On days when avalanche danger is high, most backcountry skiers are conservative. But the few who make bad choices not only endanger themselves but risk an avalanche running onto the thousands of vehicles traveling Highway 22 over Teton Pass each day.
Skier-caused avalanches have caught vehicles at least twice in the past few winters and have closed the commuter thoroughfare many more times, stranding people away from their families or keeping them from work.
At peak avalanche conditions March 1, Bridger-Teton National Forest officials did something extraordinary. They closed the terrain surrounding Highway 22 on Teton Pass. They did so to help the Wyoming Department of Transportation safely execute avalanche control measures. People weren’t allowed to ski in the area for at least 10 hours.
Which raises the question: Why not use precautionary skier closures to prevent extended human-triggered closures for motorists? Similar to winter closures that protect wildlife, and a campaign for people to not poach the powder.
Why not close skiing on the north side of the highway every time officials deem avalanche danger too high? Or does an innocent commuter need to be maimed or killed before something finally changes?
The latest incident with an experienced backcountry skier proves that no amount of familiarity with the terrain is sufficient to prevent a poor decision.
Fortuitously, the Teton Pass Alliance formed this winter to help educate backcountry users about etiquette and to serve as a voice for pass recreationists.
Now is the time for WYDOT, the Pass Alliance and the U.S. Forest Service to agree on plans for intermittent, weather-dependent closures to all human activity along the north side of the highway on Teton Pass. There’s plenty of time to create a smart solution before next winter’s storm cycles.
The joy of a handful of skiers is not worth the potential death and ongoing economic consequences of devastating avalanches reaching the highway.