The Pass

Looking Back

BY ANGUS M. THUERMER JR.

The Pass

Opposite: Don Fisher’s plow truck lies partially uncovered after he was dug from the cab following a 1985 avalanche down Glory Slide. Photo by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

DAILY, COMMUTERS STREAM over Teton Pass by the thousands without regard to the historic difficulties this geographic barrier has posed.

They “jump the bump” in a matter of minutes, usually in miles-long threads of cars and trucks weaving through the bends of a modern highway. Tuned into NPR or their favorite Sirius channel, drivers climb and descend more than 2,000 vertical feet each way, covering dozens of miles of rugged timberland with the press of an accelerator pedal.

At 8,431 feet, Teton Pass is a chink in the armor of the forty-five-mile-long Teton Range, whose monarch—the Grand Teton—rises to 13,775 feet. Indians found it the best crossing between Jackson and Pierre’s holes. While it was the voie normale for tribal members who used a variety of trails on both sides, fur-trade explorer Wilson Price Hunt “discovered” it for whites in 1811. He jumped the bump as an agent of entrepreneur John Jacob Astor, climbing over the obstacle only after determining he couldn’t negotiate the “mad” Snake River. He and his party of more than sixty men and one woman were on a mission to reach the West Coast.

In the more than two hundred years since, The Pass produced tales of bravery, foolhardiness, errant engineering, and luck, both good and bad. Trails gave way to wagon roads that were replaced by tarmac routes and, ultimately, the two-lane artery that connects Wilson, Wyoming, with Victor, Idaho, today.

LONG AFTER HUNT went by and settlers populated the valley, The Pass served as Jackson Hole’s main link with the outside world—and the end of the rail line in Victor. Regular mail service over it began in 1897 when fourteen-year-old James Riggan stuffed his saddlebags with letters and rode across. John Bircher, who ran a sawmill and roadhouse on The Pass, secured a contract for delivery in 1900, running the route twice a week.

For most people, Old Pass Road stands out as the landmark historic feature, a crumbling remnant of the first highway. It’s maintained today as part of a hiking and cycling network. Wilson historian and author Doris Platts, who wrote The Pass [“It’s always called The Pass,” she says], notes the road’s opening in July of 1918. That was quickly followed by “a serious runaway accident” at the nearby Elliott Cemetery. A wagon team spooked and bolted four hundred yards downhill. It was, perhaps, a harbinger of the runaway potato truck, the beer truck, the other potato truck, the lumber truck, the rock truck, the other-other potato truck, and the talcum-powder truck, the last of which left a white streak visible for a dozen miles when it crashed above Wilson in August 2012.
In the early days, The Pass would close to normal traffic in the winter, but by 1930, residents were clamoring for better access. They would collect $300-$400 to clear the road in the spring, an effort the Jackson’s Hole Courier called “a ‘dual taxation’ sort of expenditure.”

The state took over maintenance and started plowing the highway in the winter of 1938. Until New Year’s Day 1940, that is, when the Highway Department simply quit.
“Feelings boiled high in the county, road committees met, open meetings were held, and hundreds of pleas were sent to Gov. Nels Smith to intercede on behalf of Teton County,” the paper reported. When the state refused to respond, Jackson residents held an evening meeting that “broke up in a melee.” A march ensued—past several saloons, Platts notes—to the Highway Department garage where the “borrowing delegation” seized plows and put them to work themselves.

Because the route traverses the slopes of Mount Glory, which rises 2,000 feet and more above the road, avalanches plagued highway workers and travelers in the winter. Mail carriers, a woodcutter’s son, and even a passenger in a vehicle were caught, buried, and killed by snowslides. Two deadly ones ran down Glory Slide, the mammoth path below picturesque Glory Bowl facing Wilson.

The Pass

Commuters stream over Teton Pass at the end of a January workday. Thousands from Teton Valley, Idaho, “jump the bump” during their daily commute to jobs in Jackson Hole. Photo by Bradly J. Boner

IN THE 1960s, the Wyoming Highway Department sought to upgrade the road and build Wyoming Highway 22 in a new location. It would climb up some terrain that was avalanche-free, but traverse Mount Glory higher up than the original road. The goal was to eliminate switchbacks and make the route as safe as possible, even to the extent of bridging the Glory Slide gully. In fact, the alignment exposed the route to new dangers.

