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A severe winter storm forced the closure of Highway 26/89/191 in Grand Teton National Park on Saturday afternoon, February 25, stranding approximately 160 travelers between Moran Junction and Flagg Ranch near the south gate of Yellowstone National Park. Due to whiteout conditions caused by high winds and blowing and drifting snow, Grand Teton snowplow operators were unable to keep open a 22-mile stretch of highway between the Jackson Hole Airport and Moran Junction, 30 miles north of Jackson, Wyoming. Out of concern for traveler safety, park rangers closed the main highway at 1:45 p.m. Marooned travelers were provided emergency shelter, food, and makeshift accommodations at Signal Mountain Lodge, Flagg Ranch, and the Moran Elementary School.
As the blizzard worsened-and it became apparent that motorists could not safely travel south beyond Moran Junction during the nighttime hours-rangers and Teton Interagency fire personnel mobilized to make arrangements for overnight accommodations between Moran Junction and Flagg Ranch Resort, located 55 miles north of Jackson. Flagg Ranch provides partial winter services, but it does not currently offer winter lodging; nevertheless, about 120 people were given shelter to see them through the night. Although not open to the public during winter, Signal Mountain Lodge harbored about 25 of the stranded travelers. In addition, a dozen people used the Moran School as a temporary safe haven until the road reopened early Sunday morning. Teton Interagency fire staff gathered emergency gear, cots, and sleeping bags from the Colter Bay fire cache and Moran Fire Station to provide some level of comfort to the stranded people. Park rangers staffed highway barricades throughout the stormy night and rerouted motorists to the provisional shelters. Rangers at the Jackson Hole Airport Junction barricade advised travelers to return to Jackson, eight miles south, for overnight lodging. As conditions improved slightly, the highway closure shifted about 7:30 p.m. from the airport junction to Moose Junction, twelve miles north of Jackson, making it possible for some residents of the Moose area to return to their homes.
Grand Teton snowplow drivers and rotary equipment operators began working at 4 a.m. on Sunday, February 26, in an attempt to open a single travel lane. Using that single lane, rangers escorted vehicles southbound from Moran Junction about 6:30 a.m. and then reclosed the highway until both lanes could be fully plowed. Highway 26/89/191 reopened at 7 a.m. and two-way travel resumed without restriction.
In the midst of the intense blizzard and resulting highway closure, park rangers also received word of a snowboarder who had became separated from his party of six skiers and snowboarders as they exited an out-of-bounds gate at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and headed toward Rock Springs Bowl Saturday afternoon. Sam Hoerr, age 31, of Dunlap, Illinois mistakenly turned right and entered Granite Canyon in the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park. Hoerr sent a text message to his companions at 2:30 p.m. and explained that he had reached a creek and was going to follow it out; however, it was clear that he had gone astray. His companions notified Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's ski patrol. Given the high avalanche danger and late hour of the day, a rescue effort was launched. High winds and poor visibility closed the upper mountain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort about 2:30 p.m. and these same conditions prevented use of a helicopter-assisted search for the lost snowboarder. Additionally, the highway closure prevented park rangers from responding out of rescue facilities located at park headquarters in Moose, Wyoming. Consequently, rangers requested help from Teton County Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteers, and a unified command post was established at the Jackson Hole ski patrol's mountain operations building from which park rangers, ski patrollers and Teton County rescuers mobilized a search. Considerable avalanche danger made it unsafe to direct rescue personnel into Granite Canyon from the Mountain Resort's out-of-bounds gate. Ultimately, 13 rescuers accessed Granite Canyon from Teton Village and began to ski into Granite Canyon from the trailhead off the Moose-Wilson Road. Rescuers made contact with Hoerr via cell phone at 7:30 p.m. and directed him to continue down canyon following the creek. Rescuers located Hoerr at approximately 8 p.m. and provided him with a "split board" so that he could more easily travel out of the backcountry canyon on his own. He was then escorted out of Granite Canyon by rescuers; all returned safely to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort around 10 p.m.
Because Hoerr was unprepared to spend a night in the backcountry-and he crossed numerous avalanche-prone areas during stormy conditions that were wind loading slopes-this situation could have become life-threatening or worse. Hoerr and most of his companions did not carry avalanche equipment with them when they exited the out-of-bounds gate. Park rangers remind skiers and snowboarders to consider weather conditions and time of day before making a decision to enter backcountry areas. Rangers also strongly advise skiers and snowboarders to be prepared before embarking on a backcountry excursion by carrying appropriate avalanche gear and emergency equipment, and using good route-finding skills. It is essential for backcountry users to have basic knowledge of backcountry areas in which they plan to travel.
Grand Teton National Park rangers thank the Teton County SAR volunteers and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski patrol who conducted the operation as a coordinated agency-assist mission.