©The Canadian Press / Jonathan Hayward
A massive rock slide blocks the Sea-to-Sky highway near Porteau Cove, B.C. after a cliff face collapsed onto the highway.

Peter Skeels's bus was lumbering up the highway that winds through British Columbia's breathtaking coastal mountains when he heard a roar that sounded like violent hail.

He drove through and it wasn't until a few minutes later, when Skeels pulled over and saw the bus covered in dents and its windows shattered, that he realized the hailstorm was really a massive pile of rocks and boulders raining down on the road.

"There was suddenly an unbelievable noise, it sounded like a hailstorm - you didn't really know what to make of it," said Skeels, who lives in Whistler and regularly drives the highway between Vancouver and the mountain resort community that will jointly play host to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"The vehicle didn't get knocked or pushed around. It was just so loud. I did not hear the windows explode at all."

The Tuesday night slide on the Sea-to-Sky Highway left 16,000 cubic metres of rock covering the road and severed the only direct route between Vancouver and Whistler.

The RCMP said there was no evidence anyone was caught in the slide, south of Squamish near Porteau Cove, though a dog team was searching the sight Wednesday to be sure.

Luis Araujo, the lone passenger on the bus, said just before the slide he and Skeels were having a prophetic conversation.

"We were talking about earthquakes and death and catastrophes and stuff like that, and the whole thing just started shaking," Araujo said in an interview from his Whistler home.

"It was a very strange feeling. We were almost more scared about that than the actual slide."

The highway was expected to be closed for up to five days as crews determine the stability of the remaining cliff still perched above the highway and decide when clean-up work can begin.

Massive boulders, some the size of the loaders brought in to clear them, covered both lanes of the highway and the adjacent railway tracks for about 30 metres. Debris spilled over the slope into the ocean.

The collapse left communities on either side cut off from one another, highlighting how vital the highway is to those living along the Sea-to-Sky corridor and how important it will be in 2010, when spectators and athletes travel between Olympic venues in Vancouver and Whistler.

Irene Kerr, vice-president of services and transportation for the Vancouver organizing committee, said officials were aware of the situation.

"We will defer any further comment regarding today's rock slide to the Ministry of Transportation as they are the lead agency for response on B.C. transportation issues," Kerr said in a statement.

She said Olympic organizers will be working with the ministry on 2010 transportation plans and noted that during the Games athletes competing in Whistler will be housed in the area to ensure events run on schedule.

The Sea-to-Sky Highway is a narrow, winding road with a reputation for treacherous conditions and deadly accidents that was seen as a potential Achilles heel for Vancouver's Olympic hopes, with even local bid officials admitting it would be a problem.

To address those concerns, the province is in the middle of an ambitious and controversial $775-million upgrade to widen the highway.

A spokesman for the Transportation Ministry said everything will be done to ensure the highway is safe by 2010. In addition to the Olympic upgrade, there is work done annually to mitigate falling rocks along the route.

"Everything that can humanly be done to prevent this situation will be done," said spokesman Dave Crebo, adding crews will be examining the stability of slopes all along the highway next summer, ahead of the Games.

The indefinite closure of the road leaves just one route from the Whistler and Howe Sound area to Vancouver, a seven-to eight-hour drive through Duffy Lake and down through the lower Interior.

For Evelyn Tourand, who lives north of the slide in Britannia Beach but works as a janitor in Vancouver, it could mean several days without pay.

"I don't know what I'm going to do - if you're not there to work, you just don't get paid," said Tourand. "It just hurts. Even if I go to the back way, is it worth it? No."

The collapse happened in an area notorious for slides, said a geologist who has studied the Sea-to-Sky Highway.

Andree Blais-Stevens of the Geological Survey of Canada recently finished a report chronicling land slides and floods along the Sea-to-Sky corridor since 1855.

She found a five-kilometre stretch in the Porteau Cove area, which includes the site of Tuesday's slide, that appears to be the most vulnerable,

"Historically, it's had quite a few events where there have been casualties as well," said Blais-Stevens from Ottawa.

The most recent fatal rock slide on the Sea-to-Sky Highway happened in 1991, when a 43-year-old man from Squamish, B.C., was killed when a large rock fell on his vehicle. Two years later, the province adopted a hazard rating system for potential falling rocks.

Prof. Erik Eberhardt, who teaches geological engineering at the University of British Columbia, said there are natural fractures in the rocks above the highway, making for potential hazard.

"When they're doing the engineering work along that road, they try to identify the slopes that are most hazardous but you can't take care of every slope along that road, it's just too big a problem," he said.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to make the highway safe, not just for the Olympic Games but for residents who use the highway regularly.

"It looked like a cliff face fell off, to me," he said in Victoria.

"I'm not a geotechnical engineer but that's what it looked like happened. It's obviously something you have to be concerned about on that road but it didn't have anything to do with the construction that was taking place or anything like that."