THE BUZZ: Passing the Blame

By on December 28, 2016

The recent avalanche on Teton Pass has ignited community debate about the safety of motorists and recreationists.

Remarkably, the driver of the vehicle swept off Teton Pass due to an avalanche suffered only minor injuries. (Photo: Tim Henry Woodard)

The driver of the vehicle swept off Teton Pass due to an avalanche suffered only minor injuries. (Photo: Tim Henry Woodard)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In the wake of the December 15 avalanche on Teton Pass, a discussion has ensued about motorist safety. Tempers tend to flare on all sides, particularly after law enforcement officials said they believe the event was skier triggered.

Many point fingers at skiers and snowboarders who are taking chances on high avalanche days. Others want WYDOT to issue more pass closures, yet the increasing number of Teton Pass commuters, many who have moved from Jackson to Idaho due to a historic housing crisis, make this option problematic. Some have suggested snow tunnels—a multimillion-dollar solution—that would protect motorists from avalanches.

The avalanche that dumped 20 feet of snow across Highway 22, sweeping one car in its path (remarkably, the driver did not suffer serious injuries) closed the road for 16 hours. Commuters en route to Idaho found themselves stranded in Jackson while others took a lengthy detour through Star Valley. Now people are asking what can be done to ensure something similar—or an event with more dire consequences—doesn’t happen again in a backcountry area that clocks about 100,000 ski runs a winter.

Sliding Time

The avalanche occurred around 4:50 p.m. during blizzard conditions. Morning motorists woke up to only three inches of new snow on the pass. But by the afternoon conditions had shifted dramatically. Jamie Yount, an avalanche technician with Wyoming Department of Transportation, said by 4 p.m. there was a precarious mix of blustery high winds and a foot of new snow.

That morning Yount and his colleague Brian Gorsage had already made plans to close Highway 22, but not until 3 a.m., December 16, when it would affect the least number of motorists, he said. The technicians spent the morning leading up to the avalanche in Hoback Canyon. They were working on avalanche reduction there, which included clearing slides that extended to the highway. The canyon was closed intermittently for about an hour while the crew worked to clear the road. In the afternoon, aware of the changing storm conditions, the duo headed to Teton Pass to evaluate. They were on the west side of the pass when the avalanche hit and were able to respond immediately.

“Our biggest concern was getting everyone off that mountain,” Yount noted. “There was a lot of traffic and a lot of disappointed people.”

Two Teton County Sheriff deputies happened to be on the pass commuting home to Victor. After they received an alert, the deputies turned around and quickly arrived on the scene.

Yount said several backcountry skiers remained at the site of the avalanche, talking with police officers and aiding in rescuers’ search for people who may have been buried. Teton County Search and Rescue concluded the search around 6:30 p.m. when they were able to determine no one had been caught in the slide.

That weekend, the sheriff’s office spoke with several of the skiers who were present during the avalanche. But officials were not able to glean enough information from the backcountry users who did cooperate. If law enforcement had been able to link someone to the avalanche, a skier or snowboarder would have faced a misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment.

According to Sergeant Todd Stanyon, all indications signal the avalanche was skier triggered. “We just can’t definitively prove that,” he said.

Avy Uproar

Planet Jackson Hole’s Facebook page exploded with comments in response to an article about the sheriff’s department closing its investigation last Tuesday due to lack of evidence.

“I started skiing the Teton backcountry in the late 80s when people seemed to have more brain cells and wouldn’t have considered skiing any slide path in such conditions,” one commenter remarked.

Another commenter blamed WYDOT. “This is such BS and if it was that heavy of a snowfall it is WYDOT’s [responsibility] to make sure the area has been bombed and closed so they can clean it up before motorists go over the pass. Blaming it on skiers is a bit much.”

However, Yount says this complaint is a misunderstanding of the department’s role. For one thing, he pointed out that WYDOT’s responsibility is toward motorists, not skiers. Also, the staff of two technicians has a large territory to cover. “It’s a dynamic thing. Conditions change a lot—day-to-day, hour-to-hour. We really are risk managers,” he said. “We are trying to provide a high level of service to the traveling public within the limits of how we can conduct business. We can’t do some kinds of avalanche control when people are skiing.”

Teton Pass ambassador Jay Pistono, who can be found on the pass most days of the week talking avalanche safety with backcountry users and ensuring parking lot harmony, took part in the investigation. “We know from the vehicle count at the parking lot and from talking to the skiers who did stay around that not all skiers were accounted for,” he said. However, at the time, the priority was searching for possible survivors in the debris and getting motorists off the mountain. “This was as close a call as you’re going to get and if someone had died … it would be a totally different situation.”

