Avalanche safety and control operations in Canada are largely focused in British Columbia, where the majority of the country’s slides take place. From government ministries to backcountry operators, each winter hundreds of people work to prevent avalanches from doing their worst. The profiles below take a closer look at the public and private side of avalanche control.
As you head west from Alberta or east from British Columbia along the Trans-Canada Highway toward the peaks of Glacier National Park, the road starts to wind through some intimidating terrain.
Perhaps nowhere is it more terrifying than at 1,329-metre-high Rogers Pass, where no less than 138 avalanche paths hang over what is a vital road and rail corridor. It’s a good thing, then, that the pass is home to the world’s largest mobile avalanche control program, run by Parks Canada and the Canadian Forces. Attempting to get through the pass in winter without avalanche control would be like trying to make it across a shooting range with a garbage-can lid for a shield.
It’s a winter’s day in early 2013, and Jeff Goodrich, the senior avalanche officer for Parks Canada, is standing beside a howitzer positioned alongside the highway. Nearby, a commander is shouting angles and elevations as troops in full camouflage scurry to load the 105mm gun. Goodrich explains that Parks Canada’s role is to monitor avalanche behavior, forecast hazards and determine which avalanche paths to bomb, while the troops stationed at the pass are responsible for maintaining and firing the howitzers, the blasts of which usually trigger a slide.
Each day, up to 4,000 vehicles enter this hazardous 40-kilometre stretch on one of Canada’s most important transportation corridors. When a winter storm rolls through, raising the avalanche hazard, Goodrich and his crew are already at work: highway personnel are called in to close the roads; Canadian Pacific Rail is contacted in Calgary, where a rail traffic controller clears all trains below suspect pathways; permits cease being issued for backcountry skiing; aircraft are alerted that the area is now a no-fly zone; the military are informed which howitzer pads they need to occupy; and snow-removal trucks prepare to remove the debris that could come crashing onto the road.
“Basically it’s all hands on deck,” says Goodrich. “The success of the program is only as good as the diligence of the people working here.”
Whistler Blackcomb ski resort
Jan Tindle’s day starts in the dark on Whistler Mountain.
The resort’s gondola drops her near the ski patrol shack, where she straps on her skis and makes a few turns down to a snow-study plot ensconced in a set of trees just off one of the runs.
Tindle, who has been ski patrolling since the early 1970s, has also been an avalanche forecaster at Whistler Blackcomb for the last 20 years. She and her colleagues use the plot to help determine the day’s avalanche risk, examining the snowpack’s layers for signs of weakness and paying close attention to the type of crystals that have fallen overnight.
Resort operations like the one at Whistler Blackcomb are similar to those used on highways and in the backcountry in that they manage a public risk. However, as Tindle points out, resorts enjoy the advantage of skier-compressed snow, and weak layers in the snowpack don’t last long. Still, some control is necessary. Whistler Blackcomb uses helicopters and ski patrollers like Tindle to launch explosives that will trigger a slide.
Back on the hill with her team, Tindle makes quick work of the overnight snowfall, clearing the danger from a double black diamond run called The Couloir. Not much later the hill opens completely, and the crowd lined up for the Peak Express cheers as the chairlift grinds to life.