Snowfall that amassed in the valley during the first half of Wednesday was just the “leading edge” of a storm that’s positioned to nudge Jackson into the record books for the snowiest February, MountainWeather.com meteorologist Jim Woodmencey said.
“Tonight will be the heaviest snowfall, and we’ll also see temperatures warming through tomorrow,” Woodmencey said Wednesday. “It doesn’t look like rain in the valley, but it might be damn close.”
The record for February snowfall in the town of Jackson dates to 1978, when 33 inches were logged, but the National Weather Service instruments through just 12 days of the month had already measured 31.5 inches.
“That will be broken by tomorrow morning,” he said. “And we’re only halfway through [the month]. It’s fascinating.”
It’s uncertain how the overall winter stacks up compared with those of the past, because the town’s weather station wasn’t monitored during the five-week federal government shutdown. The mountain snowpack, measured in water weight by automated SNOTEL equipment, actually remains below average, at 93 percent of normal in the Snake River watershed.
It’s the low-elevation snowpack that is off the charts. Conditions are absolutely ripe for avalanches anywhere there’s enough pitch. Slopes around town — including at East Jackson’s Nelson Knoll, East Gros Ventre Butte and the mountainsides looming over South Highway 89 — avalanched Tuesday and Wednesday, attesting to the current instability.
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center judged the hazard at “considerable” at mid- and low elevations in the Teton area Wednesday, and “high” above 9,000 feet. Director Bob Comey said Wednesday afternoon that another “high” rating throughout the region will “likely” be the case Thursday, and the center may issue a rare “avalanche watch” or more-serious “avalanche warning.”
“We’ve got poor snow structure right now,” Comey said. “We’ve got some pretty decent snow depths at the lower elevations with that poor structure, so we’re going to have slides.”
The persistent precipitation, and the winds accompanying it, have wreaked havoc on residents’ ability to travel around the valley. North-to-south passage has been all but impossible, and Grand Teton National Park again closed Highway 26/89/191 throughout much of Wednesday, after a nearly 24-hour closure shuttered the throughway much of Monday until Tuesday afternoon due to blowing snow and winter conditions.
Teton park spokeswoman Denise Germann anticipates much of the same Thursday. Parts of the highway north of Antelope Flats are drifted so badly that normal blade plows are not an option, she said, and road maintenance workers will need to break out a rotary plow. She expects it will take six hours to cut through the snowpack between Moose and Moran.
“I would anticipate it will be closed most of the day, if not all day,” she said.
Meanwhile in Moran, some are stranded at home and others in town, on either side of the Highway 26/89/191 closure. But Jennifer Inman, a Buffalo Valley resident, said it’s not so bad to hunker down for a bit.
“I personally love it,” she said. “Got a freezer full of elk meat and my kids are safe at home.”
But she noted that her children attend the Moran Elementary School, making the storm less stressful for the family. Others aren’t so fortunate.
“For some of the parents who have kids in town and they’re up here,” she said, “it’s a struggle.”
There are 30 students total on the Teton County School District No. 1 bus route from Moran to town, however, that number includes some families who live in Moose and weren’t impacted by the road closure.
Closer to town, avalanches, rather than blowing snow, impeded drivers from reaching their destinations.
Dawn Dunlap, of Jackson, didn’t know what hit her car in the first moments an avalanche flowed onto Highway 89 a mile south of High School Road.
“I thought it was a gust of wind at first. I was going about 45 mph, not too fast, and then, wham, it just came down and hit me,” Dunlap told the Jackson Hole Daily. “I thought I was going to end up upside-down.”
WYDOT Foreman Bruce Daigle is glad Dunlap is OK.
“I’m just glad no one got hurt,” Daigle said. “Everyone should expect more slides with this incoming storm. It will have a lot of moisture.”
WYDOT officials said the avalanche may have been triggered by wildlife and have issued an alert for no unnecessary travel. The same area slid in December 1996, pushing a sedan off the road and into a field below.
Elsewhere, at least four vehicles were partially buried after an avalanche off East Gros Ventre Butte on Wednesday afternoon near T.J. Maxx, and a small avalanche blocked one lane on Spring Gulch Road. The crown was about 18 feet above the road, and the slide deposited about 16 inches of snow and debris in the northbound lane.
In light of the natural avalanche activity, Snow King officials are planning for avalanche control Thursday morning. They urge uphill skiers to stay off the mountain until it’s complete.
“We’re getting more and more traffic uphill every year,” Snow King General Manager Ryan Stanley said. “We need to educate them about safety.”
The resort bombed its slopes during the last major storm earlier this month, and Stanley said there were already so many skiers on the mountain that ski patrol had to spend a lot of time chasing them down. Typically, he said, Snow King officials post avalanche control alerts where uphill travelers begin, but based on the forecast they didn’t expect so much snow. They got a late start, and some skiers had already begun skinning before they put up signs.
The resort posts on social media and its website to notify the public, as does the town of Jackson. Additionally, patrollers sweep the mountain on snowmobiles to ensure no one is in harm’s way.
If the storm keeps up, Stanley said avalanche control is “reasonably possible” Friday as well.
When in doubt about the status of avalanche control on Snow King, call 201-5464 for updates and information.
The closures and winter weather also made it difficult for some of the valley’s visitors to follow the itineraries they set for their trips.
Scenic Safaris picked up Janet Schwamm and her husband for their three-day anniversary tour of Yellowstone around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. But their guide discovered the closure of Highway 191.
After contemplating another route into the park, guides decided it wasn’t worth the dangerous conditions and took them to breakfast at Nora’s instead.
The Schwamms decided to spend Wednesday on an National Elk Refuge sleigh ride, in hopes of skies clearing for a snowmobiling trip later in the week.
“With a storm this massive, it just didn’t make sense,” Schwamm said. “Obviously, we were really disappointed. This was a big thing. We really wanted to go into Yellowstone and see the animals; it was supposed to be our anniversary present. We’re bummed. We also realize it’s better to be safe.”