By Matt Hansen
People in Jackson are a little freaked out. The Snake River Brew Pub on Monday night was packed with people drinking pint after pint. Not that such a scene is uncommon here in this world-class ski town, but there was an eerie energy coursing through the building, and it wasn't the excitability of a powder day. Rather, everyone was trying to make sense of their deteriorating snowpack. You can hardly blame them. That morning a large avalanche ripped down the Headwall above the Bridger Gondola and slammed into a high-end restaurant opened just two years ago. The slide partially buried several ski patrollers and blew out several windows in the building. There were no serious injuries, but the incident caused the resort to shut down operations for the day. On Tuesday, skiers woke to reports that the mountain would be running only three lifts today (Teewinot, Apres Vous and Eagles Rest, all lower mountain lifts), and that all backcountry gates would be closed until further notice (www.jhunderground.com).
Resort spokesperson Lisa Watson said Tuesday that the mountain is trying to get the gondola and Thunder lift open, but that she had no information regarding potential re-openings of the new $20-million tram and Sublette quad. "I am sure you can hear the bombs in town," she said. "They have been non stop since yesterday."
All this coming after a local skier was killed Saturday on a popular run inbounds at the resort. It was the latest avalanche to leave the skier community at large reeling with confusion. So far this season in North America, there have been 18 fatalities due to avalanches (www.avalanche.org). That is nearly the total from just two seasons ago.
Time to step back and enjoy some football, maybe fix that sidewall, or do that laundry that's been piling up over the last storm cycle that brought several feet of snow since Christmas. "I never thought there was ever such a thing as too much snow to ski," says Jackson local Lauren Brzozoski. "It was always this myth I sort of wanted to be true but never actually believed in. But that's how it has been this week."
And then it started falling apart, the mountain having been subject to a near perfect recipe for sliding snow.
So what's the cause? To find these answers, one must look at the season's snowpack history. The deep base layer is rotten and slick, thanks to early season snowfall, then a warming spell which brought freezing rain to many areas across the West. This slick foundation then saw several feet of new snow over the last two weeks, where brutally cold arctic temps did nothing to help the new snow bind to the old layers. Add a lot of wind (clocked yesterday at Jackson up to 95 mph), rapidly warming temperatures (the temp on the mountain rose seven degrees between 8 a.m. and 10:45 am), and you have mountain ripe for large-scale avalanches.
The crazy part, and the thing that skiers and forecasters are finding so troubling, is that these conditions are widespread across the region. This is not isolated, as avalanche deaths have been reported inbounds at Snowbird, Squaw Valley, Crested Butte, and Jackson, as well as a sidecountry fatality at Aspen. Several more inbounds slides have occurred that buried skiers but resulted in no serious injuries.
After Heather Gross was killed skiing Mount Baldy at Snowbird on December 14, we were reminded that wearing your beacon even while skiing inbounds would be a good idea. She wasn't, but who hasn't skied Baldy without a beacon? And then David Nodine, the Jackson skier killed on Saturday, couldn't be saved from suffocating even after rescuers found his transceiver in six minutes and had recovered his body in less than 10 minutes.
So this all serves as a reminder to step back and remember that no matter what ski patrol does, they cannot make every slope safe from sliding snow. The mountains are calling the shots, and it's everyone's responsibility to heed those warnings.