A DEADLY DATE WITH THE HOPE SLIDE

in Fraser/Hope by

SLIDE 3 copyThe catastrophic event, commonly referred to as the Hope Slide occurred on Saturday morning, January 9th, 1965. There has been books and articles written on this geological event, enough to fill a bookcase. I would like to revisit this bit of history from the aspect of those killed in the slide. Forgive my literary licence.     

A Clear Road

Bernie Beck had just completed the mechanical alterations to his bright yellow ‘59 Chevy convertible. The new carburetor and the shaved manifold really increased the horsepower. Bernie loved this car; it was his mechanical trophy. Bernie had been working as a counter salesman for Westone Enterprises in Penticton. He was just 27.

His best friend Dennis Arlitt had been in the passenger seat of the convertible many times and was extremely jealous of Bernie’s car. He worked long hours at the Growers Co-op packing plant to try and save enough to get his own car. Dennis had a girl friend, Mary Kalmakoff, and they and Bernie’s wife, Shirley made up a close foursome. Dennis was 23 and Mary, 21. She had worked with Dennis packing fruit at the plant since she moved to Penticton in 1958. Mary had come from a very close ‘Sons of Freedom’ Doukhobor family and had been separated from her family when she was younger. Despite this, she was a vibrant and loving young woman who stayed close to her 5 other sisters. It was this feeling of family that directed Mary to ask Dennis if he could ask Bernie to drive them to see her sister Laura, in Agassiz. Bernie thought it would be great to give the car a workout and drive Mary to her sister’s place. After all he could never say no to a friend.
So after shift was over, Bernie picked up Dennis and Mary, and around 10:30 that evening they took to the highway.

Tom Starchuk hadn’t seen his wife Ann for more than an hour in weeks. He had been hauling hay to the coast continually since fall. The 38 year old trucker had just loaded fourteen tons of hay at the Glaicar Ranch at Grandview Flats near O’Keefe Ranch. Joe Glaicar invited him to lunch before leaving for the 10 hour haul to Cloverdale. By 2 PM, Tom was behind the wheel. Weather wasn’t all that good, so instead of his usual trip through the Fraser Canyon, Tom took the south route of Highway 97 to the Hope-Princeton. The load seemed to be riding evenly, but he stopped occasionally to check his straps and cables. He was pleased with this truck; not new but as of this season, it was all his.

Norman “Steph” Stephanishin pulled away from the Arrow Transfer yard in Kamloops with a full tank and pup of gasoline destined for Kelowna. His big yellow Kenworth purred softly as it sailed down Highway 1 to the Monte Lake turnoff. It would only be a couple of hours before he could unload then off to Vancouver empty.

Westward Bound

SLIDE 4 copyThere was a little more snow than expected, thought Steph as he climbed the hill toward Allison Pass. He saw lights in his mirrors so he politely signaled the car to pass. It was a nice bright yellow Chev convertible and the girl in passenger seat gave him a little wave. It quickly disappeared ahead of him. He had passed three semi trucks heading to Princeton but other than the yellow car, there was no other traffic.

Bernie was joking and laughing with Dennis to keep awake. Mary had crawled into the back seat to sleep a little, feeling weary after her long shift at the plant. The boys were pleased with the power of the car and it’s handling on the snowy, curves of the road. Bernie gave a little yell as the lights reflected off the snowbank ahead. What he thought was just a curve in the road was a huge wall of snow completely covering both lanes of the highway.

The Chev crumpled as they hit head on. The car jumped onto the slide and buried itself to the windshield. Bernie hurled forward onto the steering wheel and jammed his knees under the dash. Dennis hit his head as he slipped under the dash. Mary started screaming with the abrupt wakening of the collision. Bernie jumped out, in considerable pain and yelled, “Oh, no! My car, my car!” He crawled onto the crumpled hood to inspect the damage. “Not too bad.” he thought. “Dennis, help me get her out. Dennis and Mary seemed to have made it through the mishap unscathed. Bernie on the other hand, had really damaged his knees. He was limping badly. Mary said they should go back to Sumallo Lodge and get help. It was just a couple of miles back.

“I’m not leaving the car.” said Bernie, “I can get her out. Just help me dig around and get the back wheels on the road. Then she’ll drive out, I’m sure”
Mary turned to see lights coming down the highway toward them. She took off running to get help.

Steph had just geared down seeing the lights in the distance ahead of him. They seemed stopped in the middle of the road, so he was cautious. He pulled over as far as he could, stopped and got out. A young woman came running toward him and yelled “We need help! Can you help us?”

Steph reassured her that he would help. As he got closer he could see that it was the nice yellow Chev that had passed him a few miles back. A huge wall of snow about 30 feet high had closed the road in both directions. A young man limped toward him, “Please mister, do you have a shovel? I need to get my car out. It’s high-centred in the snow.”

