What Revelstoke, BC’s Most Deadly Disaster Can Teach Us 110 Years Later

Martin Kuprianowicz | | Post Tag for AvalancheAvalanche
In 1910 Revelstoke, BC was the location of Canada’s worst-ever avalanche incident. Photo: Wikipedia

On March 4, 1910, Canada had its worst avalanche disaster in history. The 1910 Rogers Pass Avalanche killed 62 men clearing a railroad line near the summit of Rogers Pass through the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia near the town of Revelstoke. This is the accident summary, provided by Wikipedia:

On the evening of March 4 work crews were dispatched to clear a big slide which had fallen from Cheops Mountain, and buried the tracks just south of Shed 17. The crew consisted of a locomotive-driven rotary snowplow and 63 men. Time was critical as westbound CPR Train Number 97 was just entering the Rocky Mountains, bound for Vancouver. Half an hour before midnight as the track was nearly clear, an unexpected avalanche from Avalanche Mountain swept down the opposite side of the track to the first fall.

Over 1,300 feet of track were buried. The 91-ton locomotive and plow were hurled 50 feet to land upside-down. The wooden cars behind the locomotive were crushed and all but one of the workmen were instantly buried in the deep snow. The only survivor was Billy Lachance, the locomotive fireman who had been knocked over by the wind accompanying the fall but otherwise remained unscathed.

When news of the disaster reached nearby Revelstoke a relief train consisting of 200 railmen, physicians and nurses were sent to the scene. 

They found no casualties to treat; it became a mission to clear the tracks and recover the bodies beneath 30 feet of snow. Many of the dead were found standing upright, frozen in position, reminiscent of Pompeii. 62 workers were killed. Among the dead were 32 Japanese workers.

When news of the disaster reached Revelstoke the next morning on March 5, 1910, people stopped what they were doing, banded together with shovels and blankets, and mobilized to the disaster site to save whoever they could, The Revelstoke Mountaineer reports. There was only one survivor.

Since 1910 it is as if Canada — or, at least, Revelstoke — has learned a lesson from this catastrophe as mass avalanche fatalities have become rare. This does not speak for the rest of the world, however.

So, what can we learn from this horrific incident? Well, we know now the mountains are relentlessly unforgiving and can take the lives of large groups of people at once — people with colleagues, friends, and families. The mountains don’t care. But since 1910 we now acknowledge this in even the most basic avalanche safety training which strongly discourages large groups from navigating avalanche terrain all at once.

We also know that nowadays, the snowpack is changing more rapidly than ever before. As a result, this raises our levels of uncertainty when both navigating avalanche terrain and producing avalanche forecasts.

This begs the question: how are we preparing? Are we ready for new and more frequent avalanche paths? A higher volume of mudslides? Higher precipitation, and uncommon weather events that are now becoming more common?

Mother nature is not a force that can be defeated. It’s not a force that we should even put ourselves up against. Nature is something we must side with, respect, and learn from. And if we don’t? Well, you already saw what can happen.



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