By Jim Stanford on January 23, 2012
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?”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.