A look at Jackson Hole backcountry in the face of a pandemic

JACKSON, Wyo. — The COVID-19 pandemic has affected more areas of our lives than most could imagine. From wearing masks daily to working remotely from home—the world looks very different than it did a year ago.

In fact, a year ago at this time, the town of Jackson was prepping for a busy winter season that would begin at the end of November. The popular ski destination had a mostly normal season and then the first case of COVID-19 struck Teton County in March.

Almost immediately, health orders were issued, workers were laid off, and businesses were temporarily shut down. One of the most impactful closures following the first confirmed case in Teton County was that of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR).

Once the resort had closed, other nearby ski hills—Grand Targhee and Snow King—followed suit. This left our powder-chasing ski town with fewer options for recreational use.

And just like that, Teton Pass, arguably the most easily accessible backcountry area in Jackson Hole, was overwhelmed with skiers and snowboarders within a few short days. Even with resorts offering limited capacity skiing this year (unlike last spring), many are still speculating a busy winter in the backcountry.

Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

“We anticipate that there will be a lot of people in the backcountry this winter,” said Sarah Carpenter, lead avalanche course instructor and owner of American Avalanche Institute based on the Idaho side of the Teton Pass. “We have seen quite a bit of interest in avalanche courses and have heard from retailers, as well as some of our sponsors, that gear sales indicate that backcountry usage will increase.”

“I think that most people are expecting the backcountry to be busier,” Matt Hansen, Communications Director for Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation (TCSAR Foundation) said. “If people are uncomfortable with standing in lift lines, riding the tram or the gondola, or riding the bus, is that going to make more people spend time in the backcountry?”

In preparation for a busy season, Teton Backcountry Alliance is currently looking for ambassadors to work at key locations, such as the Teton Pass corridor. These volunteer ambassadors will be tasked with conveying responsible recreation and safety information to users, providing area orientation, and assisting visitors where needed.

Current ambassador, Jay Pistono, expressed the need for more guidance in backcountry areas.

“We’re predicting a huge increase in backcountry use this ski season, including people who are new to the Tetons and new to backcountry skiing,” said Pistono. “Boots-on-the-ground volunteers willing to help users by providing information will help ensure more responsible use and greater safety by our backcountry community.”

But it won’t just be backcountry skiing and snowboarding that sees a rise in recreationists. Snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and other winter activities are expected to become more popular as the ski resorts adapt to running at limited capacity. Unlike last spring, Grand Teton National Park will also be open to backcountry skiers.

“It’s likely not to be only Teton Pass,” Cody Lockhart, Chief Advisor of TCSAR told Buckrail. “It will spill over into lots of forms [of recreation] that isn’t just backcountry skiing on the pass.”

The pandemic has caused stress and uncertainty not only in Jackson but throughout the rest of the world. Health, financial security, and childcare are among the top concerns for many. But for those who call Jackson home, it’s the great outdoors that helps them destress.

“Because of the pandemic and climate change and all of the other stuff going on in the world is that there’s kind of this underlying level of stress among most people that is higher than what maybe we’re used to dealing with,” Hansen said.

TCSAR Foundation has focused its recent messaging on an increased awareness of stress and its ability to impede judgment.

“Check yourself, check your friends,” Hansen said. “Check your beacon every single time. Check your friend’s beacon every single time. Just take a couple of seconds to think about your next decision. Have the patience and have the presence of mind to just slow down a little bit and think about your next step.”

Backcountry skiers at the top of Teton Pass. Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

But will more users in the backcountry translate directly to higher risk? The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think.

TCSAR says that skiing backcountry in a populated area may actually have its benefits. For example, there are more people around to quickly come to the scene and assist in an injury or rescue situation.

“Rescues have not increased proportionately with use,” Lockhart said. “At some point, you get enough users to make it safer. When there are a thousand people touring up to Mt. Elly every day the chances of someone being lost by themselves is less likely. There’s going to be someone there to help them. There are so many users that at some point the herd polices themselves a bit.”

On the other hand, more users going to the easily accessible backcountry areas like Teton Pass might translate into higher numbers of backcountry skiers and boarders heading to more remote areas, like Grand Teton National Park or Togwotee Pass. This means that if a rescue is called in, TCSAR would need to travel further to be on the scene.

Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

But even then, experience means nothing in the backcountry if the rider doesn’t maintain focus. A lack of clear-headedness can lead to forgetting simple, yet essential steps like turning on your beacon.

TCSAR Foundation isn’t the only one advising patience this ski season. Local athlete Alex Yoder recently published a post on Instagram reminding both novice and seasoned backcountry travelers to have self-restraint. “Let’s accept that this year will be weird, we can’t control that, but we can make a conscious choice to be patient ourselves,” Yoder advises.

 

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A post shared by Alex Yoder (@yoderyoder)

When heading out to unwind and spend some time in nature this winter, whether it’s backcountry skiing or snowshoeing up Cache Creek, it is imperative to double-check that you are prepared with the proper clothing and gear to keep you safe in the snow. It’s also a good idea to plan ahead and know what to expect. Be patient, and work with others to share our beloved destinations and treat them with respect.

“Backcountry users will need to work together this winter,” Carpenter said. “We all need to think about the big picture. I encourage people to communicate with other parties while out in the backcountry. If we can work together and not have people skiing and riding on top of each other, that will reduce the likelihood of issues. We are living in unprecedented times. We need to treat backcountry travel as the team sport that it is, and communicate with others and be kind.”

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