What’s new for highway avalanche control at Rogers Pass

Project marks first avalanche infrastructure upgrades since 1978

Troops from 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery load the 105-mm C3 Howitzer gun at Rogers Pass, British Columbia. Photo: Rob Buchanan/Parks Canada

This article first appeared in print in the October/November 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Each day thousands of vehicles drive along a 97 kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway, through Glacier National Park, known as Rogers Pass. It’s an integral part of the national transportation corridor, that both local and Canadian economies rely on. In the summer, the winding, undivided stretch of highway is challenging enough. Add an annual 10 metres of snowfall on average, and driving through the pass often becomes a white-knuckle, two-hands-on-the-wheel experience. It is, after all, a section of highway that regularly claims lives during the winter months due to poor road conditions and those unfamiliar with mountain driving.

Avalanche snow nets at Rogers Pass in the Cougar Corner area. Photo: Parks Canada

What most highway users don’t see is the joint efforts of Parks Canada’s Avalanche Control Services, avalanche professionals and the Canadian Armed Forces to keep an incredibly difficult 40-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway open and safe from avalanche hazards during the winter. With 134 avalanche paths, this section of the Trans-Canada Highway is one of the most challenging transportation corridors in the world. Parks Canada maintains overall responsibility for the avalanche control and highway safety program, having been responsible for this particular section of highway since the 1960s.

In 2015 Parks Canada began making infrastructure improvements as part of the Trans-Canada Highway Avalanche Mitigation Project. Prior to these improvements, the last avalanche control infrastructure project took place in 1978, with the construction of the Single Bench snowshed. In May, 2019 Catherine McKenna, Minister responsible for Parks Canada, announced the installation of an Avalanche Detection Network on the Trans-Canada Highway in Glacier National Park. Completion of the Avalanche Detection Network, the first of its kind in Canada and the largest, most extensive network in the world, is set for 2019/2020. The network uses radar and infra-sound technology to provide real-time information and provide early warning of increasing avalanche activity.

Snow nets pictured from above. Photo: contributed

Upgrades being completed as part of the avalanche safety network include:

-Installation of 10 Remote Avalanche Control Systems (RACS) which allow technicians to trigger explosives using a wireless device for controlled avalanche mitigation;

-Installation of 2,200 metres of netting that holds snow in place where avalanches would traditionally start;

-Addition of a westbound passing lane from the summit of Rogers Pass to the Illecillewaet Curve;

-Rehabilitation of existing static defence systems – dams or berms to catch or deflect avalanche debris – as well as construction of additional earthen mounds to help prevent avalanches from reaching the highway;

-Expanded vehicle holding areas for use during highway closures and avalanche control;

-Structural repairs to snow sheds over the highway, along with the installation of new LED lighting;

-Highway paving and turning lane improvements throughout Rogers Pass;

-Maintenance of catchment basins that protect the highway from spring mud flow in the Beaver Valley; and

-Ecological gains such as improved aquatic connectivity through Rogers Pass for fish like native bull trout by replacing aging highway culverts.

The upgrades and improvements add on to already existing avalanche mitigation technology, including the Canadian Armed Forces Operation PALACI. Each year, from November to April, the Canadian Armed Forces send to groups of 15 to 20 members from the Royal Canadian Artillery to run the world’s largest mobile avalanche control program.

So why the need for so many different types of avalanche mitigation along Rogers Pass? Chris Argue, an avalanche specialist with Dynamic Avalanche Consulting, explains the Trans-Canada Highway Avalanche Mitigation Project is meant to look at all aspects of avalanche control and identify key areas where improvements can be made. The main priorities of the project are improving safety and reliability of the highway.

“First, it’s the safety of the users and workers, and second just overall reliability. There was a study done in 2010 that looked holistically at the corridor from Sicamous to the Alberta border,” said Argue. “A number of those recommendations from that report have been implemented since then.”

Argue said the need for both artillery and static avalanche defence structures helps reduce highway closure times. As an example, snowsheds are prioritized along sections of the highway affected by avalanches multiple times per year. In this case, debris from planned avalanches set off by remote artillery will flow over the snowshed, increasing the reliability of the highway.

“There is also a component of risk management that comes into play where if you do have an unexpected natural avalanche that occurs there’s protection that’s afforded to motorists,” said Argue.

BC Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claire Trevena recently announced the final phase of the Trans-Canada Kicking Horse Canyon project east of Golden. The project will see that section of the highway go from two lanes to four. In an email to Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine, Parks Canada spokesperson Shelley Bird said there are currently no Trans-Canada twinning projects in place for Mount Revelstoke or Glacier National Parks. Safety improvements have been made, however, including the addition of more than five kilometres of westbound passing lane in the Illecillewaet curve area of Rogers Pass.