FEATURE: The Ambassador

By on January 19, 2016

“A human migration corridor for thousands of years, Teton Pass is a place of harmonic convergence. For skiers, it is quickly attainable turf for training, testing, proving, socializing, and pure fun. For snow, it is a natural funnel into which storms are gently coaxed, and where fluff is piled deeply and consistently onto an abundance of varied terrain. But aside from an exciting adventure in celebrated snow, every ski run on Teton Pass is steeped in legend, which creates a bond with every other skier—past, present, and future—possessing a passion to ski this magical place,”

– From Thomas Turiano’s new book, “Teton Pass Backcountry Guide”

(Photo: sargent schutt)

(Photo: sargent schutt)

Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono loves his job. Aside from emptying the garbage of dog poop, what’s not to like? He is a professional ski bum paid to ski in the backcountry approximately six days a week while ensuring it remains an accessible playground for myriad backcountry users. He also gets to bring his 15-year-old dog Molly to work. Last week his housekeeping duties didn’t take long. While big flakes of powder fell on the ground, Pistono posted signs about a public comment period on a proposed leash law for dogs in the parking area, then he spray painted “no parking” in neon orange on freshly carved snow banks so the plows have room to do their job. As more people ski the pass, the ambassador’s duties include not only promulgating safe behavior there, but working with the enforcement agencies “that hold the key to the playground”–Wyoming Department of Transportation, the Forest Service and Teton County Search and Rescue–particularly after incidents, such as skier-trigger avalanches, close down the road.

It’s a brisk Wednesday at the top of the pass and Pistono is counting the number of out-of-state plates in the 50-spot lot, which handles overflow parking for more backcountry users thanks to a road crew’s rotaries. The crew has also widened the road to make it safer for hitchhiking. Pistono encourages people to park close together to reserve space for others and tells folks to leave their keys in the car in case he has to make space while people are busy slashing powder. It’s not easy trying to preserve the sprawling 14,000 acres that comprise the backcountry runs on Teton Pass, especially as more and more people come to ski them. But Pistono, 59, speaks their language well. Riders get “agro” about parking on a powder day and they often throw his avalanche warning signs on the ground when he’s not looking “because it harshes on their buzz.” Visitors, who are skiing an estimated 100,000 runs per winter, kick down a total of $100 for an end-of-season pizza party. Yes, there is a collection box for the people who work on the pass. The meager container sits on the south side of the road where recreationists usually click into their bindings and check to see if their beacon is working.

When he is not skiing or digging snow pits to check for avalanche danger, Pistono is interfacing with skiers and snowboarders. He talks to people about the snow pack and makes sure they are aware of their surroundings and their responsibilities. Adam Carman, a Jackson Hole Ski & Snowboard Club coach, has been skiing the pass for most of his life. “I usually don’t come on big powder days because of the crowds,” he said. “I wish that I could have skied it back in the 70s.” But that was before his time. Carman was happy to pause for a minute to talk about some partial fractures in the snow that he had seen as he prepared to hike up Mt. Glory to ski Coal Creek. Ever the diplomat, Pistono gave him a packet of energy goo to thank him for his time.

“Did you see his pack?” Pistono asked. “Now those are the guys who know what they are doing. They had some big packs.” Pistono is increasingly concerned about the rising number of people who come ill prepared with skinny backpacks. Without the proper gear–Pistono carries a beacon, probe, first aid kit, extra layers, water, a thermos and snacks–skiers and snowboarders stand to risk their lives and endanger the lives of their ski partners should disaster strike. “You see a lot of people with a g-string and skis. That’s what I call it.”

Indeed, with the swelling chaos at many resorts around the West, and as the snow piles up on the pass, more and more people are experimenting in the backcountry. “We’ve been getting a lot of out-of-towners,” Pistono noted. “There are days where about a quarter to a third of the parking lot is out-of-state. For a while, we were getting all the snow refugees. Last year Oregon had no snow and there was one group I called ‘the Benders.’ They were coming here for day trips, driving 10 hours, they would take turns, load up the car, ski all day and then drive back.”

Backcountry skiing, Pistono says, just seems to have high reward for the effort one puts into it. “Even with all the work involved in getting to the top of a run and the threat of avalanches and the time required to get a run in, people keep doing it–more and more and more people keep doing it,” he said.

Pistono admits he has a soft spot for the old-timers. There are about 12 to 15 people who ski here every day, he explained. People like Garrett Seal who complained about the “sick gravel” he got sprayed with as he hitchhiked up the pass. “I’m selfish. The biggest issue I see up here is not enough fresh tracks,” he said. Seal, like Carman, has a lot of respect for Pistono and the work he does. After all, it’s pretty unique to have a person dedicated to protecting the powder and ensuring continued backcountry access for the masses.

