On the afternoon of December 13, 2017, a Parks Canada avalanche staff member discovered ski tracks in Macdonald West, one of five sections of Glacier National Park permanently closed to the touring public for avalanche control under the Winter Permit System.
Word spread quickly through the local ski touring community. When news of the incursion reached Douglas Sproul, he sounded the alarm with an emotional plea on the Revelstoke Ski Tourers Facebook page that quickly went viral, causing several major news outlets to pick up the story, including CBC and CTV News.
“THIS CANNOT HAPPEN EVEN ONCE MORE, NADA, NEVER, GET IT?” he wrote. “We, as the public that are so fortunate to be able to access these areas, MUST come together to ACT NOW.”
According to Sproul, his message is simple: touring at Rogers Pass is a complex endeavour and anyone who does it should be able to understand how the Winter Permit System works and why.
“I don’t think a lot of people get what’s really going on up there,” he told Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. “Not only is it a national park with their own regulations, the Canadian Armed Forces are involved, and the military is black and white: there’s no ‘in the middle.’ They can’t be out there lining up their Howitzer — that’s a gun made for war — and have no confidence. It has to be yes or no. Is there anyone up there? No. Period.”
To say Rogers Pass during the winter months is a busy place is an understatement. Not only is it the ski touring mecca of B.C. (Parks Canada logged 17,000 skier visits to the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre in 2015–2016), it’s a transportation corridor of vital national importance. Each day in the winter, upwards of 3,000 vehicles travel the pass on the Trans-Canada Highway. Add to that the 24 to 32 trains using the Canadian Pacific Railway line and it’s easy to see why the Department of National Defence is involved in ensuring the travelling public stays safe.
Enter Operation Palaci, the longest-running military operation in Canadian history. Operation Palaci is the mobile avalanche control program for Rogers Pass that’s been in effect in Glacier National Park since 1961. It covers a 40-kilometre stretch of highway with 134 different avalanche slide paths. Parks Canada provides the avalanche forecasting intel and the Canadian Armed Forces handle the 105 mm Howitzer field artillery weapon that targets slopes along the highway to routinely bring down controlled avalanches before they naturally occur on a larger scale and wreak havoc on the transportation corridor below.
Winter backcountry access in and around Operation Palaci used to be out of the question. But in 1995, Parks Canada began issuing winter permits to give access to skiable terrain that was previously off limits. Today the Winter Permit System divides Glacier National Park into three areas: Winter Unrestricted Areas (open any time), Winter Restricted Areas (open or closed depending on whether avalanche control is planned for that area that day), and Winter Prohibited Areas (permanently closed). Any backcountry skier or snowboarder in Rogers Pass who has done their homework knows they need to stay out of the prohibited areas, check the status of any restricted areas on a daily basis, and have a permit to enter any restricted areas that are open.
The incident on December 13 is still under investigation, but according to Parks spokesperson Shelly Bird, it wasn’t an isolated incident. So far this winter, there have been 11 parking related Winter Permit Area infractions (people parking in Winter Restricted Area parking lots that were flagged as “closed”) and a second incident where people went into a closed restricted area.
During the 2016–2017 winter season, there were 35 infractions, the majority of which were again related to parking, but five were incidents of people entering closed areas that resulted in court appearances. One of those incidents involved a trio of skiers caught skiing in a restricted area closed for avalanche control. Two members of the group had been caught skiing in the same area without a permit two days earlier, and all three were fined.
Notwithstanding, the Winter Permit System is generally regarded as a successful program, said Bird. The 2016–2017 winter season saw 3,839 daily winter permits issued, and 2,218 annual permits (annual pass users typically go more than once).
“The majority of backcountry users in Glacier National Park are compliant and are very supportive,” she said. “But in the long term, if non-compliance were to become an issue then we’d definitely have to re-evaluate the system, and what we open and what we would have to keep closed.”
In response to the December 13 incident, Bird said consideration was given to closing the restricted area adjacent to the prohibited area that was illegally accessed to ensure other skiers didn’t accidentally follow the tracks in.
“But once new snow fell and covered up those tracks, that was no longer a concern.”
Snowpack monitoring as well as avalanche control take place in prohibited and closed restricted areas. The Macdonald West area is permanently off limits because it’s one of the crucial monitoring sites needed for snow study to determine when avalanche control action is required.
“There are good reasons these places are permanently closed,” said Sproul. “They need pristine areas that haven’t had ski tracks through them for digging snow pits and doing profiles. And the (Macdonald West) area that actually got poached is notoriously some of the worst skiing at Rogers Pass from a snowpack perspective. It’s just heinous there. It has some of the most dangerous avalanche conditions in Rogers Pass for that reason.”
Author of the preeminent guidebook Rogers Pass: Uptracks, Bootpacks, & Bushwhacks, Sproul wants to ensure continued access to what he calls the birthplace of North American mountaineering. He’s hopeful a GPS-enabled app that Parks Canada is developing complete with real-time Winter Permit Area status and maps will help backcountry users keep track of where they are, and he urges Rogers Pass regulars to spread awareness and help educate the public.
“When I first got here, it was prior to 1995. You couldn’t ski anything facing the highway and that’s what we face if this system gets shut down,” he said. “It’s incredible the amount of effort and work Parks has put into the Winter Permit System. It’s amazing what they have done.”
Maps, how to get permits, and details about the Winter Permit System can all be found at www.pc.gc.ca/skirogerspass.
This article first appeared in the January print issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.