For the last 60 years, Parks Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces have partnered to run the avalanche control program to monitor and control the 135 avalanche paths within the 40 km stretch of the national transportation corridor at Rogers Pass.
Johan Schleiss, Avalanche Operations officer for Mt. Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, was born in Rogers Pass and grew up with the avalanche control system as his family occupation.
His father, Fred, came to the pass in 1959 and was involved since the beginning, setting up the technical aspect of the avalanche program. Fred was manager in charge of avalanche operations from 1965-1991, alongside his brother who was second in command.
When it was created, the program was being used to monitor avalanche activity in the pass. At that time, in the early 60s, the Trans Canada Highway was being built, and the records they created at that time helped with planning to avoid the avalanche paths, and where to build the roads to be undisputed by avalanche activity.
Schleiss has been working with the avalanche control team since 1989. The system they use today to monitor avalanche activity is based on the groundwork that was done in the 60s. According to Schleiss, only technology has changed, the system developed at the time is still in effect today.
The avalanche team goes out in the field and takes snow profiles to assess stability. With the test result, they decide when and where to close the road and control avalanches.
According to Schleiss, safety is the number one priority for the team doing avalanche control, but keeping the highways open and railway moving, the life-blood’ of the nation, is also vital.
The avalanche control team work hand in hand with the military, who are in charge of firing the howitzers that set off the avalanches.
“Their standards of operation are amazing to behold,” said Schleiss in regards to the military’s work at the pass. “They’ll work through the worst weather and fulfill the Avalanche control when it needs to be done, no matter the conditions outside. It’s irreplaceable what they do for us and how they do it.”
The sighting system for the howitzers, which was developed by the avalanche team in the 60s, is used in accordance with the expertise and research provided by the avalanche team. According to Schleiss, using a reference object, they can hit their targets within 10 meters from up to 6 km away in nearly any conditions: dark, snowy, or low visibility.
By forecasting the avalanches, Schleiss and the rest of the team can effectively control the impact avalanches have on the surrounding areas. “The mountains here are very steep, avalanches would come down eventually if they weren’t triggered,” said Schleiss.
The Winter Permit System in Glacier National Park allows backcountry skiing and snowboarding when avalanche control is not in progress.
Avalanche control involves the use of live explosives and large howitzer guns, as well as the dangers of the avalanches themselves, and according to Shelley Bird, Public Relations and Communications Officer for Mount Revelstoke & Glacier National Parks, obtaining a permit and using the system is imperative to recreational access.
“The permit makes sure you understand the system and how it works, and that you have certain responsibilities with that permit,” said Bird. “Anyone with a permit has to check in the morning to see if the area they want to go to is open, and they can only go to the areas that are open.”
According to Schleiss, Rogers Pass is an advanced place to go. The areas that face the highway used to be permanently closed all winter. The permit system allows people to visit these areas based on whether or not they’re doing avalanche control at the time.
In order to stay safe when in the area, Schleiss said people should comply with the system, learn the area, and get avalanche training for your own safety and to rescue others.
Daily permits can be purchased at the discovery centre at Glacier National Park. An annual permit can be obtained online at www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/bc/glacier/visit/hiver-winter/ski.