche hazard has only been reduced, not eliminated. Says Woods: “Rogers Pass is hostile territory. There can be no peace there.” SUZANNE ZWARUN

*In the 30 fears after a railway was built through the Rogers Pass in 1885, avalanches killed 200people. During the past 15 years the number of deaths has been reduced to two.