Golden Country: In the darkness of a January evening in 1965, a killer lay in wait near Hope

Five people travelling from the Okanagan to the Lower Mainland had no idea what awaited them.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 9, 1965, five people in three separate vehicles were headed east on Highway 3, the Hope-Princeton Highway, travelling toward the Lower Mainland. They had no way of knowing that their lives would be forever linked, and that only one of the five would survive the largest recorded landslide in Canadian history, which buried a three kilometre stretch of the highway less than 25 km/15 miles east of Hope and forever altered the valley’s landscape.

Norm “Steph” Stephanishin, a driver for Arrow Transfer with more than 600,000 miiles under his belt, left his home in Kamloops around 8:30 p.m. on Friday, January 8. His yellow Kenworth oil tanker and pup, filled with gasoline, were headed to Kelowna to unload, and in those pre-Coquihalla days the trip meant driving east on Highway 1 to Monte Creek, then south on Highway 97 to Kelowna. From there he planned to continue west to Vancouver to pick up a load of high-octane aviation fuel, travelling the Hope-Princeton.

Earlier on January 8, 39-year-old Thomas Starchuk, a truck driver for 20 years, had started the journey southward on Highway 97 from Vernon. His single-axle International tractor was pulling a high-boy trailer loaded with 14 tons of hay destined for the Fraser Valley. Normally he would have taken the Fraser Canyon route, but decided there was too much risk of slides on Highway 1. Instead, he opted for Highway 97 to the junction with Highway 3, and then west along the Hope-Princeton.

At the Penticton Co-operative Growers packing plant in Kelowna, 21-year-old Mary Kalmakoff spent her afternoon shift trying to decide whether or not to visit her sister Laura in Agassiz for the weekend. By the evening of January 8 she had decided to go, and asked her friend Dennis Arlitt, 23, if he knew of someone who could drive her.

Arlitt contacted his friend Bernie Lloyd Beck, a 27-year-old married man and father of three, who lived in Penticton. Arlitt knew that Beck loved to drive, and would never turn down a friend’s request. The three left Penticton at around 10:30 p.m. in Beck’s 1957 yellow Ford convertible, heading towards the Hope-Princeton en route to Agassiz.

The late-night traffic was light, with only a handful of vehicles heading east along the Hope-Princeton. At one point a yellow convertible containing two men and a woman passed Norm Stephanishin; then he had the road to himself once more. He passed the Towers Café and Motel, the eastern entrance to Manning Provincial Park, the park’s administration centre, and the Pine Woods Motel, after which the highway climbed to the Allison Pass Summit (1,352 m/4,436 ft), the highest point on the highway and the site of a Department of Highways (as it was then called) headquarters.

Near Skagit Bluff the yellow convertible passed Steph again. He thought about stopping and eating the meal his wife had packed for him in Thermos bottles and a lunchbox, but decided to wait until he got to Hope, which was 15 miles away. He passed Sumallo Lodge—since burned down—at around 4 a.m., and 2.5 km/1.5 miles later passed the turn-off to the Allison Pass Lumber Company.

The highway was narrow—only one lane in each direction—and icy. When he was 3 km/2 miles past the lumber company turn-off, Stephanishin saw headlights shining across the road at an odd angle. As he slowed down and drew closer, he saw that the yellow convertible that had twice passed him appeared to be stopped in front of a 15- to 20-foot-high slide that had completely covered the highway.

Steph pulled off to the side of the road some 90 m/300 feet from the slide and, with a six-volt lamp from his truck, walked forward to inspect the scene. The convertible was jammed into the rocks, snow, and debris, and Bernie Beck, who was limping, came forward to say that in the dark he had thought that the slide was a snow-covered bank at the side of the road. By the time he had realized his error, it was too late to stop, and the vehicle had struck the slide.

Another vehicle pulled up behind them: Thomas Starchuk, who was six hours late in his run. He parked behind Steph’s rig, got out, and the five assessed the situation.

They were in the Nicolum Valley, with 1,990 m/6,630 foot Johnson Peak to their Right (north) and Mount Coulter to their left; nearby was a small lake, called both Beaver and Outram Lake, which had formed on the talus of a massive prehistoric landlside which had swept down Johnson Peak, and left cleary visible scars on the mountainside. The temperature was below freezing, icy snow was falling, and the highway was not wide enough to allow Stephanishin or Starchuk to turn their rigs around.

Beck thought his prized convertible, although damaged at the front, could be driven if it was freed from the slide, and he and Arlitt used a shovel to try to dig it free from the freezing snow. When they had no luck, they asked Steph if he could pull it out, but he had no wish to get too close to the slide; he knew all too well how dangerous they were. On one run he had had a narrow escape from a slide at the bluffs between Walhachin and Cache Creek on Highway 1, only being alerted to it by the flashing lights of vehicles on the other side of the slide. If not for that, he would have hit the slide in the dark and plummeted hundreds of feet to the CPR tracks below.

Steph advised the trio to wait until Highways crews could clear a path through the slide, and said they could warm themselves in the cab of his truck while he walked back to Sumallo Lodge. Starchuk, tired after many hours of driving, decided to return to his cab, stay warm, and get some sleep. Kalmakoff sat in Steph’s cab, Beck and Arlitt kept digging, and Stephanishin began walking.

Above them, unseen in the dark, rose Johnson Peak. None of the five could have had any idea of what was about to happen.

To be continued

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