Teton Pass closed

A parking snafu takes shape at the lot at the top of Teton Pass during a winter storm last April, the same day a snowboarder triggered a small slide at the base of Twin Slides that blocked both lanes of Highway 22 and closed the pass.

A cadre of longtime Teton recreators has formed a group intent on protecting terrain used by backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers, especially Teton Pass.

The Teton Backcountry Alliance is not a completely nascent group. Its Facebook page was created Feb. 7, but the group had some initial bumps.

“We brought in 10 to 15 people and had failure to launch last winter,” said Kim Havell, part of the group’s steering committee.

After paring down the steering committee, which includes backcountry advocates like Tom Turiano, Christian Beckwith and Jay Pistono, among others, the organization is preparing to host its first event next month and bring its mission out of the idea phase.

“The idea for the alliance is that we begin to form a single voice that can help advance interests of the backcountry skiing and snowboarding community,” Beckwith said.

Though the group is interested in protecting skiing access in the entire region — “the park to the pass to things you can reach within an hour’s drive,” according to Beckwith — Teton Pass is a main focus. The specter of losing easy backcountry skiing access on the pass rears its head often in Jackson Hole, often in reaction to some event.

Skier-triggered avalanches on Twin Slides or Glory Bowl, parking mayhem at the top of the pass and general overcrowding are raised as community issues that could one day cause the Wyoming Department of Transportation to stop plowing the parking lots at the top of the pass, effectively ending the easy access to skiing. The alliance has formed as a way to educate skiers on the things they can do to maintain access and to advocate on their behalf with agencies.

Teton Pass has emerged as the first point of interest partially because WYDOT is unhappy with how skiers comport themselves on the pass.

“There was an impetus. Jay in one of our first meetings said WYDOT has serious concerns with how we are behaving in that particular zone,” Havell said. “They’re worried for their plow drivers, concerned for their workers.”

One representative from WYDOT who has 14 years of plowing experience on the pass echoed that.

“When you have a skier come down and not pay attention to signs and cause an avalanche,” foreman Bruce Daigle said, “that’s where a lot of this closing off talk stems from.”

Though that hasn’t happened this season, there have been several times in recent memory in which a skier-triggered avalanche, whether a large one in Twin Slides or Glory Bowl or a small one from the roadcuts that overhang the highway, closed the pass. With thousands of cars traveling over the divide each day between Teton Valley, Idaho, and Jackson for work, avalanches that close the highway for even a few hours can ruin a lot of days.

“It’s not fair to the working person,” Daigle said. “The traveling public’s safety comes first.”

In light of the seriousness of the issue, the alliance is hosting a happy hour series throughout the winter to connect interested parties with agency and industry representatives. The first will be from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Jan. 9 at the Stagecoach Bar.

Called “Keep Teton Pass Open,” it will be a chance for WYDOT to share its concerns and the alliance its mission. The event is a fundraiser and will have a silent auction with prizes from Teton Orthopaedics, Skinny Skis and more.

Daigle said one of the avalanche technicians would be in attendance, available to give the agency’s perspective on the road. He plans to be out of town but said he wants to make the next two because the conversation is important. Cooperation is key to keeping parking available to skiers, as was seen in the weigh station on the western side of the pass.

This season “no-parking” signs cropped up around the station, which has become a popular parking area for skiers accessing the western flank of Taylor Mountain or the Snake River Range. The pullout is designed for trucks to be able to turn around in, but Daigle realized its importance for skiers and opened a few parking spaces near the scale house, which will remain open as long as skiers respect the closures in the rest of the pullout.

Daigle hopes the Teton Backcountry Alliance can educate skiers on how to maintain access. He wants skiers to realize that parking on the pass is a privilege that WYDOT is happy to maintain as long as its commuters and employees are safe.

“I don’t ski, but I’m happy others do,” he said. “But if they cannot get everyone on board, I wouldn’t have a problem at all closing that off.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-5902 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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