slide photo that went viral not from Teton Pass

Somewhere in Idaho, perhaps, but not Glory Bowl.

The photo of a massive pile of avalanche debris widely circulated this weekend turns out not to have been taken on Teton Pass.

Showing a plow’s width cut through a 20-foot-high wall of snow, the image served as a powerful dissuasion to skiing the backcountry, as well as a commendation to WyDOT staff on a job well done opening the highway.

The image was posted Saturday by Matthias Hans Joachim Richter, a pilot who lives at Devil’s Tower, according to his Facebook profile. He attributed the photo to the pass and advised, “Please be careful out there folks!”

By Sunday morning, the photo was everywhere, as friends shared it on their Facebook pages, inviting discussion and oohs and aahs from their circles. Victor, Idaho, residents were some of the first to share. Among those who reposted it were media figures such as Jackson Hole Radio, Mary Cernicek, Bridger-Teton National Forest spokeswoman, and Teton AT.

A true journalist, Sam Petri wanted to see for himself and perhaps post his own photo on Instagram. Petri phoned friend Tony Birkholz and said, “Let’s go admire this big pile of snow like a couple of rednecks.”

The two set out to have a late brunch at Nora’s, but finding the Wilson eatery closed, they continued up Highway 22, searching everywhere for the debris pile. They picked up two friends “gaga-eyed from skiing powder,” Petri said, and gave them a ride to the top of the pass. Figuring the slide could have been on the Idaho side, they opted to head to the Timberline in Victor for burgers and watching the Patriots game.

“We double-checked, all the way over and all the way back,” said Petri, editor of the Teton Gravity Research website. “It was not on the road.”

Later, as he worked at his computer, he saw more and more friends continuing to share the debris photo. “I was beginning to doubt what I was seeing,” he said. “How could we have missed this?”

Several of the sharers were Victor residents, presumably commuters. “Didn’t you drive this, this morning?” Petri thought to himself. “Did you not see?”

Petri calls b.s.

He thought, “No fucking way is that photo real,” he said. “It pissed me off.”

Petri began challenging some of the posts, telling his friends the photo was not from Teton Pass. Sure enough, when I checked Matthias Richter’s original photo Sunday evening, he had posted a mea culpa.

“This is not Teton pass,” he wrote. “I was told to let all backcountry skiers know this picture was taken somewhere else in Idaho. Still, please be careful.”

Richter has some ‘splaining to do. Although not quite Radiohead playing Occupy Wall Street, the image became a viral hoax. It was shared at least 300 times on Facebook, meaning if by a conservative estimate 100 friends saw each post, more than 30,000 people likely viewed it in their news feeds.

This isn’t the first time such a hoax has happened locally, of course. It may have been an inadvertent slip in translation as one ski-town friend shared with the next. Regardless, the photo probably helped keep yahoos off the pass, and gave the community another platform to thank WyDOT. So thanks for that.

And thanks to Sam and Tony for sleuthing out the truth on their “redneck gape-out session.”

Sooner or later, someone would have dispelled the myth, perhaps WyDOT. But judging from the work the agency did do clearing the pass, those plow drivers probably needed a rest.


Posted under Environment, Humor, Media, Sports

21 Comments so far

  1. BDez January 23, 2012 4:34 am

    This is amazing. I’ve been seeing this photo all weekend thinking no way it could be Teton Pass. I came here for answers, figuring if it was real Jim would definitely have it up on the site. Its almost become a routine that when I notice a meme running through my JH friends facebook feeds I can come here and find out the scoop on what’s really happening in my home away from home.

    Real or not, sounds like that photo may have raised some serious awareness levels this weekend, and potentially saved some lives.

    That Sam Petri is a real gumshoe. Thanks to you both for covering JH thoroughly.

  2. Wydaho...Not January 23, 2012 6:55 am

    Huh? To watch the Patriots game yesterday? That in itself sounds like a hoax to me. Did you mean the Giants/49ers game? Sheesh.

  3. rachel. January 23, 2012 8:25 am

    strong work.

  4. Rachel January 23, 2012 8:35 am

    Ha! Great story, Jim!

  5. D January 23, 2012 8:44 am

    I was told this was taken by Sun Valley.

  6. Gandalf January 23, 2012 8:49 am

    You could get a Pulitzer for this one.

