Digging out Jackson Hole: Behind the scenes of a record-breaking winter

Digging out Jackson Hole: Behind the scenes of a record-breaking winter

A total of 593 inches of snow was deposited at the summit of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) this winter. That’s the most ever in the 51-year recorded history of snowfall at the Rendezvous Bowl plot (the Raymer plot was deeper in 2007-08). The season was like one giant, never-ending powder day; the relentless snowfall turned cliffs into continuous lines, filled in Corbet’s Couloir to the brim of its sometimes 15-foot drop-in and, by the end of the season, buried Corbet’s Cabin at the top of the tram. The season will be talked about for years to come, yes, but upwards of 50 feet of snow over a four-month period presents significant challenges, making the winter of 2016-17 all the more memorable.

This is what the majority of Jackson Hole’s winter looked like. Photo: Courtesy of JHMR

While 593 inches had blanketed Teton Village by closing day on April 9, the season’s first obstacle was actually a lack of snow. After receiving a copious amount of the white stuff in October, November was warm and dry and the resort was forced to push back opening day, originally scheduled for November 24.

“We had a delayed opening due to a lack of snow, so that’s a little stressful on everybody when they think about the mountain not opening on time,” recalls William Waller, food and beverage base manager at JHMR. “It’s always weird at the beginning of the season when you’re not sure how much snow the resort is going to have.”

Spoiler alert: The scarcity of frozen precipitation didn’t last long. A storm cycle deposited 18 inches of snow on the night of November 25, and the Teewinot and Après Vous lifts spun for opening day on December 1, with Teewinot and Casper following suit on December 3. From there, the snowfall was relentless.

Owen Leeper samples the Crags in December.

“It snowed almost every day,” says JHMR athlete Owen Leeper. “There were no days to sleep in, you just planned on getting [to the resort] first thing every single morning.”

The month of December saw 140 inches of snowfall. I was in town for a cycle that dropped over three feet of fresh in the middle of the month, which filled in almost every line on the mountain, including Alta 1 and Tower Three Chute. On December 16 the snow depth in Rendezvous Bowl was 82 inches, setting a record for that date. In short, it was the kind of skiing that would be talked about on barstools for years to come… and it was only mid-December.

Owen Leeper blasting through powder in December. Photo: Donny O’Neill

Another 89 inches (according to OpenSnow.com) fell in January, over 40 of which came during a five-day cycle. Everything was going smoothly—daily powder skiing was becoming the norm. That changed on February 7. A violent, heavy and wet storm roared into the Teton Range, wilting 17 steel electric transmission towers along Highway 390, knocking out power at the resort and forcing it into a five-day closure.

“There is such thing as too much snow. That’s the best way I can put it,” says Mike Vase, aerial tram maintenance manager at JHMR, who assuredly shared the same view as many other resort staff members.

The Sublette chair during the closure. Photo: Amy Jimmerson

Patrollers battled daily to mitigate snow instabilities on the upper mountain in order to protect lift towers and resort structures as well as get the mountain in shape for its imminent re-opening. Lower Valley Energy worked tirelessly to restore electricity to the surrounding area. There were, however, efforts that flew under the radar.

“Jackson Hole Down,” by Lance Koudele.

Waller and other members of the food and beverage staff set out on less-heralded missions, like saving perishable food product from going bad with power cut off to the various refrigerators and freezers. “When the mountain blew down and all of the power went out, the very next day we were rallying a crew of people to go up the mountain to help save a lot of the food [in the lodges],” Waller recalls. “We weren’t sure how long the power was going to be out, we knew a lot of the food in the refrigerator would need to be thrown out but a lot of the freezer goods would be OK for a few days.”

Inconsequential as it may sound, Waller and his boss, Jamie Moorhouse, along with cat driver Steve Barker who transported them up the hill in a flatbed snowcat, unloaded nine storage bins worth of food product that would have gone to waste otherwise.

“We had to throw out quite a bit but it wasn’t as bad as we thought it could be,” explains Waller, adding, with regards to the surreal feeling permeating Teton Village, “It was a different situation seeing the whole village dark for that amount of time, I’ve never seen anything like that since I’ve been here.”

Another unheralded “bench player,” so to speak, was Vase, who helped boot up the tram despite the power outage to transport ski patrol to the mountaintop. “We fired up our 3,000 horsepower generator, and it took some tricks, it wasn’t a simple procedure, but we were able to keep patrol going,” he remembers. “During the five-day closure, we were full-on operational while everything else was dark and quiet, it was pretty unique.”

The world-renowned Jackson Hole aerial tram. Photo: Courtesy of JHMR

The JHMR family and Jackson community weathered the storm and, after a herculean effort, got the resort back up and running for February 13. The biggest hurdle of the season had been cleared, but the snow still persisted.

From mid-January—prior to the power outage—through the season’s end, Vase and his team had to consistently dig out the upper tram dock in order for the famous Big Red Tram to operate.

“We were out there either with dynamite vaporizing snow or with six to 15 people hand digging snow, using snow blowers, shovels, you name it,” he describes.

The shoveling of snow was almost constant atop Rendezvous Peak, culminating in a complete burial of Corbet’s Cabin by May, well past the resort’s closing date of April 9th.

Corbet’s Cabin, completely buried. Photo: Courtesy of JHMR

“I’ve never seen the cabin get completely buried,” Vase says. “We’d get up there to the summit and you could walk right off the tram onto the roof of the cabin and you wouldn’t even know you were on top of it.”

On Wednesday, May 17, Waller and a team of five dug out the cabin in preparation of JHMR’s May 20 summer season opening, starting from the roof and ending at the front door.

“We actually had to get a cat-driver to drive up a week-and-a-half before we went up there to dig around the building to help alleviate some of the snow and allow us to get in there,” Waller says. “What we had to do by hand was shovel off all of the deck and it took five of us about four hours to get a 15-to-20-foot path dug out just for people to walk into the building on Saturday.” By Friday, two feet of snow had blown back into the cabin entrance… winter just wouldn’t quit.

Another view of the buried Corbet’s Cabin. Photo: Courtesy of JHMR

Despite the sheer amount of snow still left at the resort and in its surrounding backcountry, with warmer spring and summer temperatures comes a sigh of relief for many. “When we’re working it’s all about the elements,” explains Vase. “When it’s nice weather it’s a little easier to do our job.”

When JHMR re-opened for the summer this past Saturday, over 170 skiers showed up to hit the lift-accessed backcountry, which is sure to hold prime corn-snow well into the summer months. Leeper was one of those skiers, and is looking forward to squeezing out many more quality turns this season.

“It’s always fun to get a lift up the to the summit after hiking for lines over the last month. I watched the webcams for the week prior to opening to see what’s holding up and what’s melting out,” he describes. “We had some good snow in ‘Twice Is Nice’ couloir and ‘Four Pines’ was still skiing really well. We were able to ski almost all the way to the bottom of the valley this year, which I’ve never done in the previous years. Hopefully, we’ll be skiing up high off the tram into July.”

One can hope.

For information on JHMR’s summer operating hours and activities, click here.

Upgrade Your Inbox

Don't waste time seeking out the best skiing content; we'll send it all right to you.