Loving Teton Pass to Death

Jay Pistono skiing on Teton Pass.
Jay Pistono skiing on Teton Pass. Courtesy of Jay Pistono
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Jay Pistono is a saint. Seriously. Of course, he’d never, ever, ever say anything of the sort about himself. So we have to say it. Yes, as the Teton Pass Ambassador—that’s his winter job’s official title—Pistono is paid to hike up and ski down Mt. Glory and then head over to check things out on the south side. When skiing powder is a job requirement, it’s easy to be a saint, right?

It's not that simple. You see, there have been plenty of times when Pistono might come back from a run to find his truck vandalized. Or bags of dog shit on its hood. Seriously.

“For the most part, most people out there are trying to ski and have a great day,” he says. “You’d think you could get a crowd that is focused on the same thing going the same way. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen though.”

The position of Teton Pass Ambassador was officially created in 2006. A partnership between the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the Wyoming Department of Transportation and Friends of Pathways, the idea was that because Teton Pass had become so popular with backcountry skiers and riders, and because some of the most popular backcountry runs were avalanche paths that could come down and across Wyoming Highway 22 (used by around 5,000 commuters between Jackson Hole and Teton Valley daily), the ambassador would talk with recreationists about backcountry safety and responsible use.

The job is purely educational—Pistono does not issue citations or fines or anything of the sort—and was designed to improve awareness of the expectations regarding responsible winter use. Still, backcountry skiers have left dog shit on Pistono’s truck.

“Some people feel like what I’m doing is making a judgment call and they just get pissed off,” he says. “I’ve just decided to walk away from anything that got personal. Skiing the pass is fun enough and that’s what I’ve decided to focus on.”

Dina Mishev

“Lots of people are totally convinced there is no way they could lose access to the pass,” Pistono says. “It hangs in the balance every year though. It’s amazing how entitled people feel up there. WYDOT and the Forest Service could take access away at any point. We need to keep them happy and follow their rules. Recreation does not trump safety, ever. If a dog runs out into the road from the top parking lot, let's say, and a car swerves so it won’t hit it and hits another car, commuters won’t put up with that. Neither will WYDOT.”

Pistono has been skiing the pass since 1978. Long before there was an official Teton Pass Ambassador, he tried to help manage the crowds. “It started getting really busy—what we thought was really busy—in the mid-1980s,” he says. “We started seeing a bit of angst. At the time, everybody thought it was a joke that anybody would pick up after their dog, but there’d be angst about farming turns. We used to take pride in how tight we could make it. That is kind of over now. We’re on to bigger issues.”

Teton Pass is one of the country’s most easily accessible backcountry ski areas. A parking lot at about 8,400 feet accommodates between 50 and 55 cars (one of Pistono’s first tasks as Ambassador was to educate drivers about parking tightly so the maximum number of cars could fit in the lot). What Pistono and his ski pals in the mid-80s thought were crowds would today be the least busy Pass day of the season. It’s impossible to keep an exact count, but estimates are that around 70,000 runs are made on Teton Pass every season. “Even when it’s poor snow conditions, the parking lot now cycles through twice,” Pistono says. “I’m all about affordable recreation, but I do everything I can to de-promote the pass. The word is out. It doesn’t need any promotion.”

In an article about Teton Pass for Jackson Hole Skier magazine, Pistono wrote that people should ski elsewhere. “But that’s not going to happen. Teton Pass is too good. You can ski in four directions, and it has almost every kind of terrain available, from Olympic Bowl [mellow] to Unskiabowl [not mellow].”

“We had thought for a time that backcountry skiing was a trend that might die off, but it’s just the opposite,” Pistono says. “Skiers want to see more parking up there. But I can say that will never happen.”

Nowadays, drivers parking at the top of the pass generally know to scooch in as close as possible to the car to their west. Also, they know to start parking from the western end (that’s what WYDOT generally prefers). “The community has gotten on board with that,” he says.

Today, Pistono finds himself doing more education about picking up after dogs, controlling dogs around the road, and instilling general good etiquette. “You could never come up with a job description for this,” he says. “I’ll find people at the top of Glory in a white out and they don’t know what way to go down. Or people will be arguing with a WYDOT plow driver.”

“I look at what I do in the spirit of learning,” Pistono says. “I’m not ticketing or yelling at people. I’m trying to keep Teton Pass open for everyone. It’s an amazing place and I’d hate to see us lose it. But that could happen much more easily than people imagine.”

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