British Columbia’s Record Snowfall
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Cal Crombie stuck his head out the door of his camper. “Wow! We really got a dump of snow last night!” It was the morning of December 29, 1996. Two days prior, Cal and his brother Roy had returned to their logging camp after spending Christmas with their families. They had a contract to cut timber near the Coquihalla Highway, some 160 kilometres northeast of Vancouver in the heavily forested mountains of British Columbia.
On his way to camp, Crombie had stopped in Kamloops to pick up a new crystal for his two-way radio, the men’s only contact with the outside world. The shop had been closed for the holidays, but while there, Crombie had gone down the street and bought himself a belated half-price Christmas gift: a heavy-duty fleece-lined jacket.
Fifty-two-year-old Crombie had red hair, piercing blue eyes, and a moustache touched with grey. Long days of hard labour had left him in excellent shape. Pulling his new jacket over his muscular shoulders, Crombie prepared to drive from camp into Merritt, 90 minutes away, to buy diesel fuel for their logging machines—the men had run out during their first couple days of work.
Snowplows usually cleared the road to within about 10 kilometres of the Crombie camp, but that stretch had always been passable by truck. Even if the next part isn’t plowed either, the Tulameen—a secondary road that leads to Merritt—will be clear for sure, Crombie thought.
“Don’t try to get back if the roads are too bad,” warned 44-year-old Roy. “I’ve got enough groceries for a couple weeks. I’ll be fine.”
Though the two loggers didn’t realize it just yet, a record snowfall had covered the southern half of the province, closing roads everywhere —including the Trans-Canada and Coquihalla highways.
Crombie hummed a tune as he put chains on the tires of his blue four-wheel-drive pickup. Then he checked his fuel: nearly full. It was -20 C and snowing lightly. “See you later!” he called back to Roy as he pulled away at about 10 a.m.
The road he was on, a single lane bulldozed through the forest, was rolling and hilly, with several hairpin curves, and Crombie quickly realized he had a tough drive ahead of him. Even on the level stretches, the truck could barely push through the deep snow. Thank goodness it’s mostly downhill, he thought.
On the uphill grades, Crombie had to back up and accelerate forward. When the wheels began to spin, he’d get out to shovel the snow piled up in front of the truck, then move another few metres.
Soon the engine overheated, and Crombie could smell transmission oil. He shovelled snow into the back of the truck, hoping more weight would improve traction. But the dry, fluffy snow was too light to make a difference. Sweating, Crombie reflected that it was a great way to work off Christmas dinner.
Back behind the wheel, he glanced at the fuel gauge and was surprised at how quickly he was burning up his supply of diesel. He roared down one long hill and then slowed as he tackled another uphill grade. The knee-deep snow piling in front of the pickup broke the grille.
Again Crombie had to shovel, back up, force the truck ahead, then shovel some more.
Finally, he reached the top and headed down the other side. He strained his eyes to see if the road ahead was plowed. It wasn’t.
At noon he stopped, disappointed, and decided to eat. He finished off leftovers from the previous night’s supper at the camp: a thick soup he’d poured into a jar that morning.
Then Crombie resumed his effort, moving so slowly that snow melted by the exhaust pipe turned to steam, fogging the windshield. He rolled his window down and stuck his head outside to see where he was going.
More than six kilometres from the Tulameen Road, the fuel gauge hovered at empty. Dismayed, Crombie shut off the engine. It was 3 p.m. and getting colder.