Operation PALACI: Controlling the Unpredictable in Rogers Pass

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Article / February 15, 2017

By Kaitlin Buttrum, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

With steep mountains and about 40 feet of snowfall every year, Rogers Pass is no stranger to avalanches. To counter this threat, the CAF sends troops each year to fire artillery at the mountains, creating controlled avalanches before they become a risk to the roads and railways that snake through the pass. The CAF conducts this mission, called Operation PALACI, in support of Parks Canada.

By keeping the pass open, they continue an effort that started almost 150 years ago. In 1881, Major Albert Bowman Rogers discovered the pass as a viable Canadian Pacific Railway route. Soon after, railway work began.

Constructing and maintaining the railway in the rocky, snowy environment of Rogers Pass was difficult for Canadian builders. It took innovative engineering and thousands of workers to complete the cross-country line on November 7, 1885. By 1886, regular trains were running from the Pacific Ocean to the rest of Canada.

Maintaining the pass year round proved to be another challenge. On March 4, 1910, while workers were clearing a previous avalanche, another avalanche hit Rogers Pass, taking the lives of 58 railway workers. Problems from avalanches continued for decades. For example, in January 2009, the highway was closed for over 24 hours, causing major delays.

Due to the amount of snowfall in Rogers Pass, the potential for avalanches is the highest of any public highway in Canada.  There are about 2000 avalanche events per year and 134 potential avalanche paths that could affect the highway.

During the winter months, about 4000 vehicles and up to 40 trains travel through Rogers Pass each day. This amounts to billions of dollars in commercial trade. Operation PALACI aims to operate as a “no fail mission.” This is because whenever an avalanche closes Rogers Pass, there is a large economic impact.

Each year, artillery troops are deployed to Rogers Pass with 105-mm C3 Howitzer guns to create avalanches. CAF members deploy in late November to conduct a calibration shoot to ensure the range and accuracy of the Howitzer. This year, through the first half of the operation, more than 700 cm of snow had fallen at a weather station near Mount Fidelity. The gun team had also fired almost 140 rounds.

“The shooting involved in creating avalanches brings on a high level of stress,” says Lieutenant Nathan Romkey, Task Force Commander of Operation PALACI. “We must perform at the highest level of efficiency.”

Parks Canada avalanche specialists are the directors of this mission. They instruct the CAF to shoot at various pre-arranged targets as needed. Parks Canada also works with the Canadian Pacific Railway to stop trains ahead of the avalanche zones when the CAF is firing.

Operation PALACI is a unique operation with challenges and rewards for those involved.

“Working in the beauty of the mountains and being able to provide a unique service to the people using the highways feels pretty good,” says Master Bombardier Wesley Hudson, who is serving on Operation PALACI.

For Parks Canada Senior Avalanche Officer Jeff Goodrich, the challenges are what make the job interesting. “Dealing with the dynamic nature of the storm systems, the developing snow pack and how that interacts with the traffic and the people moving through the highway is an interesting balance,” he says.

Working with the CAF is another benefit for Mr. Goodrich. “The partnerships we build with the Department of National Defence team in order to take on the large challenge of keeping the highway safe from avalanches are crucial,” he says.

The CAF and Parks Canada will continue working under Operation PALACI until the end of the winter season.

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