No skiers will be criminally prosecuted in connection with Thursday’s massive avalanche on Teton Pass, officials said.
Despite initial suspicion that skiers may have been responsible for the large slide that hit a vehicle and closed Highway 22 to thousands of commuters, investigators are no longer sure.
“It was determined that insufficient evidence exists to prove the cause of the avalanche,” Teton County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Todd Stanyon said in a press release.
Only five of eight backcountry skiers in the area were identified and interviewed, police said.
“It’s always nice if we can talk to everybody involved,” Stanyon said. “If we could show someone was being reckless and had reckless disregard for others while skiing in an avalanche path when the risk was high, someone could be prosecuted for that.”
Skiers who came forward cooperated with police, showed them what routes they skied and even helped probe in the aftermath, officials said. They helped make sure no one was caught in the 20-foot-deep mass before Wyoming Department of Transportation workers cleared it away with heavy equipment.
“When I got to the bottom I saw the debris and the people and the vehicles and the slide,” skier Jeff Bjornsen said. “I tried to help best I could.
“I put my transceiver on receive and checked for any other skiers,” he said.
Bjornsen was skiing by himself between Glory and Twin Slides just before the avalanche. He said he has skied the pass since the 1970s and thinks infrastructure could make the highway safer for motorists.
“It’s a little frustrating to me that WYDOT wants to point fingers,” Bjornsen said. “They want to blame someone when we should be looking for a solution.”
Bjornsen and other Teton Pass skiers see a solution in snow sheds — tunnel-like structures that could protect the highway where it runs beneath avalanche paths.
“Why they’re doing a runaway ramp when we should be putting in a snow shed is beyond me,” Bjornsen said.
WYDOT has explored the snow shed idea in the past but has never acted on it.
The most recent study, in 2011, showed it would cost $20 million to put sheds along the highway underneath Glory and Lower Twin Slides, according to WYDOT Avalanche Technician Jamie Yount.
“It would probably be more now,” Yount said.
The state doesn’t have that kind of cash for a project like that, WYDOT District 3 Maintenance Engineer Tory Thomas said.
“The conversation has existed, but with current funding it’s not an option,” Thomas said.
The 2011 study concluded that snow sheds would reduce avalanche hazards on Teton Pass by half.
Some believe that’s worth the money.
“I might be biased, but they’re putting millions of dollars in a runaway ramp when they could be putting in a couple snow sheds,” Bjornsen said.
Snow sheds have been considered on Teton Pass for the past 40 years, Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono said. Thursday’s slide justifies the need for them, he said.
“I feel like we can deal with this productively,” Pistono said. “We want to encourage people to enjoy these resources and go skiing.
“Why wouldn’t we as a community take a good long look at snow sheds? As far as safety goes they’re pretty darn effective,” he said.
Pistono said the avalanche should be a teaching moment.
“The man who got buried in his Jeep could have died,” he said.
Thursday’s slide left 20 feet of snow on Highway 22 and many drivers stuck, unable to commute home around 5 p.m.
Some of them crashed on friends’ couches or paid for hotel rooms, and others took a long detour through the Snake River canyon and over Pine Creek Pass to get home, adding an hour and a half to their normal commute.
The man whose Jeep was caught in the slide climbed out of his vehicle and was treated for minor injuries at St. John’s Medical Center.
“He was very lucky,” Stanyon said. “It’s a miracle only one vehicle was caught in the slide.”
The number of Teton Pass commuters and backcountry skiers climbs every year, Pistono said, which he believes is even more reason to explore solutions. Warning signs aren’t enough anymore, he said.
“Maybe we have to put the message out more aggressively and talk to as many people as we can who are headed up Glory,” Pistono said.
“We are a ski community. This is one big family. As a solution, let’s at least bring up a study about snow sheds,” he said.
A study might provide the information to adequately design snow sheds for Teton Pass.
“It’d be like designing a tunnel up through there,” Wyoming Department of Transportation District 3 Engineer Keith Compton said. “What kind of loads do you design the structure for? In this state we haven’t built anything like that.”
But Teton Pass has all the ingredients for frequent avalanches, Pistono said.
“We’re still going to have people driving on the pass, skiing the pass and snow on the pass,” he said. “That’s the recipe. We could be killing commuters with our recreational activities.”
Pistono said it takes teamwork to keep Teton Pass open and safe but he believes it’s time to do more.
“I’m hoping this time next year I’m looking at a snow shed on the pass,” he said.