In several instances, the highway would cross some of the half-dozen Teton Pass slide scars at an elevation where the avalanches did their most destructive business. “The location of the highway at the mid-path position … means that vehicles are exposed to direct impact of snow over the road cut,” avalanche consultants Arthur Mears and Rod Newcomb wrote in a 1989 study. “Vehicles may also be pushed over the lower road embankment and rolled for long distances on the steep, lower slopes. Therefore, because of the steep terrain, the consequences of an encounter with an avalanche may be more severe on Teton Pass than on other highways with similar avalanche exposure.”

Highway workers laboring to build the new road in the late 1960s didn’t have the benefit of this hindsight when they parked a large, mechanical road-construction shovel at a pullout below a looming Mount Glory slope. They found it hundreds of feet below, blown off the hill by an avalanche down a path that became known as Shovel Slide.

The Highway Department continued its close relationship with Glory as it constructed the avalanche bridge, a four-hundred-foot-long roadbed hanging from two-inch-thick wire ropes suspended from steel arches eighty-eight feet above. None of the Swiss, Austrians, Germans, French, or Italians had built such a solution to an avalanche problem, the Jackson Hole Guide wrote at the time. It was, the paper said, “the only one of its type.”

There might have been a reason for European reluctance. Snow from a major slide can cross Highway 22 at 133 mph and pile 30 feet deep. The destructive front, including an air blast, can be 150 feet high. In January 1970, before workers could nail down the bridge deck, Glory Bowl let loose. Left behind were seven hundred tons of steel that had to be scrapped at a cost of $756,000. Under Plan B, Glory Slide would run across the road. Only by using avalanche-provoking artillery and other explosives could the frequency of its anger be altered.

In such a game, however, timing is everything, as witnessed by motorists Thomas and Melia Ives. In late November 1985, the visitors to Jackson Hole drove under the Twin Slide path at the instant an avalanche roared down. It rolled their car two hundred feet, blew out its windows, and crushed it. “It was like a nightmare,” Melia Ives said later. “We must have rolled two or three times. The car was full of snow. I was sure I was going to die.”

Once recovered, they took a less-scenic route home.

The Pass

While many might consider a winter drive over Teton Pass to be a daunting experience today, it was a lot more challenging in the 1920s.

IN JANUARY 1988, another blizzard hit the Tetons, laying down four feet of snow in as many days, some of it carried by 115 mph winds. Highway Department plow driver Don Fisher was on his last run of the day, fearing a motorist might be stranded on The Pass’ summit. Driving up from the Wilson side, he approached Glory Slide and paused.

Creep or bolt, he wondered?

“I pulled in there just a little ways,” he said later. “I saw the first snow and tried to get in reverse. You can’t believe how fast that thing is.”

The avalanche blew out the plow truck’s windows. “I could feel my truck being airborne,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was upside down.”

Snow entombed him with only two inches of space in front of his face. All he could move were the fingers on his right hand, which he clenched repeatedly in his icy tomb.

Only luck and the bravery of co-workers Chuck Kakalecik and Russ Moses saved him. They couldn’t get Fisher on the radio, so they drove up the hill and climbed over debris from another slide path to Glory Slide. There they found part of a fender and wheel sticking out of the debris. The slide tore the blade off the plow and sent it downhill, a several-ton, riderless snowboard that wouldn’t be found until spring.

To extricate Fisher, the men ultimately had to use a coffee can as a scoop in the packed cab of the truck. Fisher remained conscious only until they broke through to his face. They pulled him out of his boots and put him in an ambulance, where EMTs worked on him as his bare, blue feet stuck out into the cold.

The Highway Department recognized Moses and Kakalecik for bravery at a ceremony Fisher attended. He stood almost still as he watched them receive their awards. All he moved were the fingers of one hand clenching and unclenching a fist.

Determined not to let fate endanger its workers again, the Highway Department took action. The day after the slide, it sent a representative from Cheyenne to the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Avalanche Center at Teton Village. There they investigated an avalanche forecaster’s computerized array of thermometers, humidity gauges, wind speed indicators, snow stakes, and weather forecast networks as they moved into the contemporary era of hazard forecasting.

| Posted in JH Living
  • Mailing List

    Mailing List

    Subscribe to our mailing list to get notifications when we post new articles and when we publish new issues.