As Winter Wears On, ‘Avalanche Alley’ Comes Alive

By Beacon Staff

ESSEX – Hours before the snow-covered mountains along Glacier National Park’s southern boundary began to slide on March 2, Ted Steiner could see it coming. From his home in Whitefish, BNSF Railway’s avalanche safety consultant and forecaster watched as the temperature in the mountains high above John F. Stevens Canyon, just east of Essex, increased from negative 12 degrees to 12 above Fahrenheit in just one hour. Meanwhile, on the canyon floor, the temperature still hovered around zero.

A moist Pacific weather system was overrunning the entrenched arctic air on the valley floor, resulting in heavy, wet snowfall piling up on an already weak snowpack. Steiner got his gear, fired up the truck and headed for Essex.

“It was all coming together,” Steiner said later. “If I’m concerned about (avalanche conditions) then I’m up there.”

Shortly before 11:30 p.m., 12 hours after Steiner saw the conditions change, BNSF workers came across an avalanche between Essex and Marias Pass covering both main line tracks with 7 feet of snow, trees and debris. The railroad’s busy line connecting the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest was closed.

The slide was the first of many to hit last week near Marias Pass, in the slide-prone canyon known to railroaders and locals alike as “Avalanche Alley.” Four days later, on March 6, three more avalanches tore through the canyon, one covering a railroad snowshed and another so large it temporarily plugged the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The slides again closed the railroad and, for a time, U.S. Highway 2. Steiner, who has studied slides in the canyon for nearly a decade, said last week’s avalanche activity was some of the most widespread and destructive he has ever seen.

“These were monsters,” he said. “(But) BNSF and its predecessors, like the Great Northern Railway, have been running here since 1892 and there’s always been avalanche problems.”

These avalanches are well documented in newspaper articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s, including the Feb. 9, 1893 edition of The Columbian, a now defunct Columbia Falls newspaper, which stated “the work of clearing the Great Northern track of snow is being carried on vigorously, but the mountain division is proving a harder piece of road than any on the system.” Those old reports also document some of the tragedies along the right-of-way caused by sudden snow slides. Steiner estimates that between 1892 and the 1930s, more than a dozen people were killed because of avalanches east of Essex.

One of the most gruesome accounts came from 1912, when an avalanche took out a snowplow east of Essex and carried it down an embankment. The engineer’s body was found days later, pinched beneath the plow. The newspaper reported that the tips of his fingers were worn off from “clawing in the snow and dirt trying to effect his release.”

Another tragedy struck on March 4, 1929, when a mail train was swept down a mountainside by an avalanche. Three men died and more were injured. To combat the slides, the railroad built snowsheds over the tracks in areas that are particularly prone to avalanches. But problems still arise on occasion, and on Jan. 28, 2004 an empty grain train derailed when two separate avalanches hit it. The railroad was closed for 29 hours.

That incident led to the creation of BNSF’s Avalanche Safety Program. Steiner, who works for David Hamre and Associates, an avalanche mitigation and consulting company, was tapped to lead the program and between November and April is based in a small office in Essex. From that office, Steiner studies weather patterns and, at least once or twice a week, heads into the field to dig snow pits and test the conditions. The information Steiner gathers in the field and from forecasts is then given to the railroad. But perhaps the most important aspect of Steiner’s job is safety. Every winter, he leads avalanche safety courses for BNSF employees who work in Essex. The course is about six hours long and includes transceiver training and rescue techniques.

Ted Steiner, BNSF’s avalanche safety consultant and forecaster, is pictured in Whitefish last week. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

“We’re very fortunate to have a railway in this community that is as focused on safety as BNSF is,” Steiner said. “The railroad has been top notch in this regard.”

The railroad also uses five weather stations in the canyon, two owned by the U.S. Geological Survey and three by BNSF. The first one was installed around 2002, a project spearheaded by USGS’ Blase Reardon.

Last week’s avalanche cycle began when rain and wet snow fell on a weak snowpack established earlier in the year. The slide that hit the tracks on the night of March 2 was the first to impact the rails since 2011.

Larger slides began coming down early on March 6, including one that went over a railroad snowshed, once again closing the line for the rest of the day. Two others came down near U.S. Highway 2, the most spectacular traveling down a drainage near the Goat Lick Overlook east of Essex. The slide went under the highway bridge before plugging the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

On March 6, BNSF applied for an emergency special-use permit from Glacier National Park to conduct avalanche mitigation along the railroad, using a “daisy bell” suspended from a helicopter. The “daisy bell” is a hydrogen combustion cylinder that fires pressure waves at the snowpack to trigger slides. While avalanche control was conducted, U.S. Highway 2 was closed between West Glacier and East Glacier Park. The railroad and highway reopened later that day and Steiner said valuable information was gathered by conducting the mitigation.

How avalanche conditions will change in the coming weeks is anyone’s guess. Flathead Avalanche Center Interim Director Erich Peitzsch said the weather will determine what happens in the mountains along Glacier’s southern boundary and the surrounding area. On March 10, the center issued a special bulletin advising backcountry travelers of an elevated avalanche danger. The bulletin said natural and human caused avalanches were likely in the coming days.

“Last week’s storm tipped the scales,” he said. “You put that much weight on a weak snowpack and you’re going to get big avalanches.”

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