Five Jackson Hole Fire/EMS paramedics and emergency medical technicians were stranded in Idaho on Monday and Tuesday during emergency trips to Idaho Falls. The high-and-dry first responders were just one casualty of a winter storm cycle that has inundated the Tetons and Jackson Hole the past two weeks.
Three St. John’s Health patients in various states of critical condition needed to be transported to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, but it was too windy and snowy for air travel.
“If the patient is at risk of dying we have to go in an ambulance,” Fire Chief Brady Hansen said.
The first three-person crew left at 1 a.m. Monday and rushed the patient to Idaho Falls before getting stuck because of road closures.
“We got them a hotel, and they hung out with the Idaho Falls Fire Department crew for a bit,” Hansen said.
Those Fire/EMS employees made it back Monday night after spending 20 hours in Idaho.
Early Tuesday afternoon, two more Jackson ambulances were sent to Idaho.
“Both of these patients were in very serious condition,” Hansen said. “They were both sent out in two different ambulances, and the road closed again.”
On Tuesday evening Hansen, with the help of Battalion Chief Matt Redwine, the Idaho Department of Transportation, the Idaho State Police, the Idaho Falls Fire Department and the Bonneville County (Idaho) Sheriff’s Office made arrangements to have the ambulances escorted back over Pine Creek Pass and Teton Pass, following a snowplow.
Teton County has six ambulances in total, five of which are advanced life support ambulances. The sixth one is basic life support.
Having only two advanced life support ambulances in Teton County at any time — but especially during a major weather event — is not ideal, Redwine said.
“It’s not uncommon for us to get three simultaneous calls,” he said, “so we’re feeling exposed.”
Redwine said agencies from two states coordinating an emergency escort of two ambulances back over two mountain passes in the snow at night was a feat.
“A huge kudos to the sheriff’s office and the snow plow and others,” he said. “Having five of our members out of town that are all advanced caregivers, that’s a pretty big deal.”
Hansen said Teton County has heavy-duty, winterized ambulances, which makes emergency trips in snowstorms possible.
“Our goal is to do what’s right for our patients and for the citizens, and when they need us we have to go to work and be there for them,” Hansen said. “The thing we never want is any problems on the road while we have a patient. We are fortunate that the county provides us with four-wheel-drive ambulances.”
Inching toward a record
The first 14 days of January were for the record books, MountainWeather.com meteorologist and News&Guide columnist Jim Woodmencey said. Some 106 inches of snowfall were logged at the Rendezvous Bowl monitoring site.
“I’m not saying that’s a record for January,” Woodmencey said, “but it’s a record for the first 14 days of January.”
The second-snowiest first half of January passed by 40 years ago, in 1980, when 94 inches came down Jan. 1 to 14. An average January in the Tetons sees 84 inches of snowfall, according to historic data from the Rendezvous plot. The record is 151 inches, meaning there’s still 45 inches to go — nearly 4 feet — with 17 days left in the month.
“If it stops snowing now, we’d have an above-average January,” Woodmencey said. “Some people are probably wishing it would, like the highway department.”
Breaking the all-time January snowfall record is in reach, he said.
“It seems like we’re kind of lined up right now,” Woodmencey said. “It’s been a really good flow.”
That kind of snow is what skiers’ dreams are made of, but it can cause roads large and small to close, including the main thoroughfares in and out of Jackson. When Teton Pass or the Snake River canyon close, businesses can be left scrambling. It’s a story many Jacksonites know well, and some go to extremes to ensure they have employees on the eastern side of the Tetons.
“Last night we put several people up in hotels in town, and we pay for their food,” Children’s Learning Center Executive Director Patti Boyd said Tuesday. “Last Thursday we did the same thing.”
Fourteen of Boyd’s 25 teachers live down Snake River canyon or over Teton Pass, meaning if winter weather strands them at home she won’t be able to open her doors. So she takes the extra step of providing them a warm place to sleep, capitalizing on deals offered by hotels like the Super 8 that give stranded workers cheap accommodations.
Boyd said the recent storms hadn’t affected her ability to operate, a sentiment shared by Teton County School District No. 1 information coordinator Charlotte Reynolds. Because of the nature of the recent closures, in which the pass periodically reopened for a few hours at a time, most of the district’s employees who live outside Jackson were able to make it to work.
For Boyd’s employees the stay in Jackson wasn’t exactly a sabbatical.
“It’s not like, ‘Wow, I get a vacation,’” she said of her teachers’ reactions to staying in Jackson.
Having to stay in town — whether at a hotel or a friend’s house — means not seeing kids or pets or missing out on plans back home. Many commuters take any opportunity, no matter how miserable the driving conditions, to sleep in their own beds and see their families.
Pearl Street Bagels co-owner Heather Gould said she drove around Thursday through Alpine and Swan Valley to go home to Idaho. When she found out the pass was set to close early Monday, she hightailed it home.
“Yesterday I happened to go to the post office, and the guy said it was closing at 2,” she said Tuesday. “This was at like 12:30, so we grabbed our kids and made a mad dash.”
