A Winter in Rogers Pass
The highway in Rogers Pass first opened in 1962. Engineers and Avalanche technicians had been planning a route over this last barrier for the Trans-Canada highway since 1956. The highway would make a crucial link through the mountain barrier following the path of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Selkirk Mountains. The railway is tunneled under the mountain for a major portion of the avalanche hazard. The roadway would go overland and much of the route would have traffic driving under the terminus of avalanche terrain.
Avalanche sheds were built strategically at some of the main avalanche paths covering this 80 km stretch of dangerous highway. There is still a number of avalanche courses that threaten this portion of the TCH in Glacier National Park.
The Snow Research and Avalanche Warning Section (SRAWS) was developed to forecast and to control the avalanches that threaten the main link of travel from British Columbia to the rest of Canada.
Noel Gardner was the pioneer avalanche forecaster for Rogers Pass. I was a young man from the Foothills of Alberta when I had the opportunity to work with Noel Gardner and his crew of avalanche observers in Rogers Pass in 1963 – a year after the highway was opened through this section of the snow shrouded Selkirk mountains.
An Offer of Employment
My father, Bert Mickle and Noel Gardener were childhood friends. Noel’s father, Clem Gardner was a noted cowboy and pioneer rancher west of Calgary. Noel had left the ranching life to work in the mountains as a young man. He was a strong skier and eventually joined the Park Warden Service. Noel taught fellow wardens how to ski as the need for public safety training within the warden service became a priority in the 1950’s. Noel was a warden in Glacier National park until he left the warden service and became one of the first avalanche researchers in Canada.
Dad ran into Noel in Banff one day and they visited in one of the local drinking establishments. Our family had recently taken over a guiding & outfitting business in Lake Louise. We also had spent the previous winter managing Skoki Lodge for ski touring. Noel had spent a few seasons packing supplies and guiding skiers into Skoki. The conversation eventually came around to skiing and our family involvement with Skoki Lodge. Noel suggested that I might benefit by coming to work for him at Rogers Pass and learn about winter traveling in the mountains.
I was quite excited about the prospect of living at a research station, getting a steady wage and learning to ski in the process. I eventually received an official letter from the Government of Canada offering me a job as a research assistant in Glacier National Park. Skis would be supplied but I must purchase my own ski boots. I immediately went into the Hudson’s Bay and bought a pair of ski boots for $10.00.
The Public Work Camp
It was November, 1963. I caught the Greyhound bus from Lake Louise and was dropped off near a pile of snow at the Public Work camp on Rogers Pass. It was hard to make out the buildings in the fog as I waded through the snow to the kitchen building at the camp. I asked where the avalanche research office was located. The cook pointed to a snow covered trailer and said – so you are going to work for old Snowflake – you poor kid.
I was given a couple of blankets and pointed to one of the cabins to find a bunk. The cabin consisted of a few iron cots and a small heater in the middle of the floor. There were lanes through the snow banks to the bathroom and shower building and to the kitchen/dining room from the scattering of these basic quarters.
One other person shared the cabin. He was a young ‘swamp cook’ (cook’s helper). He warned me to be careful where I sit at the dining area. Some of the old truckers and snowplow drivers had their selected places at the table and guarded them with passion.
I would only be staying at the camp one or two nights a shift. Most of the time I would be living at the Fidelity Research Station. Mt Fidelity is on the west end of Glacier park. A steep road switchbacks its way up the mountain to a cluster of buildings at 6150 feet. A Tucker snow-cat or ski-doos were the means of transportation from the Trans-Canada Highway to this remote spot. Fidelity records the highest snow falls in British Columbia – up to 15 meters (50 feet) each year. I would be kept busy shoveling snow, maintaining the power generators, driving the snow-cat up and down the road to transport visitors and workers. I would be taking snow readings in the huge weather plot as soon as I was trusted to keep accurate recordings. I would also be making ski trips to help with avalanche profiles all over Fidelity Mountain with Noel and his Avalanche Observers.