“It is an open job description that I wrote up with the Forest Service and WYDOT,” Pistono explained of his role as Pass ambassador. “I try to do a lot of Glory laps a day and make contact with people who are visitors, or someone who is going down Twin Slides (I told you not to go down that exit shoot, I’ll say). I also work on Old Pass Road and Phillips–and I have [the Forest Service] working with me on Little Tuck’s and Unskiabowl.”

(Photo: sargent schutt)

(Photo: sargent schutt)

The path to the pass

Backcountry guide and guidebook author Thomas Turiano began skiing the pass back in 1985 with a busboy from the Cadillac Grill. “It’s always been a kind of place where I cut my teeth in Jackson Hole,” he said. “Then once I started getting more into mountaineering I didn’t go to the pass as much. It was a place to go when weather was bad or avalanche danger was high or you needed a quick hit because you couldn’t go out for long.

“It has been such a gift to our community, but it is not a given,” he said. In his book, “Teton Pass Backcountry Guide,” slated to hit local bookshelves and in ski shops this week, Turiano maps out all of his favorite backcountry ski routes on the pass.

Pistono calls the guidebook “contentious” because “people who need a guidebook are the people you don’t want up here. It’s a tough issue,” Pistono continued. “I’ve skied here since the 70s. You don’t want to alienate the people with origins here. It could piss a lot of people off.”

Pistono hitchhiked from Illinois to Wyoming in 1978. He arrived in Jackson with $11 in his pocket. “I lucked out having connected with Paul Petzoldt and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.”  Petzoldt, a legendary mountaineer who climbed and skied with Glenn Exum back in the late 1920s, was the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Turiano says he hopes the routes outlined in the book help spread people out to preserve the powder while fostering respect for the backcountry. The book also includes some new history about Fred Brown, one of the pioneers of Teton Pass skiing. In the 1940s, Brown used to hitch a ride with the mail on a horse-driven sleigh to make turns on the pass. “Mike Menolascino found this map in the basement of Trail Creek Ranch of what Fred was skiing in the 40s,” Turiano said. “He was skiing everything.”

Teton Pass, forged by mountain men in the early 1800s and Mormon settlers in covered wagons at the end of the 19th century, was always a place to be reckoned with, especially in the winter. But Wilson residents have fought to keep it open ever since the U.S. Forest Service built Old Pass Road in 1913. They hoped the road would make it easier to get to the Oregon Short Line railroad in Victor, ID. In 1940, a group of Wilsonites, led by Mayor Harry Clissold, even commandeered snowplows after the Wyoming Highway Department said it was too costly to keep the road open, according to Doris B. Platts handwritten book, “The Pass.” Skijoring, being pulled by a horse or motor vehicle, was a lot more popular back then. And people even cleared ski trails and hosted events like an exhibit hosted by the championship Dartmouth ski team in 1937, viewed by 200 spectators.

Endangered access

While we are unlikely to see that happen again in our increasingly litigious society, the number of riders skiing at their own risk on the pass has swelled in recent years, causing concerns about backcountry access. With so many cars and an increasing number of skiers triggering avalanches that have closed the road, the future is uncertain. Pistono noted several near-fatal incidents, including two snowmobilers who performed a self-rescue after a massive avalanche in Horseshoe Bowl. Luckily, there have been no deaths. “If there is a fatality, [Teton County] has to do an investigation–CSI the thing and close it down … I have talked to the WYDOT guys about temporarily shutting down [Teton Pass] to wake people up, much like when Cache was closed to dogs for a week.”

One avalanche recently closed the road. That’s when talk about losing access to the pass, if WYDOT sees fit, comes into play. “In the last slide that closed the road, a guy got buried in the flatbed of a pickup truck driving up the pass,” Pistono said. “If you think about it from a commuter’s perspective, a thousand people can be stuck because of one idiot.

“One of the things I have been emphasizing is how we share the road,” Pistono continued. “Four or five years ago, there were not as many people hiking Glory, but now a lot of people are transitioning from alpine gear, and they have snowboards–so that’s an easy thing for them to access. If you look at the terrain from the Northeast Ridge and then if you run it all the way over to Coal Creek, it does not involve the necessity of skins and it makes a lot of sense why so many people would climb Glory … and then there is the athleticism–longer runs than the south side.” After their run, however, Pistono says this puts a lot of folks on the road hitchhiking at various spots or even hiking up the road. But when conditions are slick and there is low visibility, Pistono says WYDOT doesn’t want folks hitchhiking.

