Rogers Pass ski touring a privilege for enthusiasts

Ever wonder why a permit is required to access the winter backcountry of Rogers Pass?

Highway corridor in Glacier National Park. Photo Parks Canada/Ian Houghton.

For over 30 years, the world class ski touring terrain in Rogers Pass’ Glacier National Park was prohibited to users until the implementation of a winter permit system in 1995.

The free permit system is unique and Parks Canada has been a leader for other destinations looking to put in place a similar permit process.

Rogers Pass is also unique in and of itself.

“The Pass,” which is what the national park is referred to as by locals, was a gateway for connecting the Trans Canada highway and the CP railway from Canada to the rest of B.C.

The transportation corridor is almost constantly under threat throughout the winter by 134 avalanche paths in only 48 kilometres.

On average, The Pass receives 12 metres of snow per year, and sees approximately 3,000 vehicles and 30 trains travel through every day in the winter.

Because of the constant threat of avalanches, Parks Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces partnered to run the world’s largest mobile avalanche control program.

The program uses live artillery and several predetermined firing locations for a 105mm Howitzer (pictured below) to blast different slopes. The constant avalanche danger, evaluation and control helps release several small avalanches to protect the transportation corridor, instead of letting avalanche hazards build and potentially bury the highway or railway under one large avalanche.

Photo: MCpl Pierre Letourneau, Canadian Forces Combat Camera IS06-2019-Master Bombardier Ryan Houston from 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1RCHA), gives the firing order to Gunner Joshua Caines, 1RCHA, during Operation PALACI at Rogers Pass, British Columbia on 22 November, 2019.

A closure of the transportation corridor affects the Canadian economy to the tune of $150,000 an hour according to Rob Andersen, senior manager of the avalanche and weather programs for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

But what does that have to do with ski touring?

“Before 1995, there was no backcountry access allowed during the avalanche control season to those slopes that faced the highway,” said Shelley Bird, who works in communications for Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

In 1995, Parks Canada, Candadian Pacific (CP) Rail and other stakeholders collaborated to develop a program that would allow backcountry skiers the opportunity to access the 12 metres of annual snowfall and seemingly never ending ski terrain when there was no planned avalanche control.

“It’s been very successful,” said Bird.

In fact, Parks Canada and CP invested in additional access points that would allow skiers to move underneath the railway as crossing a CP railway is illegal.

The permit program’s number one priority is not the safety of backcountry skiers however, but is the safety of all people in the park and maintaining the reliability of the national transportation infrastructure that runs through it.

“The avalanche control program is only for the transportation corridor and not for backcountry safety,” added Bird. “So of course everybody is responsible for their own safety and should have the skills and tools to travel safely in avalanche terrain.”

The winter permit system ensures the control program can fire the Howitzer onto the slopes and release avalanches without the chance of harming any skiers.

It is also based on user compliance. If a backcountry traveller breaks the rules by going into a closed area, then they are putting themselves, and others and access at risk.

Glacier National Park is broken up into three types of zones; unrestricted, where travellers can access the backcountry without a permit; restricted, where users can travel with a permit; and winter prohibited zones, which users can not access during the avalanche control season.

Permits are free and Bird said they are not meant to control people, but to keep them safe and to continue to allow them to access the Rogers Pass backcountry.

Assessing snow stability in Glacier National Park at Rogers Pass. Credit Parks Canada/Ryan Bray.

Unfortunately however, rules are sometimes broken and accessing closed areas is the most commonly broken rule.

“We’ve had repeated issues as far as people going into winter prohibited zones,” said Bird.

When rules are broken, zones in the adjacent area to where the infraction happened are closed until the tracks from the rule breaker are covered up so that no one else follows them.

“We need people to respect the system, to take the time to check what’s open and closed and to be informed. Making smart choices will continue to allow access,” she said. “Having someone in a prohibited zone while avalanche control is being conducted would be an absolutely worst case scenario.”

Users can get their free daily permit online or get an annual winter permit so that they don’t have to print one off each morning.

To learn more about the Rogers Pass winter permit system or apply to receive your annual winter permit, click here.

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