Meanwhile as soon as I walked into my assigned sleeping quarters, Skip, the ‘swamp cook’ was talking my ear off and filling me in on living at Rogers Pass in the snow canopied plywood shacks. The camp was strategically located between avalanche paths adjacent to the highway at the top of the pass. I noticed a rather strange rank smell and asked him about it. He looked a little guilty, then swore me to secrecy as he moved a chair under a trap door that accessed the ceiling. I peeked through the opening and there was a large aluminum pot bubbling and fermenting in the rafters. Skip and the cook were in the process of making home brew. I didn’t ask what the contents were in the reeking pot – and there was a window that I could open next to my bunk.
The next morning , after breakfast in the dining shack with a group of sour looking highway workers, I was greeted by Fred Schleiss. He shook my hand and was genial and outgoing. Fred and his brother, Walter worked under Noel Gardner as avalanche observers. They were originally from Austria and very experienced skiers and mountaineers.
Fred drove me to Revelstoke to sign on at the park office. I was then driven back to the warden station at Flat Creek, which was across the highway from the snow road to Fidelity. The warden, Bob, invited me in for a cup of coffee while I waited for Noel Gardner to come down and pick me up. Bob’s huge German Shepherd, Max, glared at me but didn’t really seem to want to eat me. Bob seemed surprised – he said he usually has to hold him down when a stranger arrives. Fred and Walter would not get out of the truck while Max was on the loose.
Bob grinned and said – so you get to work with old ‘Snowflake’ eh – good luck – and here he comes now”.
A truck skidded to a stop in the parking lot. Bob went to the door and hollered for Noel to come in and have a cup of coffee. A voice thundered back that he didn’t have time and “if that young Mickle is in there to hurry up – we have to get up the mountain”.
I grabbed my duffel bag and headed out the door as Bob gave me a nod and a wink. Max actually wagged his tail.
This was my first meeting with Noel Gardner. He was old and tall and rugged and imposing. His eyes seemed to pierce through me as he looked me up and down. He shook my hand and gestured me to follow him. We walked up the driveway, across the highway and up to a large yellow tracked vehicle. I had trouble keeping up with him. He had a long stride even though he had a noticeable limp. I threw my duffel bag in the back of the snow cat and stepped up on the pontoons and into the passenger side. Noel said that I would be driving the next time I got into this machine. The engine shook and roared to life and we were headed up the steep hill to Fidelity Research Station – my home for the next five months.
We climbed steadily through cedar and spruce forests until we finally reached Pooh Corner and Grandpa Pooh corner, affectionately named after grizzly encounters, that probably bore no resemblance to ‘Winnie the Pooh’. The trees became thinner and smaller as we climbed to an open side hill and buildings suddenly appeared out of the fog.
We stopped near the door of the first building and Noel said – come on in and meet my wife –
then we will set you up with skis and head up to the ‘Round hill’ to check the instruments. The anemometer wasn’t working (whatever that was).
We were met at the door by two enthusiastic German Shepherd dogs. Noel’s face lightened up as he greeted Smokey and Thor. The two dogs jumped all over him in their exuberance to compete for their master’s attention. Smokey was the older of the two and Thor was still in the adolescent stage of all paws and tongue.
After making my way past the wagging tails I met Noel’s wife Gladys. She was by far, the friendliest face that I had seen so far in Rogers Pass. She gave me a warm handshake and asked me in for tea and cookies. Noel seemed impatient but was not about to interfere with his wife’s control of the the kitchen.
When I took off my toque and sat down Noel did inform me that I would have to trim my sideburns. He said side burns and long hair are OK when you are wrangling horses but not in the ski world. Noel must have been frustrated in the later 1960’s!
