Written by Ski Patroller Jeff Burke, Photos by Ski Patroller David Bowers
Saturday, February 11, 2017
Mother Nature has a tendency to do what she wants. For better, and worse. February was shaping up to be a banner month in an already formidable season of deep snow. Clouds lowered on the first, the sky started spitting and didn’t stop. Skiing conditions throughout the valley were fabulous at all elevations. At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, soft snow abounded, each day bringing new coverage, replenishing our coveted resource, and the hose showed no signs of slowing.
Then, a week into an enduring deluge of Pacific moisture, Tuesday the 7th happened. Despite world-class skiing, fierce valley winds late in the afternoon created turmoil along the village road. With recorded gusts in excess of 90 mph, seventeen transfer towers were toppled in rapid succession along Hwy 390, and forced the eventual submission of countless Village guests and homeowners alike. Almost all power to Teton Village and its surrounding communities was out for the next five days, and is just now acquiring full capacity. Though the windstorm shut down the resort, and brought all business and recreation at Teton Village to a standstill, Mother Nature wasn’t done.
Copious moisture—both in snow, and rain at the lower elevations—persisted for the days following the power outage, and created a menacing avalanche problem for the otherwise power-stripped Jackson Hole Ski Patrol. With no heat, no electricity and limited communication, we had to come up with a plan to maintain a safe environment for the resort’s reopening, whenever that might be.
Anyone who’s ever shoveled snow knows it’s a lot easier to shovel often when there’s a few inches, then when there’s a foot. The same principle applies to avalanche control. A mounting load of snow, if not addressed, can lead to large, destructive avalanches that can threaten not just guests of the resort, but buildings, structures and the skiable landscape itself.
Power be damned, the patrol had to access the mountain to contend with the growing avalanche scenario lest a much greater danger arise by sitting back. We relied on the twin diesel back up engines of the aerial tram to gain the mountain summit, light from headlamps to get dressed, and working memory in the place of instrumentation and weather updates. With no medical clinic at the base, no cell service, and no real working infrastructure—just you and your partner on route in a whiteout—you feel the margin of error slowly slip away.
With 4000 vertical feet of real estate and a large temperature gradient brought by this southern Pacific moisture train, snow control took on many challenges. Under the strong winds and rising snow totals, patrollers high on the mountain encountered stiff, wind slabs and loaded snowfields. Farther down in elevation, snow changed to rain, creating dangerous, top heavy wet slabs that are a different beast entirely. Adaptability and relying on experience are as much of our tool set as explosives, shovels and toboggans.
Many of us hike to the top of the Headwall to work our mitigation routes. Every day it snows, we forge a new boot pack up part of the mountain. Because we only had access to the Tram after the power outage, we slogged up Pepi’s Bench each morning, usually through new avalanche debris while carrying 45 pounds of backpack, skis and rescue gear. Yes, it gets tiring. For the uninitiated, this can have its own associated risks. A tired worker can be more susceptible to injury, especially when skiing conditions on the lower mountain are more akin to wet cement than cold smoke powder.
The series of storms from Feb. 1st to the 12th deposited approximately seven to eight feet of snow, or the equivalent of 10 inches of water to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort area. Around the valley, avalanches blocked roads, and the Department of Transportation had their own avalanche threat to deal with. Snow King Resort too, had a potentially lethal inbounds wet slide that shut them down for an afternoon. This snow event was valley wide.
The power outage stacked the odds in Mother Nature’s favor, which elevated our challenges while she smacked us with wind, snow and rain. Throughout the maelstrom, we did everything to play it safe, all the while remaining tenacious and patient.
By week’s end, we felt as if we’d seen past the event horizon. While swarms of road crews, bucket trucks and engineers re-erected the fallen towers lining the highway, we made peace with winter’s most threatening storm. With the help of our sister Mountain Ops departments, some brave snow cat drivers, and shovel hungry tram workers, we picked up our beloved mountain, and grew a little stronger in the process. Monday morning we opened to the public under the first sunshine to hit the ground in over two weeks.