The full extent of the Hope Slide can be seen in this photograph of Johnson Peak taken not long after the January 1965 slide.

Golden Country: What starts as an inconvenient landslide near Hope swiftly becomes a tragedy

In the early morning of January 9, 1965, five people unknowingly made life and death decisions.

At around 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, January 9, 1965, five people had come to a halt on Highway 3—the Hope-Princeton Highway—about 24 km/15 miles east of Hope, stopped by a 15- to 20-foot-high slide that completely blocked the highway.

The first vehicle to reach the slide was a yellow 1957 Ford convertible driven by Bernie Lloyd Beck, a 27-year-old married father of three, with passengers Dennis Arlitt (23) and Mary Kalmakoff (21). They were heading to drop Mary off at her sister’s home in Agassiz, had struck the slide, and the car was now stuck in the freezing snow.

Trucker Norm “Steph” Stephanishin, driving a Kenworth trailer towing an empty gasoline tanker and pup to Vancouver, had pulled up behind them. He was followed by Thomas Starchuck, another trucker, driving 14 tons of hay to the Fraser Valley, who parked behind Steph. In the darkness of the Nicolum Valley, between Johnson Peak to their north (right) and Coulter Peak to their south, they had to decide what to do.

Beck and Arlitt were determined to free the car, while Steph and Starchuk realized that the highway was too narrow to turn their rigs around. Starchuck, who had been on the road for hours, finally decided to retreat to the warmth of his cab and get some sleep, while Stephanishin offered the three young people the use of his cab while he walked back to Sumallo Lodge, 5.5 km/3.5 miles to the east.

It was at around 6 a.m. when he saw a westbound Greyhound bus approaching. David Hughes, the driver, had 18 passengers on board bound for Vancouver, and Stephanishin flagged him down and explained what had happened. Hughes, like Steph, knew that one slide often meant that more were on the way, but the road was too narrow for him to turn around. Instead, he skilfully backed the bus 2.5 km/1.5 miles to the turn-off to the Allison Pass Lumber Company, reversed into it, and headed to Sumallo Lodge.

The phone outside the lodge was dead (unbeknownst to the men, the slide had swept the phone line away). However, there was a two-way radio antenna on the roof, so the men knocked on the door and eventually woke Bob Sowden, who lived there. Steph told him that a slide had blocked the highway two miles to the west, and Sowden tried the radio, but was unable to get a response.

The lodge’s phone was also out, so the only way to get help was to drive to the Department of Highways headquarters at Allison Pass, 38.5 km/24 miles to the east. Stpehaninshin and Hughes helped Sowden clear the snow from his pick-up truck, and Sowden headed back to the slide site to get more information about what sort of equipment would be needed to clear it.

Starchuck was in his truck, Kalmakoff was in Stephanishin’s cab, and Beck and Arlitt were still trying to get the convertible free in between rest stops in Steph’s cab to get warm in the sub-freezing temperature. Sowden said he would get help from the Department of Highways, and headed east toward Allison Pass. On his way he passed Sumallo Lodge, where several of the Greyhound passengers had woken up and were walking around to have a stretch after several hours on the bus.

At 6.45 a.m. another Greyhound bus arrived at the lodge, followed at 6.50 by a CPR mail truck. Stephanishin flagged both vehicles down and explained the situation, and the drivers realized that it would be noon at least before the highway was cleared and they could proceed on their way. They all decided to stay put at the lodge, as Sowden made his way east and the four people at the slide site worked or dozed in the pre-dawn darkness.

Perhaps they were all in the cabs of the two trucks when the second slide struck, with the windows closed and the noise of the engines masking the sound of what was happening high above them on the side of Johnson Peak. A massive slab of rock nearly 1,200 m/4,000 feet high and 800 m/2,640 feet wide let go from the side of the peak and began sliding 600 m/2,000 feet to the valley floor below at 6:58 a.m. The mass of rock, dirt, trees, and snow reached speeds as high as 100 miles an hour as it plunged downwards.

It swept across the highway and the site of a lake variously called Outram or Beaver, which had formed on the site of a prehistoric landslide, gathering thousands of tons of water into its grasp. This changed the nature of the slide; what had previously been a solid mass of debris became fluid, and it swept up the side of Mount Coulter, sheering away trees that were two feet in diameter. At about the 150 m/500 feet mark, the mass paused for a moment; then, obeying the law of gravity, the wave of debris slid back down across the valley, and finally settled to a halt.

Norm Stephanishin had taken the precaution of parking his rig 90 m/300 feet from the initial slide site, and Thomas Starchuk had parked behind him. It’s possible that, if all four of the people at the site had been inside the trucks to keep warm, they would have survived the first wave down the side of Johnson Peak. But when the slide debris, now containing the water from the lake, swept back down the side of Mount Coulter and fanned out to a distance of 3 km/2 miles in both directions along the highway, they were doomed.

To the east Norm Stephanishin, the Greyhound passengers and drivers, and the CPR driver waited at Sumallo Lodge. Highways crews, alerted by Bob Sowden, hurried to the site of the initial accident to free the convertible and start to clear the road of what they thought was an inconvenient, but minor, slide. Dawn was on the verge of breaking, and all was quiet. No one had any idea of the full extent of what they were about to find.

To be continued

 

A map of the Hope Slide area shows the site, the extent of the debris field, and the locations of the three vehicles stopped by the initial slide.

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