Avalanche wipes out tractor-trailer at Rogers Pass

We went on a tow truck ride-along to Rogers Pass with Columbia Towing's John Kampman to salvage a tractor-trailer wiped out by an avalanche

John Kampman of Columbia Towing assesses the scene after an avalanche took out a tractor-trailer unit in Rogers Pass on Feb. 15.

John Kampman of Columbia Towing assesses the scene after an avalanche took out a tractor-trailer unit in Rogers Pass on Feb. 15.

The semi-truck was jacked a metre off the ground, thrown off the side of the road by an avalanche of snow. The front windshield was smashed in and parts of the truck were strewn about. The driver experience minor injuries and taken to hospital.

Meanwhile, John Kampman was eyeing the scene, figuring out just how he was going to get that tractor-trailer unit out of the snow, on to the road and then back to Revelstoke.

The owner of Columbia Towing, he was on site after the semi was struck by an avalanche in Rogers Pass in the early hours of Saturday,  Feb. 15.

Kampman has been in the towing business since 1996, when he traded a bunch of vehicles and a gun he had collected for a towing company in Invermere. In 2000, he purchased Columbia Towing in Revelstoke, eventually acquiring businesses in Golden and Sicamous. He now he runs a company with three locations servicing the most treacherous stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Kampman grew up on a farm in Southern Ontario, in an area near Toronto slowly getting devoured by urban sprawl. He drove tractors on the farm before he was 10-years-old. As a teenager, he hung out a garage where he got his first taste of being around tow trucks.

However, it wasn’t until years later — after spending time as a mechanic and a carpenter — that he finally entered the industry. It happened after one of his legs was crushed in a work accident. Unable to be on his feet much, he looked for work that would be easier on him. That’s when he ended up driving tow trucks.

In his years on the road, Kampman has seen the worst. As we drove up to Rogers Pass he pointed out all the spots where he’d had to haul vehicles up the bank and back onto the road. He showed me the rock where a woman was pinned after getting thrown from her tractor-trailer. She was sleeping while her partner drove and it wasn’t until hours later when they pulled the truck away that anyone saw the body.

He talked about his week, which has been pretty much non-stop since the snow returned last Monday. His latest stretch of work began Friday just after midnight. From then, it was one call after another – crashes, pulling snowplows out of ditches and more – catching some shuteye when he could. He keeps going because he needs the work and you don’t know when things might slow down. It’s an expensive business to be in — the tow truck we were driving in cost about $300,000 and Columbia Towing has a fleet of 30 vehicles between its three locations.

By the time I’d joined up with Kampman at the Columbia Towing yard in the Revelstoke industrial park on Saturday at 8 a.m. he’d had five hours sleep in the past 32 hours. Combined with all the trauma he’s witnessed, it’s no wonder he told me he’s considering finding a new line of work.

We drove up to Rogers Pass on an empty road, shut down due to the avalanche. Traffic controllers let us through quickly — they all recognized Kampman at the wheel of his heavy wrecker tow truck, a familiar site on these roads. On the hood scrawled the slogans “23 1/2 hour service” and “We’ll pick you up.”

We stopped a little before the slide path and switched on our avalanche beacons.

We drove the rest of the way, stopping between the Loop Brook and Asulkan parking lots, where a small slide path coming from Abbott Ridge reached the road. It was a small path compared to many of the others that run onto the highway, but it still packed enough punch to take out the tractor trailer that Kampman was scoping out.

The semi had been nearly knocked right off the road. The cab was hoisted in the air by the snow and perched over the bank. The trailer was sideways, stretching diagonally across the westbound lane.

Parks Canada had already cleared the snow off the road but Kampman asked them to place some snow on the right side of the vehicle to make sure it didn’t flip over as they pulled it loose.

His colleague Darrell Kerr had followed us up there with a second tow truck and Ron Taylor had brought up a truck cab to tow away the trailer once it was moved.

They worked together, shovelling snow and hooking heavy chains up to the semi. They put two at the back of the trailer and few more on the tractor. They positioned the two tow trucks and attached large cables to the chains. Then they started hauling, controlling the cables with joysticks at the back of the truck.

Slowly the semi moved but its weight was such that Kampman tow truck was skidding in place, despite the outriggers that were digging into the asphalt. Occasionally they would re-position their vehicles, adjusting the chains as needed and slowly but surely, the semi was moved from the concrete-like snow that encased it. Kampman worked the cab and Kerr worked the trailer. Together they dislodged the semi, getting it back on the road, where Taylor hopped in and parked it to the side — it still ran.

The semi was split into its component sections and Taylor hooked his cab onto the trailer, while Kampman hooked his tow truck onto the cab for the drive back to Revelstoke.

For Kampman, the day continued. While moving the semi two more calls came in – another snow plow was stuck near Rogers Pass, and there was another call near Crazy Creek.

At some point he would get to sleep.