The Round Hill
I barely finished my tea and Noel jumped up and said to come over to the next building where I would be living and where the skis were stored. I had a quick look at my quarters, then Noel picked me out a pair of ‘Head Standard’ skis, a ruck-sack and a pair of skins. He looked doubtfully at my Hudson Bay ski boots but showed me how to fit them in the harness and how to put the climbing skins on my skis. He suggested that I change my clothes and be outside in five minutes and we would go to the ‘Round Hill’.
I had skied and used skins a few times the previous year when our family had first opened Skoki Lodge at Lake Louise for spring skiing. My downhill skiing skills were limited to going straight down until I crashed – then getting up and doing it again. I was looking forward to maybe learning how to steer the damn things.
Noel met me at the door and started breaking a trail almost straight up from the buildings. I followed dutifully along and managed somehow to get around the switchbacks as we climbed farther up into the foggy unknown. The trail finally started to level off as we approached an open hill aptly called the ‘Round hill’. There was a small building and as the fog started to clear a little I could make out a steep drop-off and what looked like a lake far below in the valley. Noel said it was ‘Schuss Lake’ and I would be making trips there to pump water into a storage tank – which supplied the water for the Research Station. He handed me a shovel and directed me to shovel out the door to the shack while he took some temperatures and checked the snow stakes. I finished shoveling and Noel was looking up a pole with some wind cups on top of it. He told me to climb the pole and clean the rime frost out of the cups so that the anemometer would work properly. I now realized what an anemometer was. I clung onto the slippery steel rungs as I slowly inched my way up the pole. I was gaping straight down at Schuss lake. It looked to be a thousand feet below my precarious perch. I finally reached the top of the pole and started scratching at the cups with one hand while I kept a death hold on the pole with the other and held the cups still with my chin.
Noel was losing patience and said that I would have to hold the anemometer with one hand while I scraped out the ice with the other. My knees were shaking but I finally performed the risky task and made it back to the ground (if you can call 15 feet of snow depth the ground).
Noel was taking the skins off his skis for the return trip down the mountain.
I asked him if I should do the same. He shrugged and said “suit yourself” and started down the hill through the flat light. I took off my skins and started following his tracks. I kept going faster until I took my first wipe out – picked myself up and started following the tracks again. Noel was waiting over a ridge as I made another spectacular tumble and ended up in a heap even below where Noel was waiting. He skied down to me and almost looked concerned until I managed to pick myself up again. He told me to follow him and traversed the side of the hill almost parallel then kick turned and headed the opposite direction. He told me to keep doing that until I reached the station. He took off and made some nice turns out of site. I worked on these traverses until I came in site of the buildings then decided to try a little downhill again. I thought that I had almost made a turn when I again became airborne and somehow went right over top of a small fir tree. I finally made it down and staggered over to the buildings. Gladys came out – she had been watching me from the window. She said that she would give me some skiing lessons – or they would probably be shipping me home in a basket!
Working With Vitus
Noel showed me how to service the two light plants, all the places that I would have to keep shoveled out and my first session on taking snow readings. I went into my new quarters and hung all my soaking clothes up above the heat register to dry. I would be doing a lot of that all winter. I would be working directly under Vitus Germain, who was also stationed at Fidelity. Vitus (or Vic as Noel called him) was from Germany and a mountain guide. Vitus arrived a few days later and was not too happy about becoming a ski instructor and soon told me so.
Our first job, after my morning shoveling chores were done, was to head up to Schuss lake and pump water. I was handed a pack frame with a heavy Gerry can full of gas mounted on it. Vic told me to put it on my back and follow him up the narrow trail to the lake. I was struggling to stay on my skis as the hefty pack seemed to drive me deeper into the dense snow pack. Vic stopped once in a while and seemed to enjoy my obvious struggle – stating “Vell – dis skiing is not alvays so glamorous as some people think! We finally made it to the lake and I was able to dump my heavy load in the shack that hung over the edge of the frozen water. Vic pointed to the ax and I chopped a hole in the ice. We put in the hose and started up the wajax fire pump to pump water. It took about an hour to fill the tank that supplied the research station with a water supply for another week or so.
