When an avalanche ripped down the Twin Slides path on Mount Glory, snow piled up on Highway 22, halting traffic and the morning commute for thousands of drivers.
The Friday morning slide triggered by Jeff Brines, a skier who lives in Victor, Idaho, also reignited a community debate over how skiers comport themselves on Teton Pass. Two large and alluring avalanche paths overhang the integral thoroughfare between Jackson and Teton Valley, Idaho. Though no one was injured or caught in the slide, unlike in a December 2016 avalanche that buried a Jeep, Brines said the experience was harrowing.
“That was one of the darkest moments of my life,” he said. “The feeling that you might have hurt somebody else is something I hope I never feel again.”
Brines was one of about 10 skiers setting the bootpack, kicking steps into the drifted snow, Friday morning, with more hikers behind them. A little before 7:30 a.m., he said, he stopped and skied from a rocky outcropping about two-thirds of the way up, intending to peel back into the trees west of the bootpack. He clicked into his skis and gathered his dog in his arms.
“I didn’t want him to run out in the middle and cause something to break,” he said.
Though he admitted that he could have walked into the trees before clicking in, he said rocks to the west of where he stopped and a group on his heels made him think he should kick turn and drop slightly lower before angling into the trees.
When he kick turned he felt the snow shift beneath him.
“It was like I was falling, but I wasn’t falling,” he said. “I hadn’t seen any natural activity on the way up. The first whoomph I felt was when the slab slid.”
Brines thought the slab he triggered slid just a bit down the slope and stopped, but either the slab was bigger than he realized or it remotely triggered a slide that stretched to the starting zone of the Twin Slides path near the Gazex exploder. The crown was small, about 12 inches, but the slide ran the length of the path and dumped onto the road just west of the road cut.
In light of the morning slide the Wyoming Department of Transportation closed the pass from the moment of the slide until around 5 p.m. that day, keeping an untold number of employees from reaching their jobs or homes. Having to clear skiers off of the pass to conduct avalanche control protracted the closure.
WYDOT then dropped three 40-pound charges onto Glory Bowl and one onto Twin Slides in hope of triggering a slide that might entrain the massive amount of snow added to the slopes with a record February snowfall.
“It’s kind of like the last-ditch effort,” WYDOT foreman Bruce Daigle said Friday. “We’ve thrown everything at it, howitzer rounds, Gazex. We’ve hit this three times with six or seven shots each time.”
The lengths to which Daigle and his avalanche technicians had to go to keep the pass safe last month, which included several closures, reveals the tension between the recreation community and WYDOT. Backcountry skiers have become accustomed to the access offered by Teton Pass, but with upticks in both skiers and commuters trying to use the pass, the danger of a car being buried in a slide or someone being injured has also risen.
“This whole urban interface between a major transportation corridor and major recreation area is coming to a head,” Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center Director Bob Comey said.
The idea that WYDOT would cease plowing the area at the top of the pass, which Daigle pointed out is not a parking lot but a brake check area for trucks, has made the recreation community nervous for years. The Teton Backcountry Alliance started holding meetings and events this year to raise awareness about the possibility that WYDOT may close access or work with the U.S. Forest Service to close the Twin Slides and Glory Bowl areas, which could eliminate the easy bootpack access skiers now enjoy.
That fear carries more urgency following an event like last week’s, when a recreationist, rather than WYDOT’s mitigation work or a natural slide, affects commuter traffic. Because the avalanche was skier-triggered it puts the onus on skiers to self-regulate, officials say.
“There are lots of people on the road, lots of people skiing, and more every day,” Comey said. “This is a consequence; the answer has to come from the community.”
Brines pointed to a lack of information on trigger points on Twin Slides and Glory Bowl. He said reports uploaded to the Avalanche Center’s website specifically on Twin Slides did not include information on where the slides were triggered or who caused them.
He believes having more specific information available to skiers regarding the slide paths would help them make safer decisions, though he noted that many skiers on the pass are tourists who may not have access to such information or know where to turn even if it was available.
Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono, who spearheads much of the education and outreach work for skiers on the pass, believes in a simpler solution.
“I’ve pushed for the skiing public to mentally close off Twin and Glory,” Pistono said. “You just don’t ski those runs.”
In the immediate aftermath of the slide, nothing much has changed. Skiers are still bootpacking up Mount Glory and skiing Twin Slides and Glory Bowl. WYDOT continues to plow the brake check area that skiers use as a parking lot.
But Pistono has seen a shift in the ski community with this slide. Several skiers on the bootpack provided Brines’ name to both Pistono and the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, something Pistono said wouldn’t have happened five years ago. The propensity to name the person who caused the slide, perhaps for public shaming but also for education and accountability, is a step toward a community that conducts itself better on the pass, he said.
“That level of pressure will force the ski community to rethink,” he said.
As a skier who has spent roughly 1,000 days skiing on Teton Pass, Brines said he felt a complacency that led him to kick turn at the edge of the slide path without first thinking if there was a safer way to do it. He also realized that he didn’t know what to do once he triggered the slide. With a dead cellphone battery and no knowledge of who to call, he left the scene, which “might be the thing I feel the worst about,” he said.
Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said Brines had no obligation to stay at the scene and is unlikely to be charged with anything. There is no statute that addresses this type of situation and he didn’t violate any closure.
“Some people are out for blood, but we can only work with what we’ve got,” Carr said.
Brines said he wants this to be a moment that signals a shift and that he wants to do what he can to change the stigma around causing avalanches. He wants triggering a slide to be something that skiers feel they can own up to and learn from. He feels by naming himself and being willing to talk about the steps that led him to trigger the slide, he can challenge his own expert halo and provide an example of how to learn from events like this one.
He also said he’ll avoid Teton Pass for a while.
“It will be really hard for me to ski Glory and Twin Slides again,” he said. “I love those runs, but I can’t handle the idea of hurting someone.
“That was a big wake-up call for me.”