Chronicles from a Crazy Week in Jackson Hole

Let me start by noting this post, like all others here, is my own and not an official account of my employer, the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

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Checking on the mid-station of the new Sweetwater Gondola during the unprecedented five-day closure of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort this week.

Tuesday nights are my Sunday nights at home before I start my work week every Wednesday.  I was watching the news last Tuesday when our risk manager casually posted on Facebook that the power was out in Teton Village.  I didn’t think much of it on a day when the roof of the local bowling alley had collapsed due to snow and with both a Winter Storm Warning and Flood Watch in effect.  Unlike at some ski areas, losing power is a rarity for Jackson Hole (Crystal Mountain, where I grew up skiing, has its own dedicated power plant for such occasions; Kirkwood and Mt. Baker run without grid power every day.)

Seven minutes after the initial Facebook post, another employee wrote, “the power poles along the village road totally toppled,” just as thousands of workers and guests were headed home.  We later learned seventeen 75-foot steel transmission poles had indeed fallen to the snow along ‘the windy mile,’ that last stretch of Wyoming 390 before Teton Village.  The time was 6:05 pm, the stamp that would grace the webcams on jacksonhole.com for days.  It was no doubt howling that night, but the poles had withstood forty years of fierce winds Wyoming is known for.

Lower Valley Energy is the electricity provider in Teton County.  It’s a co-op, owned by 15,000 members like myself.  While our tiny utility got to work recruiting much-needed regional help, ski area employees who could make it rallied first thing Wednesday morning.  Instead of heading up, cat operators headed out to push ten feet of snow away from the power corridor.  Lower Valley conceded at 9:40 am to “expect Teton Village to be out of power for 5-7 days,” and the resort announced it would not open until at least the following Monday.  The internet thought it was crazy, we knew it was not.

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Prinoths to the rescue.  Photo credit: Lower Valley Energy

Complicating matters, Teton Pass has closed earlier that day and ended up staying closed for almost five days amid the biggest storm cycle since 1986.  WYDOT also closed the two canyon routes leading into Jackson Hole due to avalanches relentlessly coming down across them.  The Teton Village substation also serves the Jackson Hole Airport and all Tuesday night flights were canceled.  Whether it was workers, generators or fuel, it became tough to get anything we needed. The mountain was able to buy every available 2000-watt generator from a Honda dealer in Afton, Wyoming.

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“We’ll take every generator you’ve got” excursion, powered by vegetable oil.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s operations building generator failed at hour 24, cutting our ability to pump fuel and bringing down information systems.  AT&T and Verizon’s cell sites located at the top of the Apres Vous lift also stopped working within hours along with radio repeaters. Crucially, Lower Valley was able to route grid power to the Teton Village Fire Department on Thursday, giving power to the mountain ops building next door.

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A common reality this winter: all routes that lead anywhere closed.

It never stopped snowing on the mountain and during all this Rendezvous Bowl passed 400″ for the season, normally a cause for celebration.  Some 40 inches fell up high from Tuesday night to the time power was restored today and we did our best to dig out lifts by snowmobile without actually spinning them.  The two exceptions were the Bridger Gondola and Aerial Tram.

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Two large generators finally made it from Pocatello through the road closures Wednesday to power key buildings.

When the power went out, a number of Rendezvous Lodge employees were at the top of the gondola preparing for an evening event and ended up hunkering down all night (lift staff sleep there nightly regardless.)  Most workers headed down the gondola in the morning after mechanics could verify that there were no trees on the line.  Bridger also ran on auxiliary to transport as much perishable food as possible down to the food and beverage warehouse at the operations building. Haul cats also saved some food from the Casper Restaurant, which was fed to the skeleton crew of workers and donated to charity.

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Two cars in the tram parking lot; a stunning sight at a top ten ski resort in February.
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The green Cummins in the top of this photo can keep the entire tram operation going as long as it has fuel, though not quietly.

Even before the latest storm cycle, there was so much snow at the top of tram that car 1 could only be partially loaded so as not to drag through the snowdrift above tower 5.  The tramway has a 2,400 horsepower generator and the ski patrol went up daily to continue avalanche hazard reduction work.  Smaller generators had to be delivered to three locations across the mountain to get network services restored for the Gazex avalanche control system on the Headwall.  When that went, it went big.

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Heated concrete at both gondolas stopped working when the power went out, leading to varying degrees of burial.
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Un-burying Casper on Friday with a few workers who could help.