  7. C.A. January 23, 2012 8:54 am

    The photo of the large deposition pile was taken by Bill Nicholson of the Idaho Transportation Dept.. It was taken on 1/20/2012 on a closed section of Hwy 21. The photo was originally posted on ITD’s Facebook page.

  8. js January 23, 2012 9:12 am

    Thank you, C.A. Easy to see how someone could conflate Highway 21 with Wyoming 22 and think it’s the pass. Doh!

    BDez, truth be told, I was duped, too, but I figured there was no need to post the photo because it was already everywhere else. And Teton AT had the pic of the slide hitting the car, which to me was more remarkable (and coming from Jamie, authentic), so I figured just steer people to there.

    Back in the ’90s, before the pass was skied as much and perhaps not bombed as often (the old gas-ex exploders were notorious for not working), Glory and Twin used to slide huge and the road would be closed for days. The banks could be that high.

    @SamPetri is the real eye in the sky on Teton Pass. Let’s see: He and Ben Cannon drove through the slide triggered by a snowboarder, he and Eric Balog were first on the scene of a runaway truck, and now this. I think he and Tony have a future as an eyewitness news team. If this were the Daily Show, I would have them both on staff. Forget Jim Cantore and Storm Chasers, let’s go to Sam and Tony to find out what’s happening!

  9. kellie blakeley January 23, 2012 10:26 am

    It’s actually on Hwy 21 – Avalanche Alley between Banner Summit and Lowman. This road is almost always closed during the winter due to avalanches. The photos were taken by ITD over the weekend.

  10. Jake January 23, 2012 11:19 am

    $50 that is Beartooth Pass from last year.

  11. Bones January 23, 2012 12:05 pm
  12. 22not January 23, 2012 7:37 pm

    TetonAT posted this photo and said it was from Teton Pass.

    It’s from Hoback Canyon.

    Getting things wrong is easy with the Internet.

  13. js January 23, 2012 8:03 pm

    I updated my earlier post with a correction to note that.
    Getting things wrong is easy, no matter the medium. “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet” evolved from “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.” Or see on TV.
    Part of the beauty of the Internet is instant feedback and crowd-sourced verification, which in both cases corrected the error rather quickly, compared to, say, a weekly paper.

  14. Mike Randll January 23, 2012 8:27 pm

    ‘Good Job’ to everyone who ‘sleuthed’ out the true story on this.

  15. B.G. January 24, 2012 8:59 am

    Highway 21 used to be closed during the winters. Starting in 2009 ITD began an aggressive avalanche forecasting program that has reduced the closures to an average of 15 days a year.

  16. hk January 24, 2012 11:29 pm

    Here are some actual pictures of Teton Pass from Woody’s blog.

  17. david January 25, 2012 4:50 pm

    The ga-ga eyes were just the weed. The skiing sucked, as usual.

  18. David Cernicek January 25, 2012 11:40 pm

    Your article makes it appear that Mary Cernicek representing the Forest Service shared the picture indicating it was Teton Pass. Not true. Mary reshared the photo and commented about how much snow shoveling was required this winter, and in no way indicated any location the photo was taken. She shared it on her personal FB page. Not as a USFS representative, and only shared it with her friends. To have a friend take a post and infer nonfactual actions and connections while insinuating incompetent agency and employee behavior that didn’t occur, isn’t really much of a friend.

  19. js January 26, 2012 8:04 am

    I did not mean to give that appearance. In no stretch of the imagination could I picture Mary sharing that photo on behalf of the Forest Service without vetting it. I was referring mostly to personal Facebook reposts. This was not about competency but just a funny phenomenon that swept up a huge swath of the community.

  20. Kristin January 26, 2012 4:48 pm

    While I understand this story has some comic value and tells a cautionary tale of how quickly things can spread via social media, unfairly calling out a Forest Service spokesperson who shared a photo which she never identified in her personal capacity was pointless. The only goal of this could have been an attempt to falsely add legitimacy to this story by trying to imply the Forest Service in some way circulated the photo. Otherwise mentioning Mary’s name as a Forest Service spokesperson would have served no purpose.

  21. js January 27, 2012 12:21 pm

    No. While it may be a natural impulse for Forest Service employees (not Mary) to think someone is attacking them, that’s not the case. Reposting a photo on Facebook is different from issuing a press release, and no one here has criticized the Forest Service.
    The fact that a media professional who works for the forest in question shared the photo shows how pervasive it was.

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