Local nonprofit steps up to provide free shuttle for recreationists

The Teton Backcountry Alliance shuttled recreationists this winter, after the county helped identify the issue and the solution — but didn't act.
Rick Gordon and Ella Witala pose for a selfie at the top of the pass. Gordon drove Witala and friends in the Teton Backcountry Alliance shuttle in March. (Courtesy of Rick Gordon)

As backcountry skiing and snowboarding continue to become more popular in Jackson, recreationists are contributing to dangerous traffic conditions on Teton Pass — home to some of the most accessible backcountry terrain in the country.

The high mountain pass that connects Wyoming and Idaho is prone to ice and snow, and thousands of people commute on the narrow winding roads every day.

After one study identified the need for a shuttle on the pass, one local nonprofit, Teton Backcountry Alliance, stepped in where the town, county and state have not, and started shuttling recreationists up and down the highway.

No snow, no go

On a slightly snowy Saturday, Rick Gordon was on Old Pass Road, near Wilson at the base of the pass. He’s driving a boxy-white passenger van.

“Tough day weather-wise, I think,” he said, gesturing towards

Rick Gordon stands in front of the van, which he drove up and down the pass the winter. (Dante Filpula Ankney/KHOL)

a mostly-empty parking lot.

Dirt and snow cover the van’s sides and metal ski racks hang on the roof and rear.

“I feel like a chauffeur,” Gordon said. 

Inside, a bowl of Reeses and other fun-sized chocolate treats sat on the floor. Miniature toy dinosaurs were arranged within a notch on the dash and a schedule was posted for passengers. The van started at the Stilson lot near Moose-Wilson Road and went all the way up to the top of the pass and Coal Creek, both popular spots for a ski tour. 

Gordon said it ran like “swiss timing” — always on time and reliable.

“You see this, like, right on time to the minute,” Gordon said pulling into Coal Creek. “But, again, there’s no one here.”

Filling the van was a problem all winter. Gordon volunteered to drive for the backcountry alliance, the local recreation nonprofit that has beared the financial burden of providing a free shuttle for recreationists on a “shoe-string budget.” 

But, with few riders, it may not have made a difference yet. 

On a powder day, it can still feel impossible to get a parking spot at the top of Teton Pass, unless you arrive at the crack of dawn. 

“There are times up there when there are nine, ten cars waiting for a parking place,” said Gary Kofinas, who leads the backcountry alliance.

Earlier this year, the Teton Pass Corridor Study identified a similar shuttle as one potential solution. Released by the Federal Highway Administration, the Wyoming Department of Transportation, Teton County and others, the report says a range of improvements could make the pass safer, more accessible and less congested for commuters and recreationists.

But it’s all up to local governments to find funding and implement the plans, which hasn’t happened yet.

“And we figured, why wait for agencies and the government to do anything? Let’s just try it,” Kofinas said.

KHOL made several attempts to talk to a Teton County official, but nobody was available to comment.

Kofinas says the alliance has done several test runs of a pass shuttle, but this was the first year they decided to run it consistently all winter, in part because of the study published in February.

The report proposes major capital improvements, like paving, widening and expanding roads and parking lots at Philips Bench, Coal Creek and Teton Pass Summit,  and introducing services — like the shuttle.

“Overall I think it worked,” Kofinas said. “I think it can work better and we can get more ridership in the future.”

‘No bad snow, only bad attitudes’

The nonprofit estimates it takes about two to three years to establish a shuttle service and believes more recreationists could benefit in the future, if they just knew about it. Or just stumble into it?

A group of friends — largely from Utah — did exactly that. They were wearing tutus, leis, floral shirts, fuzzy raccoon hats and bell bottoms.

“Had we known about the free shuttle that would have been the key reason we had come to visit,” one skier said.

It was Ella Witala’s birthday, and she was clad in a silver skin suit and a rainbow tutu. She and the group of 12 costumed skiers slipped into their ski boots and threw their skis on the rear rack at Coal Creek.

Ella Witala and friends piled into the shuttle. The group was on a ski trip celebrating Witala’s birthday. (Dante Filpula Ankney/KHOL)

“We’re stoked to be out here,” another skier said. “Stoked to be skiing. Thankful for a free shuttle. So awesome. And no bad snow.”

“Yeah. No bad snow. Only bad attitudes,” another one of the skiers added.

They were Gordon’s only passengers of the day as they clonked and giggled into the van in preparation for the short trip to the top of the pass.

“That good snow’s waiting,” Gordon said to the group.

As for Gordon, he hopes the shuttle can continue making the pass safer for recreationists, doing its small part in reducing cars for environmental purposes and building the ski community he values.

“Does the shuttle help the parking challenges here? It should,” Gordon said. ”But it needs to be used more to really make a difference in that.”

The shuttle wrapped up service for this year on the last weekend in March. It’s possible it may run again next year, if funding and volunteers stick around. 

As of now, local government projects to implement the many identified improvements to the pass are still up in the air.

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