Snow King access road

Rod Newcomb and David Bowers survey the east side of Snow King Mountain recently while flagging trees along the proposed route of a new access road.

While some skiers are calling for a less intrusive access road, Snow King Resort is standing firm in its request for a route up the front of the mountain.

Resort officials contend a frontside road will offer beginning skiers a more forgiving run from the summit to the base. But one critic said that would come at the expense of advanced skier terrain.

“It’s going to diminish the quality of skiing,” Rod Newcomb said. “Every skier skiing every run has to deal with that road.”

Newcomb is the founder of the American Avalanche Institute, a backcountry skier of nearly 60 years and former Snow King patroller. He also served on the Snow King stakeholder group earlier this year.

Newcomb argues that the proposed road would break up some of the mountain’s best slopes, forcing skiers to navigate steep banks where the road would cut across the slope. His alternative is for Snow King to take advantage of an existing road that travels up the back side to the summit, via Leeks Canyon, never interrupting a ski run. It was used to build the original summit lift and Panorama House, and these days operators use it to reach the cell tower atop the mountain.

The road is just one piece of Snow King’s proposed changes to its master plan for development on the mountain, which is under review by the town of Jackson and the U.S. Forest Service. The resort’s sweeping package of proposals is meant to bring financial stability to a business that has long claimed to be gushing red.

The road would be used to construct a restaurant and serve a gondola station at the summit and would double as accessible learning terrain for children and new skiers.

“It’s not about do we want to do this or that,” Snow King GM Ryan Stanley said. “It’s really about our goal to improve the winter operations and ski experience … and having a beginner ski-way is a critical piece.”

Newcomb believes that beginner experience would come at the expense of expert skiers, who prefer runs without obstacles like road cuts.

“It’s a trade-off,” he said. “Is the impact of that road worth what they want it for, when there is a road that would perfectly suit the construction purpose on the back side?”

The road up the backside begins just south of High School Road and crosses land owned by the Lockhart family. Kelly Lockhart said the family has long negotiated with groups that needed to use the road and would be willing to do the same with Snow King.

The road isn’t in good enough condition for heavy construction vehicle use and would need improvements before Snow King could use it. But Newcomb argues it’s a better option than marring the mountain’s finest runs.

The proposed road on the front would require a 6-foot bank on the uphill side where it crosses Elk run, Newcomb said. Further west, where it crosses Bearcat run, the road would cut through steeper terrain and create even taller banks.

Newcomb, who has held avalanche courses at ski resorts throughout the West, said these steep sections above the proposed road are prone to avalanches and would need to be monitored.

Although many ski mountains have frontside roads, Newcomb said most situate them so they are not a hindrance to skiing.

But as Snow King sees it, the new road would improve the overall ski experience, allowing the resort to reclaim existing roads that now cut across Elk and other runs.

“It’s not a major net loss,” Stanley said.

Another common concern is that the road will encroach on valuable wildlife habitat as it passes through undeveloped land on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, land that is now outside Snow King’s boundaries to the east and west.

“As Teton County continues to increase in population and build out to the forest, this boundary becomes more important,” Newcomb wrote in a letter to Mary Moore, the U.S. Forest Service’s Jackson District ranger.

The road would head east beyond the north face of Snow King and into the Cache Creek drainage before switchbacking and cutting across all the runs from the top. Past the Bearcat run to the west the road would switchback again, extending beyond current boundaries before reaching the summit.

Stanley said the Forest Service, as it analyzes all of Snow King’s proposals through its National Environmental Policy Act process, will determine whether the road would harm wildlife. If it would, the Forest Service will recommend alternatives, he said.

“Some people think these are foregone conclusions,” Stanley said.

But what is finally approved will depend on what the Forest Service decides after an expected 18-month review.

Speaking Monday at a joint meeting of the Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners, Moore confirmed that assertion. She said that after her superiors have considered all relevant information they’ll decide whether to support the proposed road, or some alternative.

Long before Newcomb was a veritable ski legend, he began skiing Snow King in the early 1960s, and then, as now, there was no beginner terrain from the top. There were, however, two get-off stations on the old Summit lift.

He started by hopping off at the first one, skiing a short way to the base. Then he graduated to the second.

“Eventually I had my courage to go to the top,” Newcomb said. “The locals who grew up here will tell the same story.”

