The Jackson Hole News&Guide checks in with the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center to bring readers weekly snowpack reports and summaries. Find avalanche reports, snow conditions and new features at JHAvalanche.org. Backcountry travel in avalanche terrain is inherently dangerous. This report is not meant to replace your own information gathering, only to be one source, and is not a replacement for taking an avalanche safety course.
This will be the final snow report of the 2018-19 season. With the Avalanche Center ending its daily briefings Sunday, this is a good time to reflect on the overall trends in the both the snowpack and the avalanches that occurred.
Current conditions: Even as we look back on the season, winter hasn’t fully let go of the region. Storms over the weekend deposited around 20 inches of snow with more than 2 inches of water. The heavy, wet snow has created avalanche danger, particularly on leeward northeast-facing slopes.
One for the records: A season that saw 543 inches of snow dust the slopes of Rendezvous Bowl was really a tale of its two halves.
“We developed a continental snowpack,” Avalanche Center Director Bob Comey said. “We had snow early, then it was cold and dry. We kind of started off with a bad foundation.”
That bad foundation led to a continuous persistent weak slab problem that lasted through much of the season. Comey spoke several times to the News&Guide over the winter about the need for significant snowfall that would bury those layers deep enough to put the problem to bed. Until February the weather didn’t look as if it would cooperate, with storms depositing just a few inches at a time.
Then came the second deepest month the area has ever seen, both in town and in the mountains. Rendezvous Bowl saw 193 inches in just 28 days, creating some hairy in-storm avalanche conditions that led the Avalanche Center to issue warnings that asked backcountry users to avoid all avalanche terrain. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort also closed its backcountry gates that access Grand Teton National Park due to the avalanche danger.
February changed the quality of the skiing as well as the avalanche conditions. Once the storms passed and the skies cleared in March, the Teton snowpack was relatively stable, though Togwotee Pass and parts of the Wyoming Range retained their poor structure all season. The stability in the Tetons led to a surprisingly mellow avalanche season.
“I think we saw fewer slides, especially big avalanches,” Comey said. “At least that’s anecdotally; we haven’t done a large study.”
Comey thought skiers may have been more cautious because of the early season conditions, but he said there were several close-call avalanches that caught, carried and buried people. With bad luck, trauma or slower rescues, those incidents, which ranged from someone being caught in a small slide in Mail Cabin Creek to a guided helicopter skiing client who was rescued in just a few minutes, could have been much worse.
That being said, there were five avalanche fatalities in Wyoming: four snowmobilers who died in the Jackson Hole area, from Togwotee Pass to the Snake River Range, and one woman killed by a roof slide at a house on Casper Mountain. Twenty-five people have died so far in the U.S. this winter from slides, just below the average of 27 deaths a year.
Outlook: Winter may be over, but the skiing is still going strong. Comey said the high-elevation snow has skied well over the past couple of weeks, but the weather is predicted to move toward spring-like conditions, which may turn into a corn cycle.
“It should clear off Thursday and Friday, so it’ll be high pressure and it should be clear at night,” Comey said. “Hopefully that will refine this new snow.”
Regardless of the skiing conditions this weekend, the deep snowpack and cold temperatures so far have preserved much of the upper-elevation snow, lending hope for a long spring of skiing big objectives in Grand Teton National Park.
“The road in the park opens in a couple weeks, and we might have snow down to the road,” Comey said. “We’ve got a solid snowpack that might last for a long time.”