This story first appeared in print in the March 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine, Revelstoke’s 100% local, independent news magazine. Pick up your free copy at over 200 locations in Revelstoke.
The winter of 1910 was no ordinary winter. Not only was it the year of Canada’s worst avalanche disaster in history, it was the year of the worst avalanche in American history, too.
It’s a grim lesson in snow science our two nations share. The Rogers Pass avalanche on March 4, 1910 killed 58 men. The Wellington avalanche three days earlier on March 1, near Stevens Pass, Washington, killed 96. A look back at weather records for the 1909/10 season paints — for us now, anyway — a foreboding image of a disaster (or disasters) just waiting to happen.
Alarm bells summoned the town to the rescue. The citizens of Revelstoke were quick to respond. Within hours, a train of railway men and volunteers – old and young – headed into the night. Over the next few days, hundreds of workers converged on the site for the grim task of recovering the dead. — Revelstoke Museum & Archives
“1910 was a complex snowpack year,” explains Tomoaki Fujimura, a Revelstoke ski guide and avalanche technician. He compares this season (2019/2020), which saw one ‘Pineapple Express’ storm system, with that 110 years earlier. “That winter, there were five Pineapple Expresses.”
This series of huge storms hit the area back to back to back to back to back, each depositing Revy-levels of snow. March 4 was the ninth day of one cycle still hovering around the Pacific Northwest — the same one that hit Stevens Pass. Precipitation was high, and daytime temperatures over the week had gone from a low of –20°C to above zero.
This alone primed the landscape for massive avalanches. On top of all of that (or actually, below it) the mountainside was largely bare of tree cover since wildfires had swept through Rogers Pass in the 1890s. There was little in the way of forest anchoring the snowpack. “At the summit of Rogers Pass, more than two metres of snow had fallen – a half meter on March 4 alone,” reads the Revelstoke Museum and Archives webpage Overwhelmed: Remembering the March 4, 1910 Avalanche at Rogers Pass. If you live in Revelstoke, then you probably know the disastrous outcome as a matter of local lore.
Late in the afternoon on Friday, March 4, a passenger train was heading east to Vancouver and stopped at the Rogers Pass summit after an avalanche on Mount Cheops buried the mainline. Passengers waited as a work train was dispatched from Revelstoke as well as other stations as far away as Field and Golden to the western edge of the slide.
In all, 58 men were killed.
It took seven weeks to uncover the final snow-entombed bodies. The foot of the avalanche measured seven metres deep. Accounts from two survivors described being thrown by, not snow, but a wall of wind, which is known to precede only the largest avalanches.
“Think about that intensity,” says Fujimura, who himself now appears half-snowed under a pile of 1910 research. He has amassed his own avalanche of papers, including work records, death certificates, cemetery information and clips from both Japanese- and English-language newspapers.
He studies the 1910 disaster as a personal research project as well as a cultural tribute to 32 Japanese men who were killed. Little else is known about them beyond how many hours they worked as snow shovellers during the days leading up to the avalanche. (You can tell who was killed, he says, by their work hours. Most had between 200 and 300 hours in January and February, and a mere 20 or 30 in the month of March.
Scores of men, aided by a rotary snow plow, toiled in the night to clear the line. The rotary plow slowly churned a deep trench through the dense debris. The men worked within the trench with shovels, clearing the snow from the tracks. It was near midnight when the deadly slide hit. It came from the opposite side of the valley, off the slopes of Avalanche Mountain. The trench where the men were working became a tomb. — Revelstoke Museum & Archives
At home, Fujimura plays a History Channel-type tele-dramatization, titled: Disasters of the Century circa late-1990s, in which the baritone narrator describes the avalanche that swallowed the work crew. Snow came down with such speed that some of the recovered victims’ bodies were found perfectly frozen in place like the ash petrified people of Pompeii — one man lighting a pipe, another rolling a cigarette, and so on.
Avalanche Mountain, in more ways than just one, was like Canada’s Vesuvius. It highlighted a certain human naiveté and called into reconsideration an overconfident sense of conquering the natural world. Just as archeologists study Pompeii after the 79 A.D. eruption, we can advance our science based on the 1910 avalanche, and other deadly ones like it.
Today, it seems Canada, or at least Revelstoke, may have learned its lesson. Avalanche fatalities, particularly en masse, are rare.
“We have enough experts now flying around who give advice and collect data,” said Fujimura. “That helps a hell of a lot.”
Outside of B.C., however, maybe not so much. This winter saw heightened and deadly avalanche hazards around the world. Fujimura uses some of the information he gleans from longview historical weather activity to educate international guides and forecasters in Japan and elsewhere around the world on avalanche safety. Japan, for example, he says is generally known for its consistent mix of snow in the winter and rain in the monsoon season. But this winter has been unseasonably warm with buried weak layers. Drastic changes like this combined with more people heading into the backcountry (and few existing forecasting or rescue programs) have created, in his opinion, a disaster waiting to happen.
“They usually have 50-metre snowpack,” he said. “They have half that this year.”
Buried weak layers combined with more people heading into the backcountry (and few existing forecasting or rescue programs) have spelled higher numbers of avalanche fatalities.
In February, Avalanche Canada warned residents in eastern Newfoundland about the potential danger of avalanches after the province was hit this year by one of the largest winter storms on record. (Newfoundland!)
