Teton Pass Ambassador

Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono chats with backcountry skiers on Teton Pass.

There is a survey out now to try to gauge what things might be done to keep Teton Pass more organized for all users. Please take the time to do the survey, no matter what you do on the pass.

Teton Pass has a wild range of snow (400 to 800 inches a year), a lot of vehicles (10,000 to 12,000 a day) and a lot of recreational use (well over 100,000 backcountry runs per season). That mix is complicated because 60% to 70% of the backcountry use from the turnout at the top of the pass is on the north side of the road. That means users cross the road to start and finish their runs. About 40% of those users have dogs, and 30% choose to ski or ride runs that could impact the road and travelers below if they slid.

Just a small bit of recent history: Glory Bowl and Twin Slides were not skied often in avalanche conditions in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In the mid-1980s a relatively small number of people skied them. Nowadays users of varying ability and avalanche awareness levels ski those slopes often. In lengthy discussions and work with Wyoming Department of Transportation avalanche technicians, it was agreed that luck is the significant factor in why there haven’t been more slides, because just about every year since the increase in use skiers and riders have triggered slides that have affected the road and, sometimes, travelers.

In many cases the reason these slides did not cause fatalities was also luck, which is not a good operating policy.

We need to look at some possible actions. Closing Twin and Glory to public access in the winter would have some effect, but there will always be people who push the boundaries and “duck the ropes,” making that tough to enforce. Closing access to the north side of the road would have the same general problem, with more access points to patrol.

Even if WYDOT went a step further and didn’t plow the turnout at the top of the pass, some people would sneak onto those slopes. But not plowing would limit use and most likely encourage users to become organized on using the pass safely. Another possible solution that has been suggested and discussed is to install snowsheds over the road at the base of the Twin and Glory slide paths. Snowsheds would eliminate most of the danger problems to travelers on the pass. Some added benefits: more reliable conditions, because the pass would remain open to travelers, and the fact that travel in conditions that tend to cause avalanches would not necessarily be as dangerous.

There are other avalanche paths that affect the road, just not as often. It’s possible that because Twin or Glory wouldn’t be so much of an issue, more effort could be devoted to those areas. Snowsheds would help, because if traffic stopped due to a slide or accident, vehicles wouldn’t be parked under dangerous slide paths for an extended time. That also could maintain access and reduce the impact of skier-triggered slides.

Another option is for skiers and riders to stay out of Twin or Glory on their own. That is the most affordable solution, but because of use patterns it is tough to imagine it being successful. The scary thing is that until some of these other options are implemented, it’s what we have to focus on. Basically, users would need to make decisions based more on responsibility, not personal agendas.

In that vein, think about slides that close Teton Pass for one day and all the money involved. Some simple math here: Estimates are that 4,000 workers a day travel the pass. If each commuter works eight hours at $25 an hour, that’s $800,000 per day that is lost to those workers. Then you have all kinds of other factors: lost productivity, complicated travel and family plans ... Suffice to say, it’s messed up.

Another issue with skier-triggered slides is that WYDOT, the sheriffs and the Highway Patrol are put to work unexpectedly and are taken away from projects they could be doing elsewhere. WYDOT personnel in particular already work their butts off to keep the pass open and have to clean up after our mistakes.

Let’s say our luck runs out and we have a skier-triggered slide that kills an innocent traveler on the road below. Who answers the question about why?

It’s time to fix some stuff before this happens; enough with the luck.

Jay Pistono works as the Teton Pass ambassador, a post jointly funded by Friends of Pathways, the Bridger-Teton National Forest and several outdoor shops. Opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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