Glacier National Park

For more than 50 years Parks Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces have worked together to keep the Trans-Canada Highway and Canadian Pacific (CP) rail transportation corridors open and safe from avalanches during the winter.


Avalanches have posed a threat to the transportation corridor since 1885 when CP completed the transcontinental railway through Rogers Pass. The incredible avalanche danger and 9 metre (40 foot) annual snowfall of Rogers Pass demands new technologies and new skills from the railroaders. In the winter of 1884-85, a snow observation party is established by CP in Rogers Pass. In 1887 CP’s Granville C. Cunningham publishes a paper on snow observations in a civil engineering journal. Avalanche defenses are limited to snowsheds (there is no active avalanche control). This is the beginning of snow and avalanche studies until the railway goes underground in 1916.


Glacier National Park and Yoho National Park are established as Canada's 2nd and 3rd national parks.

Derailed locomotive and rail cars on their sides, stuck in avalanche debris, as railworkers dig them out.
Rogers Pass 1910 avalanche tragedy. © Revelstoke Museum and Archives


On March 4, 58 railworkers are killed by an avalanche at the summit of Rogers Pass – this is Canada’s worst avalanche accident. As a result of the 1910 avalanche tragedy and other factors, CP tunnels beneath Rogers Pass and constructs the 8 km-long Connaught Tunnel under Mount Macdonald, completed in 1916.


Marcel de Quervain, a Swiss avalanche expert who became the Director of the Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research at Davos, Switzerland (1950-80) visits Rogers Pass where he observes and records the first ever snow profile in the Rogers Pass area.


Meteorological observations in Glacier are set up with wardens at Stoney Creek, Glacier, and Flat Creek.

Two men use the “Mt. Rose Sampler”

Noel Gardner

1952: Noel Gardner pioneers formal avalanche studies in Rogers Pass in anticipation of the Pass’s potential selection as the route for the Trans-Canada Highway across BC. During most of the highway construction years he leads the avalanche program working for the Federal Government (Parks Canada and the Department of Public Works). When the highway opens in 1962, he leads the Snow Research and Avalanche Warning Section until 1965 when Gardner leaves Rogers Pass.


Noel Gardner spends two winters conducting avalanche study patrols for Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) in Rogers Pass with James R. Webb (Engineering and Construction Division of the National Parks Service in Banff) in preparation for the proposed construction of the Trans-Canada Highway. Gardner and Webb commute from Banff on the railway to make twice monthly avalanche patrols on skis. In 1954, Noel Gardner leaves Parks Canada. In 1956, he works for PWGSC organizing snow, weather and avalanche observations and constructs a small building on Mount Abbott at an elevation suitable for snow study and avalanche path observation.


The federal government chooses Rogers Pass as the route for the Trans-Canada Highway (completed in 1962). Snow science, avalanche studies and control measures continue, this time with the Department of Public Works (PWGSC) followed by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources (federal predecessor for Parks Canada) and the Canadian Armed Forces.


PWGSC requests an engineer from the NRC to assist with weather and snow observations at Rogers Pass. Peter Schaerer is hired. Peter Schaerer is responsible for the design and location of avalanche control works/static defenses against avalanches (snow sheds, earth mounds and dikes) as well as snow/avalanche observations. He contributes to the program, is involved in the first gun trials, works with Parks Canada’s Noel Gardner and then leads the program during Gardner’s temporary absence during the winter of 1958-59.

Peter Schaerer using inclinometer to measure the angle of a slope
Mortar, with ammunition laid in front.
Canadian Armed Forces at mortar test site.


The first Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) detachment arrives in Rogers Pass to conduct trials with artillery (mortar fire and 75mm Howitzer) to bring down avalanches as a tool for avalanche control. The guns prove difficult to manoeuvre in the deep snow because the surface route for the highway was not yet built.


Avalanche safety is transferred from PWGSC to Parks Canada. Noel Gardner becomes head of Parks Canada’s newly established Snow Research Avalanche Warning Section (SRAWS). V. G. (Fred) Schleiss and his brother Walter Schleiss join the Parks Canada program working with Noel Gardner. Additional artillery trials are conducted with Canadian Pacific at Ross Peak avalanche path.

V.G. (Fred) Schleiss and Walter Schleiss.

The Schleiss brothers

V.G. (Fred) Schleiss and his brother, Walter, arrive in Rogers Pass and work in the avalanche program under the direction of Noel Gardner. Fred becomes the Senior Avalanche Forecaster in 1965 and continues to lead the section through its formative years until he retires in 1991. Throughout this period, Walter is second in charge of the program and the two alternate as duty forecasters to provide 24 hour avalanche safety throughout each winter from 1965-66 until 1990-91 when they both retire.


C-3 Howitzer with Canadian Armed Forces behind.

With a rough highway grade available and ploughed, the Second Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (2 RCHA) under Conrad A. Namiesniowski continue artillery trials and conclude that the Howitzer is the most effective gun for avalanche control. The 105mm C-1 and 75mm Howitzers are selected. An agreement is made between CAF and Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources (Parks Canada) for Canadian Army assistance in the avalanche control program. CAF refer to the program as "AVCON".

The 105mm C-1 Howitzer was used from the beginning of the program, until about 50 years later when it was replaced by the 105mm C-3 Howitzer, with a transition period during the winters of 2010/11 and 2011/12. On March 5, 2012, the last C-1 Howitzer was shot and as of March 10, 2012, the C-3 was the only gun in use.


The Trans-Canada Highway is complete and officially opened by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Static defences (snowsheds, dikes, mounds, road closures and no stopping zones) and the newly formed avalanche control program are critical to keeping the highway open during the winter.


Noel Gardner resigns and brothers Fred and Walter Schleiss take charge of avalanche hazard forecasting and are in charge of Glacier National Park's avalanche control program in Rogers Pass until their retirement in 1991. They are replaced by Dave Skjonsberg (1991-2004) then Bruce McMahon (2004-2012). Today, (2012 to present) Jeff Goodrich is the Senior Avalanche Officer for Parks Canada.


The NRC begins an avalanche research program at Rogers Pass under the direction of Peter Schaerer. He ends his research in 1991.


Due to funding cuts, the NRC removes itself from the program at Rogers Pass, but avalanche/snow research continues through partnerships with the University of British Columbia (Dave McClung obtaining a research and teaching position) and in 1997 the University of Calgary (Colin Johnston and Bruce Jamieson) in collaboration with the Canadian Avalanche Association and the skiing sector. Note – the program with the University of Calgary ended in March 2015.


Parks Canada renames SRAWS: “Avalanche Control Section" (ACS).


The Canadian Armed Forces rename AVCON: Operation “Palaci” (OP PALACI), meaning “reliability”.


Parks Canada celebrates the 50th anniversary of its partnership with the Canadian Armed Forces in operating the avalanche control program. In honour of this anniversary, CF transfers three C-1 Howitzers to Glacier National Park for permanent exhibit in Rogers Pass. The C-1 Howitzer is decommissioned for active avalanche control and is replaced by the C-3 Howitzer.


Klein Kit, including a variety of snow study tools laid out.

A historic snow study “Klein Kit” is transferred to the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology artifact collection. The Klein Kit, designed by NRC inventor and Officer of the Order of Canada, George Klein, facilitated snow research in Canada.


Peter Schaerer and Jeff Goodrich stand in front of “Land of Thudering Snow” exhibit.

The launch of Canada’s first virtual avalanche museum “Land of Thundering Snow”, a partner project with Parks Canada, the Revelstoke Museum and Archives and others.

Visit the Land of Thundering Snow website

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