And as long as he’s been here, he said, the resort has struggled to sustain winter operations. With that in mind, he supports the resort’s efforts to diversify its activities and appeal to a wider audience.

“I’m not against improvements,” Newcomb said. “Let them have their gondola and their restaurant at top. But this road is going to be a major feature.”

Editor's note: This article has been revised to clarify Snow King's financial status.

Contact Cody Cottier at 732-5911, town@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGtown.

Cody Cottier covers town and state government. He grew up with a view of the Olympic Mountains, and after graduating Washington State University he traded it for a view of the Tetons. Odds are the mountains are where you’ll find him when not on deadline.

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(1) comment

Shane Rothman

Here are some concerns to consider when providing public comment to the BTNF by 10/4. The email address is: marymoore@fs.fed.us

The Proposed Road:

-This requires expansion into sensitive year-round wildlife habitat.

-Requires steep road cuts, compromises every signature ski trail with steep and dangerous intersections(Elk, Grizzly, Belly Roll, Exhibition, Bearcat). Totally impassable areas are a likely result in many locations.

-Requires a major increase in avalanche mitigation along the ridgeline and through the steep forest, and will even create new starting zones for destructive wet avalanches below the road. This poses a major liability issue, and would likely result in frequent closures of the entire upper half of the mountain during both winter storms and rain events. The majority of this road will be built on slopes in excess of 30 degrees.

-Will require snowmaking pipes along route, pipes/hydrants could leak and contribute to major erosion or landslide (no pipes were allowed to be laid horizontal during the 2014 snowmaking project). Snow King has a history of failing to address leaky pipes in a timely manner with their current snowmaking system.

-Will require new lighting in areas far outside the current footprint.

-A new road must require significant financial bonding to cover potential landslides and erosion issues, and a potential threat to private property situated on the lower slopes.

-This road is being excessively designed to cater to cement trucks, not recreation.

-Snowcats, snowguns, snowmobiles, summer vehicle traffic, and other machines are not suitable outside their current boundaries. This sets a poor precedent, and will most likely decrease trail etiquette and user morale on the surrounding public land.

-A new lift will provide faster and safer “emergency access” than riding up or down in a vehicle. Fire suppression equipment should’ve already been permanently placed at the Summit, and the infrastructure to do so has been there since 2014.

-A more capable Summit Lift, specifically a small Aerial Tram, should be considered the most ideal for the future needs of this mountain, and would significantly reduce the need for ATV, machinery, and vehicle trips up the mountain, both during construction and after.

-Current ATV/vehicle traffic and the associated noise and dust is already a burden on the public users, neighbors, and wildlife.

-This road will be a mile wide scar(eyesore) on a historic ski hill, which serves as the famous backdrop of Jackson. This compromises the historic integrity. A recent historic evaluation required for “Phase 1” found that many structures weren’t worth preserving, but the “unchanged view” of Snow King Mountain would make the Town Hill eligible to be registered as a historical landmark.

-Extensive portions of the existing road were built by the CCC in the 1930’s, and are likely eligible for historic designation at WY’s first ski area.

-The existing road would still be necessary to access the top of Elk and Grizzly from the Summit, and also to traverse East towards Rafferty from the top of the Cougar Lift. Having two separate road cuts within close proximity will compromise safe, fun skiing, and the potential for race events on Elk and Grizzly.

-Events such as the Town Downhill and Snowmobile HillClimb Championships will have an altered venue with a new obstruction. Beginners will not have a suitable way down the mountain during these extended closures that would require the road to be fully buried.

-Encourages beginner and intermediate access to explore dangerous forests known for marginal base depths and extremely variable snow conditions. Snow depth and conditions on the upper half of SKM typically deteriorate fast on the descent due to frequent fluctuations in the rain level, which is frequently above 7000’. People without local knowledge will be lured into dangerous areas and a rapidly fading snowpack, especially from the road’s location on the upper West Side of the ski area. This is a major liability issue especially for a “struggling” ski area. All terrain outside SK’s current footprint should remain only accessible through backcountry gates.

-Due to the challenges of constructing and maintaining this route through pristine areas that are utilized primarily by our wildlife, THE PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE ROUTE SHOULD BE TO USE THE EXISTING BACKSIDE ROAD, AND TO IMPROVE THE CURRENT ROAD SYSTEM ON THE FRONTSIDE.

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