Mountain Operators teach Gunners to manage avalanches in British Columbia

Article / January 7, 2019 / Project number: ncr-ar-18-0458

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By Second Lieutenant M.X. Déry, Public Affairs, Maritime Forces Pacific

Rogers Pass, British Columbia — Whenever Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel deploy artillery and high explosives, safety is paramount. However, when operating at the height of winter in the country's most active avalanche territory, the risk increases quickly and must be mitigated with equipment and specialized training.

That training is known as Operation PALACI, during which gunners become trained mountain operators, allowing them to learn navigation on mountainous terrain, and use their 105-mm Howitzers to trigger controlled avalanches that help prevent dangerous randomly occurring ones. They also learn how to be part of the emergency response to avalanches.

When a rotation of Canadian Army avalanche control gunners arrives in Rogers Pass, British Columbia, their first briefing is on avalanche safety provided by the Parks Canada Agency (PCA). This training involves identifying safe places to park the 105-mm C3 Howitzers for precision firing from roadside platforms along the Trans-Canada Highway in Glacier National Park, where the training takes place.

The trainees are issued avalanche beacons, and learn how to report naturally occurring avalanches. By doing the latter, they contribute to the data used to forecast avalanche conditions.

The second part of the training comes from three infantry sergeants from the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre based at Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Ontario who specialize in mountain operations. They are Sergeant Randy Verheye, Sergeant Francis Benoit and Sergeant Jason Debourke.

These experts instructed the gunners in how to avoid getting in the path of an avalanche and how to maximize their odds of survival if they do.

“Basically, mountain operations is a skillset that allows us to move through complex terrain, over mountainous terrain – even through terrain with a lot of exposure to cliffs, gullies and rivers,” explained Sgt Verheye.

Lastly, they showed the gunners how to search for individuals trapped under the snow after an avalanche using beacons, probes and shovels.

“This training is a requirement for them to be out here doing avalanche control,” said Sgt Verheye. “It has come a long way – Parks Canada previously conducted the training, but now we are in a position to provide that.”

Once the gunners are trained, the mountain operations sergeants take a few days to further their own professional development with PCA, going to tall peaks and skimming ridge-lines, which helps hone their ability to move through the area without causing an avalanche.

Moving through snow with skins attached to their skis that allow them to grip snow, they can cover large areas of terrain before removing the skins and skiing down the mountains. Skiing with the extra weight of rucksacks can be a challenge. 

“Once you add your equipment, full fighting order and rifle, it makes it a lot harder,” said Sgt Verheye. “It is a lot easier to get off-balance if your body position isn’t right.”

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