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Backcountry access on Teton Pass is under threat, and we’re the ones to blame.
Teton Pass is both a blessing and a curse. Leaving the town of Wilson, Wyoming, and driving the winding seven miles to the parking lot at the top is a daily ritual for many avid backcountry enthusiasts. On dark mornings after a storm—just as the sun crests the horizon—we shoulder our packs, pull up our Buffs, and begin the stairmaster of the Mount Glory bootpack to greet the day. Arguably one of the best bang-for-your buck backcountry experiences in Jackson Hole, Glory laps have provided some of my best days on snow, and I’m sure many others would say the same. Unfortunately, the ease of access that makes them so rewarding also leads to misuse and a widening issue with the other users of Teton Pass.
If you’ve lived in Jackson for even part of a winter season, the problem should be all too familiar: backcountry users flock to the mecca of Teton Pass and in their lust for perfect pow turns they make bad choices and set off avalanches. Those avalanches often run down well-known paths and end up on the highway blocking traffic, closing the road, and sometimes burying vehicles, as in one terrifying instance last winter. It brings up questions of accountability and responsibility within our community, pitting the rights of skiers and snowboarders to use public lands against the safety of commuters, highway workers, and first responders. According to a study released this year by Teton Backcountry Alliance, 11,709 people entered the Teton Pass backcountry between November 21, 2018 and January 13, 2019. That’s an average of 217 people each day making their way up the mountain, parking their vehicles, and heading out into avalanche terrain. With updates to ski and snowboard gear, safety gear, and the popularity of earning your turns, the amount of people getting into backcountry skiing and riding has grown more rapidly than any other segment of the ski industry.
Teton Pass does have a guardian. Slightly weathered, with a beckoning grin, Jay Pistono is the un-badged law up on Teton Pass. The sole paid regulator, his mission is to help to keep things running smoothly among the myriad groups that utilize the area. As the official ‘Teton Pass Ambassador’ since 2005, Jay notches over a hundred days a year and sometimes as many as three hundred Glory Bowl hikes in just one season. Jay first came to Jackson by way of Teton Pass back in the seventies. With eleven bucks in his pocket he hitched a ride over the hill and has been around the area ever since. For nearly five decades, from the rowdy seventies and eighties to the present day, Jay has seen this evolve. Teton Pass has been touted as a backcountry destination for decades in magazines and ski films. The lure of easy access to fantastic turns attracts locals and visitors alike, including some who are educated in avalanche safety and respectful of other users, and some who are unaware of the delicate balance granting them access to that terrain.
Where does the accountability actually lie? How do we enforce a safety code in an area that’s inherently wild? As the number of skier and snowboarder-triggered slides burying cars and cutting off the lifeblood of Jackson Hole has grown, these questions have become central to the debate.
The “Pass Problem” seemingly begins and ends with the access to parking. As the popularity and notoriety of riding Teton Pass increases, parking has become the hot issue. Jay reminds users every year to park smart and close together in order to maximize the amount of cars that can fi t at the top of the Pass. However, in the heart of the winter season with the snowbanks closing in, there are often lines of cars waiting for a spot, especially on the biggest snow days. Although there is an understood etiquette (similar to a surf lineup) for getting a space, backcountry skiers and boarders may end up waiting up to an hour for a parking spot to get the goods.
Where does the accountability actually lie? How do we enforce a safety code in an area that’s inherently wild?
This affects and disrupts the everyday traffic of people trying to commute from one side to the other. A line of stopped cars on top of the Pass limits space for commuters looking to pull off and let faster vehicles pass, or those dealing with overheated engines or traction problems. Cars pulling in and out of this lot on days with low visibility create the opportunity for accidents. As much as we, skiers and riders, appreciate this parking lot, how many of us have stopped to consider that this was never what it was intended for? According to the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) employee that our photographer Ryan Dee rode along with to document this article, that pullout was designed to be a safe area for cars and trucks to pull off the road, not a parking lot for forest access. They keep it plowed and allow folks to park there as a courtesy.
No one goes out intending to set off an avalanche, but whether through ignorance or bad luck, avalanches do happen. Glory Bowl and Twin Slides are well known and highly active slide paths. Regardless of the avalanche control measures that WYDOT have in place on Mount Glory, slides still frequently occur. These two paths are the main culprits when it comes to producing slides that impact the road. They are also the two easiest runs to access from the Glory bootpack, which runs up the ridge just to the skier’s right of Twin Slides, and both are tantalizingly fun on days when they are safe enough to ride.
With that in mind, the Teton Backcountry Alliance put out a survey asking users what they suggest for managing risk versus reward in the area. Most of their survey respondents favored temporarily closing Glory Bowl and Twin Slides, particularly after major storms make the features ripe for avalanches. Bridger-Teton National Forest Resource Manager Linda Merigliano put it best: “The vast majority of people want to do the right thing. But it only takes one person to ruin it for everybody.”
The risk of natural avalanches and road closures is compounded by backcountry user behavior. More than once last season I encountered people who had little to no avalanche gear or experience, and absolutely no idea where they were going. They had just heard that the Pass was “where it’s at” and had come up to check it out.
Is it our responsibility to address and educate those we come across in this situation? We all know certain days and certain places on the Pass can be precarious. Avalanche Bowl holds that name for good reason: it’s perfectly poised to slide given the right conditions. Even the skin track up to Edelweiss has a touchy convexity that likes to pop when loaded correctly. Add in the even riskier areas off of Glory, and we have a large problem.
As a community we can vow to not touch the two primary slide paths that menace the highway when avalanche danger is considerable or higher, but what about the backcountry user who doesn’t know better? How do we hedge against their poor choices? Some advocate for doling out permits via a lottery system or an avalanche-education certification process, and restricting access to ensure safety. Others think it is possible to be independent stewards and lead by example, creating a self-policing system.
No matter what, each season we creep closer and closer to a showdown with the agencies and departments that manage the area. As scary avalanche incidents continue to mount, what are we willing to do to keep Teton Pass from getting hot-passed?
Rachel Reich lived and worked amongst the Tetons for six years and recently made the move to the beach for work. She’s still a local to us. @theracheden