When we returned to the station and I again dried my clothes, I noticed that my $10 ski boots were both ripped open at the back – this was the days before duct tape so I kept a good supply of adhesive tape on hand for the rest of the winter.
Vitus and I had the same days off – I figured out that I was the assistant to the assistant avalanche observer. He had a young family in Banff so I was often able to travel back and forth with him in his Volkswagen Beetle to Lake Louise where I spent my days off.
A Day Off at Lake Louise
My father, Bert Mickle along with his old trapping partner Slim Aikens had taken a contract to clear the trees off the right-of-way for a new power line from Lake Louise village to upper Lake Louise. The power for Chateau Lake Louise was provided by a turbine in Louise Creek up to this time. Roy (Smokey) Adams and Johnny Eden rounded out the slashing crew. They lived in the
small cabin at our horse stables behind Deer Lodge, in upper Lake Louise. The shack was not much better than a glorified tent. Vitus would drop me off by the Post Hotel and I would wander over to the Service Station. My friend Earl (Cowboy) Billington or Michael Boyle would often give me a ride up the hill to share the cramped quarters with Dad and the gang. I spent many of my days off wading through the deep snow to help with the tree clearing. We would have to shovel down to the tree base, cut and pile the tree and branches, then burn everything. We towed rubber tires on an old toboggan to help burn the green logs and branches.
Slim would carefully slip under the canopy to cut the trunk with a Swede saw so as not to get doused with the snow laden branches. Slim was usually an easy going fellow but one day as he meticulously cleared the snow away from the tree trunk and was about to start sawing, Smokey crept up and gave the tree a smack with his ax. It was a good thing that Smokey got out of there fast because a snow drenched Slim came up fighting mad to pursue his antagonist. It was a while before he cooled down on the inside (he was pretty cool on the outside).
I was almost glad when my days off ended and I met my rather pessimistic traveling partner to head back to Rogers Pass. Vic was not overly impressed with the smell of burnt trees and rubber as I settled into his little car for the tedious drive back to the Selkirks.
It was usually late by the time we pulled into the Public Work camp and found our bunks. I tried to be quiet and not wake up Skip, the swamp cook, and have to listen to him complain about life at the camp.
I woke up one morning to retrieve my after shave lotion that I had forgotten in the washroom the week before. It was still on the shelf above the row of sinks but completely empty. I thought that somebody in the camp should smell good but Skip told me that probably one of the alcoholic truck drivers had drank the shaving lotion. I asked him how is home made brew was doing!
The next morning Fred or Walter would drive Vitus and I to Flathead to begin our week at Fidelity. When we arrived at the Warden Station, Max would set up a ferocious barking and snarl while baring his sharp fangs. It was my little moment of retaliation when I would walk up to him and he would greet me like an old friend while my macho European companions stood back in reverence.
We either took the double-track skidoo or the snow-cat up to the station and I would often be busy for the rest of the day catching up with the shoveling as the snow piled higher above the doors and windows.
Vitus was not very interested in giving me ski lessons so Gladys got me to side tramp a large area above the road adjacent to the buildings. She then came out on her skis and patiently taught me some basic ski lessons to survive the winter. She seemed to make it her mission that I would not be sent home in a basket after all.
I graduated to the point that I was invited (or was it ordered) to go on a field trip with Noel and Vic to the top of Fidelity Mountain. We passed the ‘Round hill’ and kept traveling up the ridge towards the top of the mountain. We advanced to the last ridge at the top. I could see a building through the snow – it looked like an outhouse on the peak of the mountain. There is a sharp ridge near the top and we took off our skis to walk the last few meters to the top. Noel walked ahead with a rope stretched out between him and Vic. I started across in the same steps when the cornice broke away. I slipped over the edge but grabbed the rope and was able to regain my
foothold and move on up to the top. Noel looked a little worried. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me until the clouds drifted away and I was looking straight down a couple of thousand feet to the highway winding through the valley below. I was not looking forward to returning the same way but soon found that we would be skiing down an open face to Schuss lake on the other side of the ridge.
