Keeping the trains on track

The famous White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) Railway is a busy and beautiful journey through the White Pass of Alaska and the Yukon. Every year, as Alaska and the Yukon emerge from winter, so does the work to make sure these trains can carry tourists safely through avalanche paths and safely along the railway.

Bill Glude, owner-operator of Alaska Avalanche Specialists, based out of Juneau, has been working on the WP&YR each spring, since 2007, ensuring the trains can start on time and safely.

Glude was born on the coast of Maine and wandered to Alaska as soon as he was out of school in 1974. “I’ve been here ever since, with breaks for world travel,” said Glude. “I started learning about snow when I was caught in an avalanche in the Cascade Mountains, while studying Geology at the University of Washington, and narrowly escaped going over a cliff and down a gully that I later found out had killed everyone who was carried there by slides. I was lucky to survive!”

Often, many who work in the industry have at one point experienced avalanches, and, after his near-death experience by avalanche, Glude began a lifelong relationship in understanding, managing and educating about avalanches. “It happened that Dr. Ed LaChapelle, one of the pioneer avalanche researchers in North America, was teaching at my university,” Glude recalls. “I latched onto him, took every snow-related course he taught, and worked for him on research projects.”

When he arrived in Alaska, after college, Glude realized that he knew little about the varied climate, terrain and snowpacks of the North. “So I followed old guys around, learning from them,” he said. “By the mid-1970s, I had started a backcountry ski-guiding business. Along with most of the guides and rescue-team members, I took the first Level 1 avalanche course offered in Alaska, in 1976. The teachers met with a group of us afterwards, explained that they could not travel enough to address the need for avalanche education in Alaska, and offered to help train us to teach the courses ourselves.”

So that is how Glude and his friend and park ranger, Doug Fesler, started the Alaska Avalanche School, in 1978, as an educational program through Alaska State Parks. For the next 12 years, they travelled all over Alaska and taught in various communities, all winter, bringing a guest instructor for each course.

Glude started working for the WP&YR in 2007 as a specialist, at first just doing an annual evaluation. Now he does a full two-month program involving daily fieldwork and forecasting, training crews and doing helicopter blasting missions two to five times each spring.

“Our crews usually start annual snow removal around April 1, to have the railroad open for the first cruise ships on about May 1,” said Glude. “I sometimes show up a couple weeks early to do pre-startup blasting and fieldwork, or for special construction projects. The highest and most-shaded starting zones have put large slides on the tracks in late May, well into our passenger-carrying season, so I usually work until a final blasting mission around that time confirms that there is not much snow left to slide on them.”

It may not be unique, as there are mountain railroads and highways worldwide that have similar problems and similar programs. “Most of what we do follows industry standards and tried-and-true methods. Most of our time is spent in the field observing and evaluating conditions so we can time the missions appropriately and do our daily weather and avalanche forecasts,” said Glude. “We are innovating on the ice management, though. No one really has a good method for predicting, preventing, melting or releasing water [sourced] ice that falls off rock slabs … so we are experimenting.”

Glude is a professional member of the American Avalanche Association and a certified avalanche instructor. He also spends much of the year working in Japan on avalanche education, when he’s not in Juneau or Skagway.

White Pass & Yukon Route trains are carrying passengers over the spectacular route. You can visit for more information. And for more information on Alaska avalanche specialists, visit

Did you know? Snow-management process …

For blasting work on the railroad, crews assemble various 5- to 25-kilogram charges, in several configurations depending on their intended use, and then deliver them to the starting zones from a low-hovering helicopter with the doors removed and the crew securely harnessed. Charges have two-metre fuses with about a four-and-a-half-minute burn time and are double-capped and fused to eliminate duds. They drop two to four charges per pass, timing them carefully with dual stopwatches, then fly away to observe from a distance when their predetermined time limit is reached.

They also have smaller paths that they can ski cut* to release slides, or can do belayed cornice drops onto paths to release the slides at times suitable for their schedule. Belayed cornice drops are going out and jumping on the cornice while on belay to get it to release; removing it and any instability on the slope below. Sometimes it will require shovelling or using a rope to help cut it loose.

*Ski cutting involves purposefully trying to trigger a snow slope with your skis and is highly dangerous, as the skier (if inexperienced or unlucky) can be pulled into the avalanche they are triggering.

The annual explosives order (enough to have on hand for a high-use winter) is about 2,000 kilograms.

Innovative ice management: they have used very large ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil) charges (25 kg of ANFO; the biggest we can physically drop from a hovering helicopter), in non-skid net bags, which are dropped from a helicopter in low hover, to shatter the ice and make it more absorbent of solar energy. It does not release right away, as snow would, but it promotes melting and releases within a short time. They tried water bombing by using sea water from a helicopter-slung firefighting bucket, and they are likely to try applying environmentally-friendly ice-melting chemicals to key areas, also using a firefighting bucket.

A compilation, by Doug Fesler, of avalanche incidents, in maintenance logs from the 1940s through 1980 (when the railroad operated year-round), lists around 900 events. Their recent records, from 2014 on, add about 100 events to that list.

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