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Digitized film depicts ongoing battle between man and snow in Rogers Pass

The Snow War, a film from 1979, was digitized by the National Film Board of Canada
Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

The National Film Board of Canada’s Collection Curator recently digitized The Snow War, a film directed by Harold Tichenor in 1979, depicting the efforts of a mobile avalanche-control team to keep open the important Rogers Pass, situated in Glacier National Park, nestled in between Revelstoke and Golden.

The digitization of the film comes as another season of avalanche control work approaches in Rogers Pass, where the war is ongoing.

“We’re winning so far, but there’s a continuous battle going on, and the war is not over,” said Johan Schleiss, Avalanche Operations officer for Mt. Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks.

As explained in the film, in the late 19th century, Rogers Pass was chosen by the Canadian Pacific Railway as the best route through the Selkirk Mountians. For years, the lives of rail workers were lost to avalanches in the pass, including in 1910 when one avalanche took the lives of 62 men. When the Trans Canada Highway was being built, the avalanche control team was created, and tasked with monitoring and predicting avalanches.

READ MORE: 60 years of avalanche control in Rogers Pass

The first man introduced in the film is Fred Schleiss, Johan’s father. Fred came to Rogers Pass in 1959, and was involved since the beginning, setting up the technical aspect of the avalanche program. He was manager in charge of avalanche operations from 1965-1991, alongside his brother who was second in command.

As a boy, Johan’s father used to take him out of school on big avalanche cycles to watch avalanches in the pass, and watch the howitzer guns trigger them.

“I was super lucky as a kid,” said Johan.

Although 43 years has passed since the filming of Snow War, the film is still a mostly-accurate depiction of the work that is done to keep the public safe from avalanches in Rogers Pass.

“I had an old DVD copy, and it’s starting to get glitchy because I’ve shown it to so many people,” said Johan.

New technologies have been employed where possible, like in the case of the telemetry teletype machine’s used in the 70’s and in the film which pre-date modern computers.

The building shown in the film is the same headquarters that the team resides in today.

One portion of The Snow War explains how snowpack layers are formed through the use of colourful animation, and Johan says that the description it depicts is still accurate and relevant.

Snow profiles are still recorded in a similar fashion, the team still examines the shape of snow crystals in different layers of the snow pack, and tests such as the sheer frame test, which was developed in Rogers Pass to decide whether or not the howitzer would trigger an avalanche, remain the same.

Incredibly, the film crew managed to capture a rescue mission performed by the avalanche control team.

The film climaxes with a scene of the avalanche control team working alongside the Canadian Army — a partership that still stands strong and works very similarly today.

“They can be ready at a moments notice, and they’re absolute experts with that howitzer,” said Johan of the Canadian Army’s continued work in Rogers Pass. We couldn’t do the job without them.”

This upcoming season marks the 61st year of avalanche control in Rogers Pass.

Watch the full digitized version of The Snow War right here:

The Snow War, Harold Tichenor, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

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