“People don’t think Newfoundland gets avalanches,” said Fujimura, listing off other unlikely areas of the globe seeing increased avalanche risk due to unordinary weather. In Kashmir, 77 people died and nearly 100 were injured in an avalanche in January. Two avalanches killed 41 people in Turkey this winter, too; the second avalanche buried rescuers, which of course is what happened in Rogers Pass in 1910. Those who forget history (or never knew it in the first place) are doomed to repeat it.
The March 2020 print issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine took an in-depth look at the climate emergency in the Revelstoke region, including this story. Read the e-edition of the print magazine here:
“The bereaved relatives and friends realized the reality of the death of their loved ones as each train brought bodies from Rogers Pass back to Revelstoke. It was a heartbreaking scene at the station as the caskets arrived.” The Continental News, Vancouver, March 9, 1910.
Closer to Revelstoke, an avalanche last December derailed a Canadian Pacific freight train in Glacier National Park near Rogers Pass. Little attention was paid to the incident as it affected only private property, there were (thankfully) no injuries, and this particular section of railway is avalanche-controlled by CP alone — not Parks Canada. What was unique, however, was that it was a new avalanche chute the railway had not previously accounted for.
Fujimura says more precipitation, more wind, and more high pressure persistence in the area means extra energy, which looking into the future, will make it hard to predict potential risks. For him, it’s less about global warming than about global weirding.
It isn’t just avalanches, he says. Rivers damned by mudslides, and banks overflowing with flooding, he predicts, will become a much larger issue in keeping up with adequate infrastructure in the years to come. It may already be happening. This February, both CN and CP rail lines in B.C. were temporarily rendered impassable after a wet, mild weekend toppled mud and debris down the hillside, covering sections of the tracks in parts, and washing out the ground below them in others.
As a climatic event, 1910 seems like a no-brainer now. But 110 years later, predicting similar disasters may prove equally murky when attempting to factor in increasingly complex systems of a warming planet. Precipitation, wildfires, avalanches, and temperatures all play off one another in unexpected, and in the case of March 4, 1910, tragic, ways.
“Major weather events are happening more frequently at the same time as more people are coming into these areas,” says Kim Vinet, one of the athlete ambassadors for POW (Protect Our Winters), a geologist by trade, and an earth and atmospheric science degree.
Vinet echoes Fujimura’s point that the issue is about more frequent and intense storms, coupled with humans accessing new terrain.
“The 1910 avalanche was a combination of very unlikely events, not the least of which was we were there in Rogers Pass. We’re putting ourselves in these situations. As a species, we think that we can control everything.”
Speaking from heliski experience, this year she says pilots have had to account for ice fog or TROWALs (heli-speak for “troughs of warm air aloft”). Warm air sits on top of a cold air mass and snow turns to freezing rain. It’s not the most detrimental weather on earth, but it spells more down-days for the industry as helicopter blades ice up.
“That’s one of those weird weather phenomenons that affect how humans interact with the outdoors” she said.
“Unprecedented events are becoming normal. The question is what does that new normal look like? … It’s hard not to be ridiculously depressing or esoteric,” she said, adding: “But shit’s going to get crazier, and populations are going to change.”
The only question now is how are we preparing? As humans, we put ourselves in vulnerable positions and counter risk by collecting knowledge.
When word of the disaster reached Revelstoke in the early morning on March 5, 1910, people grabbed blankets and shovels and gathered at the train station. The locomotives revved their engines, signaling a major emergency.
We ignore history at our peril. Are we prepared for new avalanche paths, more frequent mudslides, higher precipitation, and other freak weather occurrences? Of course we cannot beat Nature; the best we can do is mitigate it. Think. Plan. Build. And when it comes to disasters of the last century, remember.
The 58 men who lost their lives on March 4, 1910 are: Masatora Abe, Charles Anderson, Richard Buckley, Victor Carlson, John Fraser, Thomas Griffiths, James Gullach, Matsuei Hayashida, Isamu Hirano, Shinzo Hirano, Heikichi Horiuchi, Ralph Hughes, Naosaku Ikeda, Takefusa Imamura, Kinsaku Ishiyama, Axel Johnson, Rennie Jones, Kenichi Kanegawa, Andre Klem, Koichi Kobayashi, Shokei Kumagai, Dougal Macdonald, Kanjuro Maeda, John Mahon, John Makawicjuk, Harold Martin, Kiyoshi Matsumoto, Mike Mazur, John McLennan, Thomas McMurray, Harry Meikus, Kitaro Miyake, Fusakichi Mizukawa, Yasujiro Mochizuki, James Moffat, George Nichols, Samuel Oliver, Kesakichi Omura, Takeshi Onodera, Kisaburo Otake, William Phillips, Albert Pottruff, Hikohachi Sakoda, Kitaro Sasaki, Seiichi Sasaki, Kenjiro Sato, Tokuichi Takeda, Yasuharu Takeda, Ginzo Tanabe, Aitaro Tsuboi, Genichi Tsuboi, Sentaro Tsujimura, Keisaburo Ueno, Fred Wagner, Otokichi Wasa, Fritz Wellander, Charles Wheatley, Mannosuke Yamaji. — Information courtesy of the Revelstoke Museum & Archives