Of course the tricky thing about snowy mountain passes is that their behavior is not totally predictable. Avalanches happen regardless of the presence of backcountry users. Stanyon feels that WYDOT does a good job keeping the pass safe for motorists. But like Yount, he noted that WYDOT’s job is not to keep the backcountry safe for skiers and snowboarders. That’s the definition of backcountry itself—that conditions are wild and untamed. “Backcountry skiers have a responsibility to know the conditions, and there’s an expectation that people will make good decisions,” Stanyon said.

On the heels of the avalanche, Pistono raised the idea of constructing snow tunnels, or “sheds,” that would protect motorists from avalanches. “Would I like to see them up there next year?” Pistono asked. “Yes, but I understand there’s a lot involved.”

Pistono noted that snow sheds are used extensively in Europe and South America, and are gaining popularity in the US in states like Colorado. But the sheds are costly. The latest estimate was $20 to $25 million dollars from state coffers, and not all pass skiers and taxpayers think they are worth the cost.

Backcountry skier Gabe Klamer said the price of snow sheds would exacerbate an already strained state budget, not to mention being time intensive to install. Instead, he feels WYDOT and the Forest Service should have the ability to close the north side of the road during times of high avalanche hazard. “The impact from the construction delays and costs of the sheds is not worth it … and would not outweigh the few days a year when Mt. Glory would be closed to human traffic due to avalanche hazard,” Klamer said.

Pistono stresses that snow sheds are only one ingredient of a larger recipe for pass avalanche safety. The selling point for snow sheds, he says, is that they would ensure safety for motorists in varying conditions. “I like the fact that with snow sheds, an innocent driver can go over the pass 24/7 without worrying about avalanches.”

But snow sheds or no sheds, Pistono says backcountry users still have a responsibility to make decisions that don’t endanger themselves and others. “It doesn’t mean you can go gonzo on Glory—you still have to think about what’s going on below you in terms of other skiers.”

As the popularity of backcountry winter sports has skyrocketed in the past decade, communities throughout the Rocky Mountain West are working hard to mitigate dangers for recreationists as well as innocent bystanders. Avalanche forecasters pay attention to what happens in the entire region. Drew Hardesty of the Utah Avalanche Center cited the Teton Pass avalanche as a cautionary tale in his December 19 advisory. “Think this won’t happen here? UDOT has their job to do, but the public needs to be a part of public safety. The steep terrain above Little Cottonwood Canyon today may be prone for longer running human triggered dry and/or wet sluffs. Consider the consequences of your actions.”

In Washington State, everything from avalanche control to hitchhiking skiers has come under scrutiny. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation’s website, the Washington State Patrol petitioned WSDOT to post the avalanche zones from milepost 58 to 66 on U.S. Highway 2 to prohibit hitchhiking. “WSP troopers vigorously enforce this ban,” the site reads.

No such restrictions are in the offing on Teton Pass. But backcountry skiers lament the impacts of the rising numbers of recreationists. Rick Nansen has been skiing the pass for 47 years. “As time has passed, the sheer use has become an issue,” Nansen said. “Parking was never a problem up until 30 years ago. There were no close calls or finger flipping until about 10 years ago. Stories at the watering holes have gone from, ‘What a great day!’ to ‘I took more chances than you today.’”

Pistono was brought on as pass ambassador about 12 years ago (in the 1980s he unofficially held the position as a volunteer) to help smooth rising tensions on the top of the pass. His first mission was to coordinate better parking lot etiquette as well as encourage people to take more care with their dogs. The focus has since expanded to avalanche safety and the danger backcountry users pose to each other and motorists.

Some advice Pistono shares with backcountry users these days? “If there is any avalanche danger, skiers should avoid Glory and Twin Slides,” he said. If people just paid attention to this message, Pistono says there would not be a need to explore other solutions. “If those runs are off limits, there are still plenty of runs to ski.”

“Whoever is skiing up there,” he continued, “better think long and hard about the risks and dangers they are posing to people below. There’s a few more things to think about [when you’re skiing the pass] than just fitting it in with your work schedule.”

Avalanche forecaster Bob Comey was quick to point out that backcountry users need to be experts on the snowpack and the potential for avalanches; they make their own assessments at all times, no matter what the hazards are.

If backcountry users are not thinking about jeopardizing other people’s safety when they’re skiing the pass, perhaps the idea of criminal charges may give some folks pause, he added. “The same incident on a clear day with multiple witnesses could have a different outcome,” Comey said. “If an avalanche was clearly triggered by a skier and witnesses can give the sheriff enough information, it could lead to a prosecution.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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