Resort is a bit buried with snow, crowds

February 27, 2019

This February — possibly the snowiest month in Hole history — has been a blessing and a curse for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and may signal a “new era” for the mountain.

Parking lots at Teton Village and Stilson have filled by early morning several times, once-a-year lines are rapidly becoming commonplace and the resort took an unprecedented step to close its backcountry gates — all amid a series of record-breaking storms in recent weeks (see page 9).

“It’s strained our community at the same time it brings people to our community,” said Anna Cole, a resort spokesperson. “So it’s that confluence of events that makes these storms so amazing and also taxing.”

The resort decided to restrict backcountry travel Tuesday morning, at the height of storms that have dumped more than 4 feet of snow in the Tetons over the past three days and prompted an avalanche danger rating of “high” at all elevations. Experts expect another 3 to 4 feet in coming days.

Cole said the resort has closed some gates in the past but never all backcountry access. The resort announced later on Tuesday that the gates would remain closed today.

“We’re really hopeful that after tomorrow this storm will subside a bit,” Cole said, “and we’ll be able to open those.”

The rationale is not only to protect skiers from avalanches, though. After consulting with Grand Teton National Park, Bridger-Teton National Forest and Teton County Search and Rescue, resort officials agreed that with plenty of emergencies to go around already it would be prudent to limit the likelihood of having to divert resources to backcountry rescue.

The massive snowfall has slammed the resort in other ways, though it’s unclear how much recent crowding can be attributed to powder and how much to the popular whipping post: Ikon.

The newest collective pass gets a bad rap, in Jackson Hole and at premier resorts around the West.

It pits itinerant passholders against local skiers, many of whom long ago switched from mumbling behind the offending visitors’ backs to complaining aloud in their presence. Its critics have even created at least two Instagram accounts to gripe and poke fun at the “Ikoneers,” who are generally chided as less talented than locals.

The resort reported earlier this month that Ikon accounted for 14 percent of skier days so far this season. Because of blackout days and the early-season dearth of passholders, however, that percentage is surely much higher at times.

Whatever portion of blame belongs to Ikon and to powder, everyone agrees the Teton Village throngs constitute “a new era for the mountain resort,” as Cole put it.

Spencer Rank, who’s lived in Jackson two decades and skis 80-plus days each year, answered his phone from the tram line and described “the new normal.”

“Let’s see,” he said. “One, two, three … I’m on the edge of three cars. Might get cut off, then I’ll be on the fourth.”

But that’s nothing compared to Monday, when the train of skiers backed up to the Bridger Center. Videos showed skiers hopping off the Teewinot lift and immediately entering a line that funneled into the Apres Vous lift. A post on the Instagram profile IkonOfTheDay showed the scene.

“Ikont even make jokes about this,” the caption read. “This is completely insane.”

Rank noted out-of-control lines aren’t completely unheard of, especially during weekend powder. But this season the crowds don’t seem confined to any specific time or snowfall.

“Last week when it was frigid and hardpack, it was still a four-tram wait and the lots were full,” he said. “The powder days I understand, but when it’s average conditions in the middle of the week …”

He paid $1,000 for a parking pass to Teton Village, but several times he’s had to turn around at Teton Village after failing to find a spot. Once his wife, Cara, had to drop him off because Stilson was full, too.

“It used to be fun to think about going skiing,” he said. “Now when I get in my car it’s just more anxiety than anything.”

Cole said resort officials are looking for ways to cope with the huge influx of visitors.

They coordinate with the sheriff’s office to direct traffic, and they’re working with the Teton Village Association to send shuttles to Stilson every 15 minutes from 7:30 to 9 a.m. every day starting next week. These are mostly for employees, to leave room on START buses for skiers, but anyone can ride the shuttles. She said they also plan to work with the association to encourage carpooling.

And once things settle down for the season, she said, they’ll start considering how to adjust their strategy to what may be the new normal.

“We’re in the day-to-day right now,” she said, “but once we get out of this, we will be looking at that longer-term plan and how we can be more prepared for next winter.”

It’s unclear when things will settle down. February tends to bring excellent snow and many skiers, so Rank said he’d consider next month — historically a slower period — as the real test.

“If it’s still busy like this on the 15th of March,” he said, “I’ll lose my mind.”

Then he hung up. He had to get on the fourth tram.