Snow and Avalanche Center 2008 Avalanche News

Rogers Pass gets a blast of support

Each winter, Rogers Pass, a National Historic site within Glacier National Park, draws hundreds of backcountry skiers with its legendary snowfall and 1,500-metre vertical runs. However, it is also home to several deadly avalanche paths that endanger the Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway every year.

In an attempt to prevent avalanches, each winter soldiers from the 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery from Canadian Forces Base Shilo, Manitoba, arrive at Rogers Pass to assist Parks Canada’s Avalanche Control (AVCON) program in triggering the snow before it slides on its own. The soldiers bring three 105-millimetre howitzers, which can be deployed to any of the 18 fixed gun positions, to complete the task.

“The Canadian Forces has been part of this program for 50 years; it is the largest mobile avalanche control in Canada. Our contribution is known as Operation Palaci,” says Major Jeffrey Allen, the Joint Task Force (Pacific) Desk Officer for the operation. “Each year we deploy a crew consisting of 15 soldiers to the pass. During the season the Regiment conducts three troop rotations, with each lasting six to eight weeks. Our teams travel to the pass in mid to late November and stay until April.”

Within the 40-kilometre stretch of Rogers Pass that surrounds the highway, there are 134 avalanche zones, considered risk zones.

As the winter storms hit the pass, Parks Canada determines when the snow needs to be triggered; the highways are then shut down.

“We close and sweep the highway in the area of concern to ensure there are no civilian vehicles within the danger or avalanche areas before beginning the avalanche control operations,” says Bruce McMahon, the Senior Avalanche Officer at Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

Once the stretch of the highway is cleared, the soldiers fire projectiles filled with explosive ammunition from howitzers into the risk zones. The shock waves from the exploding shells trigger the avalanches and the snow thunders harmlessly down the slopes.

“There are 18 fixed gun platforms along the highways consisting of concrete pads and center rings used to attach the howitzers. The pads are about two kilometres apart from each other. The detachments have to be able to fire from all of the 134 targets at any given time from those fixed positions,” says Maj Allen. “The shoots are generally fired at distances ranging from three to the longest shot out to five kilometres.”

This year’s first operational shoot happened at the beginning of December, with the detachments firing over 90 rounds from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. the next morning. “If our first shoot this year was any indication of the avalanche season to come, we are going to be busy. It seems our storms are getting bigger and more frequent. Last year, we had the highest number of shoots fired at the mountain since the program’s inception,” says Maj Allen.

When the teams are not bringing down the avalanches, they are maintaining the platforms and equipment. “The detachments are put together on a volunteer basis,” says Maj Allen. “We put out a call and most often we get more than enough volunteers; the positions are seen as a great deployment opportunity by the soldiers and most look forward to going.”

The teams stay in the Parks Canada barracks and remain in the pass around the clock. “Most people have no idea that we are up there. They just know the highway is open and safe,” says Maj Allen. “For many that stretch of highway is a lifeline and it is extremely important that it stay open.”

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