The impacts of the storm cycle go beyond inconvenience. Gould said her Jackson location hadn’t seen a huge dip in business, but the Wilson store has seen a slowdown. Much of the business that sustains that location is from commuters and pass skiers, so when closures limit the number of travelers, her bottom line takes a hit.
Her employees, however, take it in stride.
“Most of our employees have a bag in their car,” she said. “Most people that have lived over there long enough have everything in place.”
Keeping the roads clear
In Grand Teton National Park the worst of the road conditions passed by Monday, when rangers instituted a “no unnecessary travel” rule. That night plow drivers were in overdrive punching out Highway 89, which was drifting over “very quickly,” park spokeswoman Denise Germann said.
The restrictions were lifted Tuesday, opening Highway 89 to the general public, but the road conditions were still dire, Germann said.
“What we’re seeing are variable, changing conditions from the south boundary all the way to Flagg Ranch,” she said. “There’s blowing snow, drifting and limited visibility.”
The story is a bit different in town, where buildings and other infrastructure block the winds. Sam Jewison, the town streets manager, said his team has so far had little trouble keeping up with the storms. But if the storms keep up much longer, he said, his crew may have to start hauling more snow to the fairgrounds, rebuilding the mound that grew to epic proportions last winter and didn’t melt until late May.
“I don’t want to have to get into that like we did last year,” he said. “Wouldn’t be fun.”
He hopes to minimize overtime and haul as little snow to the fairgrounds as possible. But, of course, he is at the mercy of the weather: “Whatever we’re forced to do, that’s what we do.”
Farther north, travelers in Yellowstone National Park have found windy, wintry weather more on par with conditions in Grand Teton. Save for the span between the North and Northeast entrances, the park’s roads are maintained only for snowcoach and snowmobile tours, but even those vehicles equipped for winter travel had a difficult time the past few days.
Park spokeswoman Linda Veress said the road from the South Entrance to Old Faithful had been closed because the Talus Slope area had received 80 inches of snow. Winds have been strong and avalanche danger elevated, so park officials halted all travel through the area until the storms die down.
Veress said people have been stranded at the Old Faithful Lodge for days because of the weather, though some were able to head home Monday.
“There was a lull in the weather, so we were able to get about 20 snowmobilers out,” she said.
New York Times correspondent Jim Robbins was among those still stranded at Old Faithful on Tuesday night. Robbins has covered Yellowstone for four decades, and he leads trips as part of the Times Journeys program, which takes visitors on a weeklong trip through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, complete with outings and lectures.
He and his group have been caught at Old Faithful for two days, and with the south road closure they will hightail it back to Gardiner, Montana, when the weather allows.
“I told the 14 guests who are with me that I hope you had fun being stuck with me in this Yellowstone snow globe,” he said.
Robbins’ trips always include a winter hike to Observation Point to watch Old Faithful, but he said waist-deep wind drifts turned his group back. Yellowstone in winter always carries a risk of bad weather, but the wind and snow he has experienced this week top anything he can remember in his nine years leading the trips.
Playing the game
Teton County sheriff’s Detective Andy Pearson is used to sleeping on the floor under his desk during snowstorms.
Pearson has been commuting to Jackson from Victor, Idaho for more than 20 years, so he’s been stuck at work countless times when Teton Pass closes.
“I roll out a mat and my sleeping bag and read a book and go to sleep for a few hours and go back to work,” Pearson said.
Pearson had a late training assignment Tuesday night, so he brought his overnight bag and planned to sleep on the floor of the sheriff’s office because of the planned 8 p.m. Teton Pass closure.
“I always have a backpack with me in the winter,” Pearson said.
To make it work he doesn’t need much more than his sleeping bag and toothbrush, Pearson said. Fellow deputies do the same thing because otherwise they have to pay for a hotel room out of pocket.
But a law enforcement office isn’t the most peaceful place to get some shut-eye.
“While you’re sleeping the sheriff’s office is still functioning,” Pearson said. “There are lights being turned on, and I’ve walked in on people who are sleeping under their desks.”
It’s what it takes to keep the department functional.
“The job’s got to get done,” Pearson said.
On Monday when Teton Pass and Pine Creek Pass closed, Pearson was making plans to sleep on the floor.
But then Pine Creek Pass opened, so he drove through the Snake River canyon and around back to Victor, about two hours one way.
“When I was driving around Teton Pass reopened,” Pearson said. “It can be a little annoying, but you get used to it. It’s Wyoming in the winter. This is what we do.”
Sixteen of the 18 Teton County Sheriff’s Office deputies live in Teton Valley or Star Valley. When highways close it can leave the county’s patrol staff crippled. The situation puts a lot of pressure on the two deputies who live in Jackson.
“The ones who live in town always get the first call,” Sheriff Matt Carr said. “It’s the same with our dispatchers.”
But so far this week Carr has been able to keep on enough deputies to cover shifts, though it has been tricky.
“It’s a game every commuter plays,” Carr said. “We have been doing the dance, and it’s just about making sure the guys from Idaho can get here before we let others go home.”