With power on the horizon, the plan for today was to spin key lifts on auxiliary for ski patrol to run routes and get lifties digging out.  It became fall setup of the mountain all over again after days of relentless snow, wind and rain.  Generators at lifts had charged batteries for control power but could not heat the terminals and some of the diesels would not start after three days in the cold.  Newer Doppelmayr lifts had alternators at the non-drive stations that needed to be chained up.  Just when Sweetwater and other lifts finally got going on standby drives, we got word that power could return within the hour.  With help from five neighboring utilities in three states, Lower Valley had crushed their estimate and restored service in less than four days, setting 26 temporary wooden poles in the middle of winter. With generators powered down and auxiliaries uncoupled, every lift came back to life on electric without issue.

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An alternator chained up to PTOs to charge batteries at the return station of Sweetwater.

Some of my takeaways:

  • We got lucky the total shutdown happened after sweep when just one lift was operating and only for employees.  It would have been more challenging with guests on the lifts.
  • It stayed warm enough so that the pipes in buildings without generators did not freeze.  Hours after power was restored, temps are dropping below zero tonight which could have spelled disaster.
  • Many employees live where they can afford, over mountain passes/beyond canyons and unable to get to work when they can be needed most.
  • You could not design a better team building exercise.  Everyone at the mountain helped everyone, no matter their title or department.

The Big One is set to re-open wall-to-wall Monday thanks the efforts of hundreds of employees and the massive undertaking by Lower Valley Energy, High Plains Power, Idaho Falls Power, Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative, Bonneville Power and Wasatch Electric. The tram is still buried and for at least a couple days, I am happy it is not snowing. What a winter this has been.

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12 thoughts on “Chronicles from a Crazy Week in Jackson Hole

  1. Rob Withey February 12, 2017 / 7:30 am

    Awesome work Peter. Sometimes mother nature decides its her day not yours. Or in this case a week. Is Sweetwater 2 lifts or does the rope continue through the station?

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    • Peter Landsman February 12, 2017 / 7:36 am

      Thanks Rob. Sweetwater is one lift. The rope continues through but deflects down and back up enough for the PTOs. We weren’t sure how all that was going to work until we saw it!

      Liked by 2 people

      • A Ron Carmichael February 12, 2017 / 11:53 am

        Peter – thanks for your fast reply the other night – I had no idea the “fun” you were enduring. Do any resorts provide dorms/apts. for a certain level of staff – say those operators with a certain degree of experience and responsibility – so they can be a snocat or a snowmobile’s ride from actual facilities? Sounds like a “perk”, but I wonder who would be the perked-iest – the resort or the employees getting a break on living expenses….?

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        • Peter Landsman February 13, 2017 / 10:01 am

          In my observation employee housing tends to be geared towards entry level/seasonal employees with less experience and responsibility.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike Turley February 12, 2017 / 9:21 am

    Incredible chronicles thankfully everything worked out and you got photos

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  3. Rob Jamison February 12, 2017 / 9:32 am

    A recall living through some great winters, 1996-97 being a significant one as well, with less troubles for the entire town. Frankly, I had more concern the beer supply could be absorbed and it become a ‘dry’ county for a spell. And to think The King closed for a period due to avalanche…..nowhere to go, unless of course your one to give up the lift, as many do. Go JHAF!
    And on the subject, RIP Brent Newton and many continued thoughts and prayers for his family that continue to live their lives in JH.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Charles Von Stade February 12, 2017 / 10:27 am

    Yah I was briefly in town having planned on hitting Jackson on my way back from SLC made the mistake of not checking on conditions before I left and surprisingly the news lagged on this story. Got in Wednesday night and after waking up to the downpour in Jackson on Thursday I managed to get out to Bondurant before they closed it and drive 10hr to get back to MT by nearly going all the way back south to UT.

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  5. Sarah February 12, 2017 / 10:32 am

    So glad everything worked out and wasn’t worse. However, sure seems like JH community and JHMR could use some better emergency preparedness. Better up-keep on generators, mornof them, prep for community members and in general better preparedness. I say this with 23 years of living in JH BEFORE emergency preparedness was made a household word. Back in the 70’s -80’s ($6/ day lift tickets) you had better be prepared. Too many CA transplants and millionaires that only live there part time. Thank your lucky stars you didn’t have a quake during this issue to add to the problem. Now is the time to plan for next time or a worse time, now when it’s fresh in everyone’s mind.

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  6. Holly Fuller February 12, 2017 / 12:45 pm

    Great story! Well written and very informative.BRAVO to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for getting through this trying event!

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  7. Angie February 12, 2017 / 1:37 pm

    Thank you Peter, we (Lower Valley Energy) could not have crushed it without the JHMR!! We are grateful beyond words!!!

    Like

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