Teton Pass Avalanche Investigation Concludes

By on December 20, 2016

Questions linger after law enforcement officials announced today they lack evidence, probable cause to pin a backcountry user in the mammoth avalanche on Teton Pass.

The vehicle that was swept off Teton Pass by the Twin Slides avalanche. The driver was, remarkably, unharmed. (Bridger Teton Avalanche Center photo)

The vehicle that was swept off Teton Pass by the Twin Slides avalanche. Remarkably, the driver was unharmed. (Photo by Tim Henry Woodard via Bridger Teton Avalanche Center)

Jackson Hole, WY — Teton County Sheriff officials do not have enough evidence to determine if the massive avalanche that closed Teton Pass Thursday was skier triggered, according to a press release issued Tuesday afternoon.

“We were able to identify several people that were up there skiing,” Sargent Todd Stanyon told The Planet. “They were all forthcoming and talked to us. But we still can’t say scientifically what tripped the avalanche.”

The potentially skier triggered event, off the popular ski run Twin Slides, has raised questions about the threat backcountry skiing poses to public safety. An increasing number of mountain towns are asking tough questions like this as skier triggered avalanches impact motorists and bystanders.

Last Thursday’s avalanche happened near a heavily trafficked road during blizzard conditions around 4:50 p.m. It dumped 20 feet of snow across Highway 22 just as motorists were beginning their evening commute. The avalanche engulfed one car and nearly swept another.

“We are lucky nobody was seriously injured or died,” said Bob Comey, avalanche forecaster for Bridger Teton Avalanche Center.

The driver of the Jeep Wrangler that was caught in the slide was banged up and scared, but not seriously injured. Numerous other vehicles, including a START bus full of commuters, were impacted by an unscheduled road closure.

“This is not the scenario we want to have happening,” Comey said. “Motorists are considered innocent. They are just driving down the road; it’s not a good thing when they get caught in an avalanche.”

As it happened, Jamie Yount, an avalanche technician for Wyoming Department of Transportation, was on the pass performing routine avalanche evaluation. Within minutes Yount and his team, plus a number of law enforcement officials, were able to respond.

“Our biggest concern was getting everyone off that mountain,” Yount said, pointing to the risk of additional avalanches.

While highway patrol helped motorists turn around and descend to safety, members of Teton County Search and Rescue hunted for transmitter signals and probed avalanche debris for skiers and snowboarders. An avalanche dog was brought to the scene as well. Rescuers concluded the search around 6:30 p.m., when they determined no one had been buried in the avalanche. WYDOT spent the rest of the night working to clear the road, which reopened 9:15 a.m. Friday.

The Teton County Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation to determine whether or not the slide was indeed human triggered. According to Tuesday’s press release, the sheriff’s office sought to answer if the following act constituted a crime: “skiing on or near a known slide path, in high avalanche danger conditions, above a highway with innocent travelers, and triggering an avalanche that did endanger the public and cause injury.”

Beyond lack of evidence, the sheriff’s office also noted it was unable to establish probable cause to prove who triggered the avalanche if indeed it was human triggered.

Comey says skiers on the pass that Thursday afternoon should have had the knowledge that conditions were ripe for human triggered avalanches. “Skiing on that pass is a huge privilege,” he said. “There are other places to go. And there are times not to be there.”

News of the avalanche spread throughout mountain towns, causing the Utah Avalanche Center to warn its users: “Think this won’t happen here? UDOT has their job to do, but the public needs to be a part of public safety.”

Jackson Hole’s legendary powder is in the wider public consciousness, and Comey worries that other communities are watching Jackson skeptically.

“This isn’t just about a couple of skiers on a backcountry pass,” he said. “Eyes from all over are looking at us and wondering, ‘Can this community manage itself?’”

Yount offered a piece of basic advice for fledgling backcountry users: “Skiing things with ‘slide’ or ‘bowl’ during high avalanche danger is not a good idea.”

“Our responsibility,” he continued, “is to keep that highway open and safe to the public. A little cooperation is all we’re asking for.”

 


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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