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Man knows Sun Road avalanches: He survived one

Hungry Horse News - May 23, 2002

Editor's note: Last Thursday a record 728 people watched park plowing crews tackle the deep and dangerous snows on the Going-to-the-Sun Road during the Glacier National Park's annual "Show Me Day" at Haystack Creek. The next day an avalanche swept over the very area plows were working on. No one was injured. The following tale is of a plowman who wasn't quite so lucky...


"It was Memorial Day-I shouldn't have been working that day," Chuck Siderius said of the time 38 years ago when he rode a D-8 CAT 350 feet down the Big Drift while clearing snow from Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

There were four bulldozers clearing snow from the road that day -two operated by Glacier National Park crews and two operated by Chuck and his brother, Tom. It was their third year contracting for the park.

With the west side cleared, the crews were working east of Logan Pass at the Big Drift-where 70-to-80 feet of accumulated snow presents one of the great annual hurdles to plowing the alpine highway. By Memorial Day 1964, they were about halfway down into the drift.

"There was so much snow, we were pushing it over the wall," Siderius recalled. "The general rule is you stay inside of the little rock wall. I was outside the wall."

Over the sound of the big diesel, Siderius heard "a big pop, like a rifle crack" and the whole side of the mountain gave way as a giant slab measuring an acre across and three feet deep sheared away.

Siderius said he remembers seeing the watchman, Russ Landt, jump to one side as the D-8 began to roll sideways down the slope.

"The first roll pinned me to the roof," Siderius said. "It rolled seven times, each time bouncing 40-to-50 feet further down the mountain."

As the D-8 rolled, the cab filled with snow. As snow built up in front of it, the bulldozer began to slide, coming to a halt on its roof, the engine still running. Siderius was unable to move, with only his right hand exposed, but still breathing through small gaps in the snow.

Claude Tesmer, a park plowing foreman, rushed down the slope. By then the engine had died. Within five minutes, the crews had dug him out of the machine.

Siderius and his brother had been building timber access roads in steep terrain since 1956, but neither had ever gone off the side of the road. He said once in a while a bulldozer would slide sideways on a steep slope until it ran into a tree, but nothing like the wild ride of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

"One thing that happens when you're rolling down a hill like that - you see your whole life pass in front of you," Siderius said. "I was afraid I'd get thrown and then crushed."

Park rangers Robert Sellers and William Lukens arrived with a basket and Siderius was hauled up by a winch on one of the D-8s. He was transported to General Hospital, in Kalispell, where an examination and X-rays revealed two cracked ribs, chest injuries and a badly bruised face.

Meanwhile the plow crews moved east on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to a place even with the crippled D-8 and pioneered a road across the snow slopes to where it lay in avalanche debris. They righted the bulldozer, added some oil to the engine and by Wednesday the D-8 was back at work with a few dents in the hood and the fenders.

Siderius, on the other hand, didn't head back up the highway that year. He returned one more time, in 1965, and then decided he'd had enough plowing on the high mountain road. It was too dangerous, he said, especially with water running beneath the snow creating voids.

"All of a sudden you'd feel the CAT settle down and you'd look between the tracks and see the highway 20 feet below," he said.

Today, Siderius is retired from road building. A few years ago he found his name in the Wall Street Journal - a front page article about the crazy men who plowed the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Recently he stepped down from the Flathead Electric Cooperative board of trustees, where he served 22 years. He raises wheat and mint on a large farm in the Fairmont-Egan area, while his sons Doug and Dan continue to operate the family construction business.

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