Avalanche professionals: beware ‘powder fever’ this weekend

With the ongoing winter storm and spikes in avalanche danger, experts are urging skiers and riders to stay out of terrain that could slide.
A slide on the south face of Taylor Mountain last year. Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center is advising residents to stay out of avalanche terrain with the ongoing snowfall and strong winds. (Courtesy of Teton County Search & Rescue)

by | Jan 12, 2024 | Avalanches

Beware powder fever and be prepared when entering the backcountry this weekend. That’s the message from Teton County Search & Rescue Foundation.

Earlier this week, Communications Director Matt Hansen said it’s been a slow season for rescues so far, but that could change fast with all the new snow.

“We’re all just starving for powder,” Hansen said. “That’s why we live here. It forms a  huge part of our identities as human beings living in Jackson … And when it comes we all need to just remember that, there are a lot of hazards out there.”

The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center has issued an avalanche warning in the Tetons through tomorrow, with the ongoing winter storm. 

The forecasters are advising backcountry-goers to stay out of avalanche terrain, citing a generally weak snowpack being quickly loaded by ongoing snowfall and strong winds. 

“Those venturing out into the mountains should stay away from known avalanche paths, and not subject themselves or others to exposure by staying in very low angle terrain,” the forecast states.

Closures for uphill travel

The options for uphill travel have been sparse today. Teton Pass closed at 3 a.m. for avalanche mitigation and opened shortly before noon.

People can also access that terrain by skiing up Old Pass Road, but pass ambassador Jay Pistono cautions against that — at least for the rest of the day.

“I would avoid it at all possible costs just because there’s big avalanches that could come down across that road,” Pistono said.

He said while skiers and riders aren’t likely to trigger an avalanche on that road, it’s in a “runout zone” — or at the bottom of avalanche paths.

“More and more people, their desire to get out overrides their safety consideration,” Pistono said. “When people start showing up in those areas, it delays the work that WYDOT is trying to get done to get that road open.”

Snow King Mountain also prohibited uphill travel this morning due to mitigation efforts. And Jackson Hole Mountain Resort opened late as it tries to manage all the new snow — almost two feet in the last 48 hours on the summit of Rendezvous Mountain.

Recent rescue trends

In issuing these warnings and closing off areas, avalanche and mountain professionals are trying to limit the need for rescues and keep people safe.

According to a recent report from the Teton County Search & Rescue Foundation, last season saw a spike in incidents out of bounds at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Rescues in the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort backcountry since 2013. Last season saw a big spike in calls for help. (Screenshot)

In the 2022-23 winter, there were about 20 rescues outside the gates in places like Granite Canyon and Rock Springs — compared to around five the previous season.

“Even if it’s familiar, even if it’s like everybody’s doing it, even if there’s tracks going out the gate, that is an uncontrolled area, and your rescue is not guaranteed,” said Hanson, with the foundation.

He added that people with more experience in the backcountry have a larger chance of being rescued than newcomers, because they are pushing boundaries. 

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, everyone can have an accident and no one is too experienced,” Hansen said.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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