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27 January 2009

Still Humbled After All These Years

Rogers Pass circa 1899.
Rogers Pass British Columbia - One hundred and ten years ago, the railway line ran directly through Rogers Pass. There were dozens of snow sheds protecting its path from the avalanches that frequently roared down from the towering slopes above. The railway station was positioned two kilometres east of the current hotel and gas station, just west of the existing snow sheds at the base of Mount Tupper. The station proved to be poorly placed - and at the end of January 1899, an avalanche buried the station, and took seven lives.
That day, high winds in the alpine sent tonnes of snow over the rail line in several places. Records from the day describe the challenges of maintaining the transportation corridor. "The numerous slides on the railway line this week have kept the rotaries busy. There were four in all, one at the west end of the Illecillewaet tunnels, one at 32 shed, Ross Peak, one at 18 shed, and one at Rogers Pass. They all came down the same day, Tuesday. The line was clear again Wednesday night. Pretty quick work."
The avalanche of 1899 resulted in the death of the station-master, his wife, their two children, and three other railway workers. It was described by newspapers of the day as a "snowy sepulchre," an "awful avalanche," and "an unparalleled accident which fills everyone with grief and sorrow." It was said that, "they heard the sound, which filled everything, and that was all; it took them where they stood." The station master's wife was found in the kitchen with a rolling pin still in her hand. Caught in the slide were:  William Cator age 37, Annie Cator age 35, Charles Cator 3 1/2, Ethel Cator 2 1/2, James Ridley - wiper age 31, Frank Carson - night operator age 18, and Hou Ah - the cook age unknown.
Last week, the Parks Canada office was filled with the constant rattle of the VHF radio, as reports rolled in of avalanches crossing the highway. Although many things have changed over the century, the mountains still have the power to set us in our place, and disable our attempts to travel through them. Technology has improved - in communication, transportation, meteorology,and snow science. Even so, in the first week of January this year, the transportation corridor was brought to a standstill as natural and artillery-triggered avalanches crossed the highway and railway. This power that humbles us, is the same power that will continue to draw us to the mountains - to live, to explore, and to travel.     Victoria British Columbia Canada