“You look hurt, fella. You sure you’re OK?” asked Steph.
“Ya sure. Just need to get my car going.”
Steph could see another man at the car but the woman was shivering. “Come into the cab and get warm.” he said to Mary. She was more than cold, so she said “OK.”
Bernie introduced himself to Steph and took his shovel and hobbled to the car. Steph thought he should turn around and go back to Sumallo and get help, but with the pup attached there wouldn’t be enough room to get around. Just then a loaded hay truck came around the bend.

Tom had lots of time to slow when he saw the bright lights of the tanker truck ahead of him. The driver was walking slowly toward him with a bright hand lamp. He pulled the rig to the side about 100 feet from the other truck and got out as Steph approached.
“We have a slide ahead,” said Steph, “the road will be closed until Highways gets here.”
“Oh hell, I’m already six hours behind. Any place to turn around?”
“Not close,” replied Steph.
Tom went with the others to inspect the car. They took Bernie aside and explained there would be no way to get the car out. Bernie wouldn’t believe it and begged both drivers to put a line on the car and pull it out. Tom looked at Steph and they both looked up the mountain, then at the slide and said “no way”. Tom was exhausted so he excused himself. He would wait for help from Allison Pass highways crew at daylight. He crawled into his cab and went to sleep.

Steph tried to console Bernie about the car, but Bernie wouldn’t stop digging. Steph stated
he would walk to Sumallo and see if he could get a wrecker to come back and help. He was only a short distance down the road when a westbound Greyhound bus pulled up. Steph filled the driver in about the slide. The driver said “Get in,” and he backed down the road and turned about at the Allison Lumber Company road. From there it was just a few minutes to Sumallo Lodge.  Steph and the bus driver, Dave Hughes, found that the public phone was dead. The snow slide must have knocked out the line. Bob Sowden from the lodge couldn’t reach anyone on the radio phone either. After considerable conversation about the unusual closeness of the slide area to Lodge, Sowden got the drivers into his truck and raced to the site. As they arrived they could see that the two young men had not given up on the convertible. They were still digging.

Sowden told Bernie he would drive to Allison Pass, then bring his wrecker back to haul him out. He got back behind the wheel and headed back to Sumallo. Bob Sowden assumed he could get a front-end loader to the scene within a couple of hours.

Bernie and Dennis were exhausted and getting hypothermia. It would soon be light and they were still no closer to extricating the car. It was agreed to call it quits for now. As they walked toward the idling trucks, there was a vibration under their feet. They stopped and turned toward the mountain above them. They heard an ominous rumbling.
SLIDE 2 copy“We better get to the trucks, now!” screamed Dennis. “We’ve got to get out of here”.
They rushed to the hay truck to warn Tom, sleeping in the cab, just as the volume of rocks and trees hit the snow slide at tremendous speed and terrifying power. The car disappeared in an instant.
“Mister, run, run….slide!” screamed Bernie over the noise.
Tom jumped into the drivers seat and slammed the truck into gear to back down the road. Just then a sea of snow, mud and rock from the backlash wave bounced off the face of Mount Coulter and hit them straight on.

Dennis and Bernie just disappeared into the muck. The trucks rolled toward the oncoming rock slide and were crushed. Hay scattered the distance of the double wave while the cabs disintegrated. The empty tanks seemed to float for an instant as they sailed back up the peak. Then all went quiet.

Back at Sumallo Lodge, Steph and mail truck driver, Len Lloyd were concerned for the young people at the slide. They got into the mail truck and drove up the road. It was nearly 7am. They were only half a mile up the road when they came to another snow slide that had come down from the rock bluff adjacent. Steph had been right to warn the group about other slides. It was hoped that the trucks were just between the two slides.

SLIDE 3 copySteph would have climbed the slide toward the trucks until Len pointed out that there was a lot of rocks and trees in this slide. Not a wise move to try and hike over it. As light started to filter into the valley, the two men began to see a bit further up the valley. It became evident that this was not a snow slide. Coulter Mountain was bare of trees. Could the slide have come from there?

Then daylight hit Johnson Peak. The two men were speechless. No one could have survived this.

Steph’s heart sank as he thought of the four people he seemed to have just left moments before. He grieved for them as he thought of his good fortune to have escaped it. “Thank God,” he thought, “Thank God.”

AFTERMATH

Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi flew over the site soon after being notified and arranged for search and rescue at the site. By Sunday evening, both Beck and Starchuk’s bodies had been recovered. It was impossible to imagine where the other remains might be in the debris.
Gaglardi wanted the highway opened as soon as possible. When the Geologists had examined the slide site, construction began to push a road through. It took 21 days for a crude path to be pushed over the slide.
The rest, as they say, is history.

Sources:
Anderson, F. Hope Slide Story
Province, The Vancouver Jan. 11, 1965
Herald, The Penticton

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