Challenges pile up for avalanche mitigation on mountain highways

Backcountry skiers complicate slide control

  • Avalanche warning sign at Glory Bowl.

    Jake Ostlind
 

About 10 miles west of Jackson, Wyo., the crest of Glory Bowl looms 1,600 feet above Teton Pass. Its steep, open slope provides some of the most popular backcountry skiing in the U.S., with an unbroken run all the way back to the trailhead. Skiers and snowboarders made an estimated 80,000 runs down the bowl and surrounding slopes last year, possibly the most of any trailhead in the West.

Glory Bowl also sits atop an avalanche path that can overrun Highway 22, which is traversed by roughly 5,000 vehicles a day, many driven by people commuting from eastern Idaho to jobs in Jackson. After a big storm blows through, Wyoming Department of Transportation avalanche technician Jamie Yount gathers data about snow depth, weight and cohesion to forecast where and when avalanches might occur. Then he and the highway crew close the road and fire cannons to trigger small, predictable, easy-to-clear slides, hoping to prevent large natural avalanches.

"People assume since there is control work, it's safe to ski," Yount says. But in three separate incidents this November, backcountry skiers triggered avalanches that smothered sections of the highway. The road was closed for hours at a time -- even overnight -- while WYDOT rushed to clear the frozen rubble. Over 500 commuters called to complain about skier-caused highway closures. A rumor spread that the agency would stop plowing the skier parking lot to discourage backcountry use.

The geography of Teton Pass makes Highway 22 especially vulnerable to skier-triggered slides. But it's not just a local problem; as development and recreation swell in far-flung mountain towns, challenges for avalanche managers are piling up. "There's a very large increase in backcountry use across the West," says Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Exact numbers are lacking, but Greene says skiers are flocking to terrain accessible by road -- the same snow-caked slopes that give highway departments so much trouble.

"It's a pretty freaking difficult job," says Liam Fitzgerald, a Utah Department of Transportation avalanche forecaster, who does mitigation work east of Salt Lake City, especially in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. A study of the Little Cottonwood Canyon highway described it as one of the riskiest for avalanches in North America. During ski season, up to 6,500 vehicles a day wind along the canyon wall below 3,000 vertical feet of snowy, slide-prone slopes. When avalanche danger peaks, buildings in Alta and Snowbird are sometimes evacuated. Even with extensive mitigation, natural slides can still come down.

Add backcountry skiers, and the job of trying to protect roads and buildings from avalanches becomes even harder. In mid-December, UDOT posted signs in Big Cottonwood Canyon warning backcountry skiers to stay off slopes threatening the highway where they planned to airdrop explosives to shed one storm's load before another rolled in. But when the helicopter spotted three backcountry skiers beyond the closure signs, the mission was called off and could not be rescheduled before the storm hit. That storm dumped less new snow than predicted, but could have caused avalanche hazard levels resulting in lengthy road closures, blocking access to the ski resorts up the canyon. "This is a case of a small number of people impacting a large number of people," Fitzgerald says. "They are not looking at the big picture."

Fitzgerald believes the situation will get worse as more people venture into the backcountry. "Twenty years ago, there was hardly a problem. Ten years ago, more of a problem," he says. Today, it's even harder "to make sure no one is in the area where you do control work."

Still, there's little support for cutting off backcountry access. Greene says the increase in outdoor recreation is "representative of the New West environment." Recreation has replaced industries like mining and ranching as the major economic force in many mountain towns, where new construction increasingly gets in the way of avalanche mitigation. The Colorado Department of Transportation stopped bombing one slide path near Ouray after a cabin was built downhill. "If there is a home in the runout zone, we can't do control work," says CDOT maintenance superintendent Kyle Lester. When hazard is high, "the road stays closed until it releases naturally or the snow pack stabilizes."

The rumors that skier access on Teton Pass would be blocked came to nothing. More than 600 people attended an avalanche awareness meeting held by an outdoor gear shop in Jackson in December, and WYDOT promised to keep plowing the lot. "WYDOT needed to flex their muscle a little bit," says Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono, whose job title indicates the strained relationship between skiers and the transportation department. Pistono works as a liaison between the two on behalf of the Forest Service and a local access advocacy group. He warns that access could still be cut off if a skier-caused avalanche ever kills a commuter.

"All we can do is try and educate them," adds WYDOT forecaster Yount, a backcountry skier himself. "But it only takes one person to ruin it."

High Country News Classifieds
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.