Canada’s avalanche army wages war on dangerous snow


There is a reason they call Operation Palaci a ‘no fail’ mission.

The consequence of making even the slightest mistake can cost the economy tens of thousands of dollars and result in serious injury or even death.

Which is why members of the Fifth Regiment Canadian Light Artillery ensure the C3 105mm Howitzer is aimed precisely at their target on the mountain before unleashing 2.3 kilos of explosives and watching the snow run.

Their mission is to keep the highway and the railway open by triggering controlled avalanches and avoiding dangerous, uncontrolled ones.

Easier said than done.

Rogers Pass, just west of the Rockies where the troops are stationed, has 134 avalanche paths that could hit the highway in a mere 40-kilometre stretch. It’s Parks Canada senior avalanche officer Jeff Goodrich’s job to decide when it’s time to blast.

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“The avalanche potential through Rogers Pass is the highest of any public highway in Canada. If we didn’t have the avalanche control program this route would be impossible in the winter,” he says.

WATCH BELOW: The avalanche potential through Rogers Pass – just west of the Rockies – is the highest of any public highway in Canada. In a mere 40 kilometre stretch, there are 134 avalanche paths that could hit the road.

To determine when it’s time to blast, Goodrich travels daily to the top of nearby Mount Fidelity. At this elevation, where avalanches would typically start, Goodrich can analyze the layers in the snowpack, and look for signs of instability. A weak layer of snow can trigger a slab avalanche, the most destructive type.

Five hours south of Rogers Pass, Robb Andersen analyzes ice crystals under a magnifying glass looking for signs of trouble. “Yeah, those are huge. Very big,” he says. “The bigger they are, the more dangerous they are.”

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Andersen is in charge of the avalanche control program at Kootenay Pass. His team is far more modest, no army – just him and four avalanche technicians. The approach at Kootenay Pass is also very different. Instead of using a Howitzer, Andersen and his team uses explosives from above, dropped from a helicopter.

WATCH ABOVE: Kootenay Pass was built on the south facing side of the valley – the sunny side – part way up the mountain. The rationale being, that the sun would help melt the snow… but instead, it triggers slides and has ended up right in the middle of an avalanche path.

Andersen and his team also rely on a unique technology called Gazex, a giant canon permanently fixed to the side of the mountain that is triggered remotely from a laptop. The canons are filled with a mixture of oxygen and propane, and when ignited, send a shock wave through the snow pack forcing an avalanche. The Gazex program in Kootenay pass is the largest of its kind in the country and second largest in the world.

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While Andersen admits there is great satisfaction in triggering the perfect avalanche, he also concedes that by the end of the season he and his team are exhausted.

“It can be quite relentless,” he says. “We try to stick to a maximum of about 36 hours straight.”

While many may have packed away their winter gear, most years Andersen’s job continues right through May, as he watches and waits for the mountain to move.

Watch the entire April 5, 2014 edition of Global’s 16×9

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