The snows of winters past

As our climate changes, average snowfalls in Revelstoke have been declining. We spoke with long-time residents about the snows of yesteryear.

Louie Deschamps (left) and Dusty Veideman reflect on past Revelstoke winter experiences. Photo: Alex Cooper/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

This article first appeared in print in the January 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Talk to any longtime resident in Revelstoke about winters past, and they’ll tell you a story of 1971–72. That was the year Mother Nature dropped 779 centimetres of snow on town and nearly 24 metres on nearby Mount Copeland — a Canadian snowfall record that still stands. To put it in perspective, during last year’s epic winter, Revelstoke Mountain Resort recorded half that amount.

The storms were relentless in 1972, burying the town and the surrounding mountains. Trains got stuck in Rogers Pass and drivers were stranded on the highway as crews battled to keep transportation routes open.

Louie Deschamps was a plow driver for CP Rail that winter. He remembers spending a week digging out the Lanark snow shed after an avalanche filled it to the roof.

“There was 300 feet of snow inside the tunnel, solid. It was like cement,” he recalled. “I was the only one in there for three days. I bucked out 11 slides from here to up there.”

Peter Kimmel, who moved to Revelstoke a few years later to work in avalanche control in Glacier National Park remembers going to dig out his family cabin, which was buried above the roof in snow.

There was so much snow, CP hired local photographer Dusty Veideman to ride on the front of a train and take a picture of the snowbanks along the rail line. “That was a cold trip sitting on the front of the engine taking pictures,” he remembered. One day, he left his store on Mackenzie and couldn’t find his car under the mountain of snow.

1971-72 is the winter people remember, but it is an anomaly, even for Revelstoke. The City of Revelstoke keeps snowfall charts going back to 1907, and there almost 1.5 metres more snow that season than the next snowiest winter.

“Do you remember any other winters?” asked Veideman rhetorically. “Nope, because they’re all the same.”

The numbers show snowfall amounts for Revelstoke are trending downwards, while it is getting warmer. Revelstoke averaged 385 centimetres of snow per year from 1969 to 2018. In the first decade of that period, the average was 475 centimetres per year, whereas in the last 10 years, there’s been an average of 343.3 centimetres of snow each winter.

Last winter’s 446 centimetres would have been about average for the 1970s, even if you don’t include 1972.

The three men I spoke to for this story all have different experiences in Revelstoke. Deschamps drove the loader and blower for CP Rail. Veideman was a photographer and one of the founders of the Revelstoke Snowmobile Club. Kimmel was part of the avalanche control team in Rogers Pass before becoming starting his own avalanche consulting business.

My hope was to get a sense of whether or not Revelstoke winters really were tougher in the past. There was no real feeling among them that winters were harder back then, and just like now, they varied year to year. “Some winters it snowed a lot, others it snowed less,” said Kimmel. The biggest changes he’s noticed over his years in the snow industry were the shrinking glaciers.

Veideman, who moved to Revelstoke when he was 14, described walking to high school in knee-deep snow, and sometimes skiing. He says people were more tolerant of the snow back then, and didn’t expect the roads to be plowed right away.

Winters might not have been worse, but people were hardier. They walked uphill to school – both ways.

“Back in the day, when it snowed, you didn’t go to town for three to four days, and if you did, you used your skis. They never removed anything. They never plowed nothing. They didn’t want to do the job twice,” he said. “They left the snow until it was over, then they would remove it. Now they remove it during the storm. People seem to forget that.”

Added Deschamps: “If somebody had to go to the hospital, they’d use a horse because vehicles couldn’t get there.”

The other thing they noticed has changed. “Back in the day,” it was a privilege to get called out of school to go pack down the ski jump, said Veideman. “Now they take every second day off to go skiing. Kids are spoiled.”