Turiano also urges backcountry users to acknowledge the immense responsibility that comes with skiing the pass. “We need to think creatively; figure out how to reduce traffic, and people need to be mindful about where they are skiing. Most people who ski up there aren’t very mindful … they are having so much fun, they ski fast and recklessly because they are focused on fun. They are not thinking about their effect on others.”

After the new pass road was built in 1969, there have been experiments such as a bridge on the road over Glory Bowl to let the avalanches slide beneath, Pistono said. But powerful avalanches meant the bridge didn’t last long. The sign: “Be avalanche aware. People have died skiing this bowl,” was taken down so many times that it has been replaced by “Stay out of Glory Bowl, Twin Slides and road cuts during periods of increasing avalanche hazard.”

Pistono said it’s amazing how many people don’t read the signs. “Sometimes seeing me digging a snowpit is a better way for them to pause and consider the avalanche risk.” Upon special request, Pistono teaches a course to backcountry skiers where he digs a burial pit to simulate what it feels like to be buried in an avalanche.

“When people are going by, it really gets their wheels turning,” he said. Having been above and below avalanches and having dug people out who’ve lived and died, Pistono is passionate about sharing his knowledge and experience. “One time, in the 80s, there was a family on the top of Glory Bowl and I looked up at them suggesting they wait. I don’t know why, I just had this intuition to skin up to them.” Pistono arrived to the family moments before an avalanche triggered.

Pistono has memorized a verse that’s etched up on the repeater, a large metal screen near the top of Mount Glory that used to get the television signal from Idaho. “Above all, to thine self be true. So why do I risk my life telling you, a thing about life you already knew. We are one, me and you.” He has been approached by all kinds of artists and poets to put more work up on the repeater, but he said he’s not the one to ask. So he refers them to the Forest Service.

As the number of skiers and riders grows, another issue to consider is snowmobiles that have limited access to the northeast quarter of the pass. Turiano said it’s hard to justify keeping snowmobiles. “You don’t need to snowmobile to access the pass for skiing because it is so close,” he said. “It would be nice to conserve that close access for skiers, and skiing is growing so much.”

Brian Close, a skier who frequently rides his snowmobile near Ski Lake, says he’s never had a negative encounter with a skier. “They may complain that we are loud and smelly, but we are in and out and we have as much right as anyone to be up there.” Besides, he said, the terrain by Phillips Canyon, where snowmobilers park, (with no hassles from others by the way), is “kind of worthless skiing for the Jackson mentality.”

Powder to the people

Turiano believes there should be two or three pass ambassadors instead of one. The ambassador position, which was created 12 years ago by the Forest Service, is funded in part by Friends of Pathways. In the past, Patagonia, Outdoor Research and other private donations have helped fund the job. Pistono, who travels to Colorado and other mountain communities to talk about his job, has a unique role to give order to the chaos and mitigate real safety hazards on the pass. Before he was hired, he volunteered eight years of his time on the pass.

“I always try to do my stuff from a guideline perspective, not from a rule perspective. When it’s a safety issue, I’ll be a little more authoritative, like telling people to wait when someone else is skiing below them and at risk,” Pistono explained. The way he sees it, he has five responsibilities: 1) Always work with the agencies: Search and Rescue, the state highway departments, and the Forest Service. 2) Take care of problems as they arise whether it’s with hitchhiking, parking or dogs. 3) Encourage carpooling and parking tight. 4) Encourage skiers and snowboarders to ride with respect and humility. 5) Spread the good word.

“Good powder gets people in the most amazing mood,” Pistono smiled. “It’s really the best drug.” PJH

(Photo: sargent schutt)

(Photo: sargent schutt)

In the Pit with Pistono

Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono uses a serrated edge knife clipped to the bottom of a ski pole to cut around the extended column test pit he creates every day. First, he digs down about five feet with a shovel and then presses down on top, counting the number of times he compresses the snow before it fractures. There was a partial propagation at 17, giving the snow a quality rating of 2. Without getting too deep into the science of it, he says, the snow is more faceted than normal and has deep slab instability at the foundation. “In places it is starting to mend, but this snow pack is a weak snow pack,” he said.

Respect for the backcountry is an essential component of what Pistono teaches. He has given his avalanche course, which includes a burial pit simulating what it feels like to be in a real avalanche, to his wife Patricia and two kids, David, 25, and Mary Elizabeth, 22. He’s also worked with U.S. Special Forces for winter training and has hosted the Wounded Warriors veterans program.

“Being in the backcountry can be pretty simple and very humbling and healing. The thing about a lot of these wild areas that can be available to all of us is that it’s the place that’s important,” Pistono said.

The avalanche report is updated every day by the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center, a division of the US Forest Service. You can log a weather and snow observation on the website: www.jhavalanche.org/index.php.

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