Researcher excited about the Land of Thundering Snow project

John Woods is excited and enthusiastic about the Revelstoke Museum’s new project — Land of Thundering Snow. The $250,000 project is a web-based exhibit on the history of avalanches and avalanche research and rescue technology that the museum has been asked to produce for the Virtual Museum of Canada. The retired Parks Canada scientist, has already written one book about avalanches. David F. Rooney photo

By David F. Rooney

The Land of Thundering Snow, the Revelstoke Museum & Archives online exhibition for the Virtual Museum of Canada, is going to be as near-definitive a portrayal of avalanches and avalanche research as possible, says John Woods, the scientist tapped to be the project’s lead researcher.

“This is an opportunity to bring the whole story together and present it to Canadians,” he said in an interview.

Woods said much of the information to be gathered for the $250,000 project, which is funded by the Virtual Museum of Canada, currently resides in the archives of entities as diverse and provincial and federal governments, corporations such as the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways (which both maintain routes through treacherous, avalanche-prone mountain ranges), the Canadian Avalanche Centre and other archives.

“But also we’re hoping to get people from Revelstoke or anywhere else in avalanche country who have their own avalanche stories or family avalanche stories, pictures of big slides and those kinds of things to bring them in an share them with us,” said Woods, the author of Snow War — An illustrated history of Rogers Pass, Glacier National Park, BC.

There’s a whole but not publicly well-known history of avalanche studies in Canada from the men who wintered in the Rogers Pass in the late 19th century and recorded the location, frequency and size of avalanches there prior to the construction of the CPR to James Webb, who wintered in the Pass in the 1950s and plotted the location of avalanches as part of the first survey for the Trans-Canada Highway.

“He went on to do other things,” Woods said. “He wrote a report in 1954 and than Noel Gardener, his colleague, continued on.”

Interviews, diaries, letters, photographs, artifacts such as an original beacon or one of the artillery shells used by the military in the Pass are all examples of the kids of things he hopes people will bring forward for this project.

“Our geographic scope is immense,” Woods said. “The story of avalanches in this country goes back to 1782 when an avalanche wiped out a native community near Nain, Newfoundland, to the March 1910 avalanche that killed 58 workers — many of them Japanese — and the Granduc mining camp disaster near Stewart, BC, in 1965 that killed 26 people.”

Avalanches are, for everyone who lives in the mountains a fact of life. Every year people are killed in the backcountry and some years are inevitably worse than others. Take 2003 when 14 people were killed in two separate avalanches near Revelstoke. That death toll helped motivate the government of Canada, Alberta and BC to provide stable funding for the until-then poorly funded Canadian Avalanche Centre. Thanks in part of that improved funding, the CAC now provides timely and accurate avalanche forecasts, avalanche training programs and other services. What’s more, the annual death toll from avalanches seems to prompt a lively debate about safety in the backcountry.

Woods is not the only person working on this project. It’s manager is Haley Johnson, additional research is being conducted by Tomo Fujimura, Kathryn Whiteside is handling the web design and Shane McCallum is the project’s technical expert.

Major partners in this endeavour include the Canadian Avalanche Centre, the Revelstoke Railway Museum, Okanagan College and Parks Canada.

As Woods noted, the public, too, can help bring this to fruition.  The Museum is asking anyone with stories, journals, photographs or safety equipment to contact Cathy English at

Land of Thundering Snow is expected to be launched on the Virtual Museum website in July 2014.