Noel opened the door of the building that looked like an outhouse and we went down a ladder to the lower part of the building. It was called an ‘Oregon House’ and the main part of the building was completely covered with snow. We did some snow readings, cleaned the heavy rime from the anemometer and I somehow survived the long ski down to Schuss lake and back to the research station.
Noel and Gladys invited Vic and I over for supper that night and Gladys just shook her head when Noel told her about my being suspended over the top of Fidelity Mountain. I think that he was joking when he said that I nearly started an uncontrolled avalanche over the highway.
Noel was in a friendly mood and even offered me a drink of Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey. It was an unfamiliar taste but I made out OK.
Noel asked me about how our family enjoyed operating Skoki Lodge and then reminisced about his days of packing supplies into Skoki on skis for Lizzie Rummel. He told me one story about packing in a crate of eggs over ‘Packer’s Pass’ and when he arrived at the lodge Lizzie had a problem. A rather heavy lady had trouble making it into Skoki and Lizzie wasn’t sure if she could make it back out to civilization without help. Noel offered to carry the lady up to the top of Deception and help her make her way safely back to Temple. Lizzie was relieved and Noel managed to piggy-back the guest to the top of the Pass. Noel was not known for his patience but managed to get the woman safely out by late afternoon. He had not negotiated the financial terms for this chore. The lady asked Noel what she owed him and Noel asked her what she weighed.
He got paid for packing supplies by the pound. He said that he made pretty good money that day.
Noel had his personal single track skidoo that no one else dared to touch. I witnessed his wrath twice over his pet skidoo – the first time it was aimed at the park maintenance supervisor and the next time his anger was aimed at me.
He decided to service his skidoo in the garage that was in the same building as the power plants. It had an overhead door and Noel used the frame of the door to hoist his skidoo in the air to adjust the track. The frame, skidoo and door collapsed in a heap. Noel managed to jump out of the way and only his pride was hurt. His face was red and he was foaming at the mouth when he grabbed the radio and hollered over the air at the maintenance supervisor about the poor quality workmanship that he had to put up with. A skidoo with two carpenters showed up in record time. One of the carpenters made the mistake of saying that the door frame was not meant to be a hoist for maintaining snow machines. He soon had Noel standing over him shaking his fist and yelling at him to get the so-and-so door fixed so that it would hold a tank if it had to! When ‘Old Snowflake’ gave an order everybody jumped.
I was busy shoveling snow one day. We mounted the plow on the snow cat and Vitus started to level the area in front of the station. Noel had sped up from the valley on his skidoo and went inside the station. Vic motioned me to start the skidoo and move it away from the doorway. I pulled the rope, started the skidoo and moved it over by the garage. I didn’t know that Noel
always stopped the machine by pulling the choke. He was in a hurry to head back down the valley and rushed out to start the skidoo. When he spotted it beside the garage he did not look happy but strode over and pulled the rope. The skidoo was flooded. His face got redder as he almost pulled the rope out of its housing with his efforts to start the machine. He yelled at Vitus “where is that f g kid!!” Vitus looked scared and pointed at me. I was busy shoveling as Noel
towered over me and almost calmly told me never to touch his skidoo again – his voice became much louder as he told me to shovel steps all the way up to the Round Hill. He stomped off and luckily for me, got the skidoo started and roared off down to the valley.
I asked Vic if he though that Noel was serious about shoveling steps all the way to the Round Hill. He didn’t think so but suggested that I shovel a good trail up as far as the propane tanks that were about fifty feet up the hill – at least it was going the right direction. Vic seemed to almost sympathize with me – I think that he was worried that I would tell Noel that it was his idea for me to move the skidoo.