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December 24, 2008 3:57 am

Sylvan Pass opens and closes

Written by Tribune Staff

East Gate's first visitors turned away

Yellowstone's East Entrance opened for the winter season on Monday, but closed Tuesday morning.

Park Deputy Superintendent Colin Campbell said Sylvan Pass had been physically blocked by a natural snow-slide during Monday night. Yellowstone employees planned to use howitzer-deployed explosives Tuesday afternoon to make the area passable, Campbell said.

Explosives had also been used on Sunday to curb avalanche danger, and the east gate road was groomed for motorized over-snow travel. However, roughly 24 hours after its opening, the gate was closed.

Last winter, 26 of 82 days — nearly one in three — were affected by full or partial safety closures of Sylvan Pass. The season saw above-average snowfall.

The Park Service had planned to begin closing the east gate for the entire winter, citing cost and safety concerns.

Local citizens, businesses and officials protested, saying full closure was unnecessary, and would do serious damage to the Cody area's economy. An agreement was reached in June to keep the entrance open with a shortened, “core” season.

Under this year's winter travel rules, up to 40 commercially-guided snowmobiles and two snow coaches are allowed to travel between the gate and over the pass to Fishing Bridge Junction each day — when weather and avalanche conditions permit.

No visitors journeyed through the East Entrance on Monday.

A group of six snowmobilers were scheduled to travel through the pass Tuesday morning, but were turned away at the gate. They were clients of Gary Fales Outfitting of Rimrock Ranch, the lone snowmobile operator for the East Entrance.

Dede Fales, who owns the operation with her husband Gary, said the incident illustrates why they're the only ones left.

“It's just very difficult to run a business under these circumstances,” she said. “It didn't used to be this way.”

Fales said safety closures have become more frequent and longer-lasting, though she isn't sure why it has changed.

“No one wants to argue against safety,” she said.

Fales said the snowmobile visitors would be trying their tour again on Wednesday (today). The gate was again opened to the public early Wednesday afternoon.

High Country Adventures, the only East Entrance snow coach operator, is still unsure if it will open this winter.

Owner Jon Sowerine said the decision will be made “really soon,” pending correspondence from the Park Service.

The park's north, west and south entrances opened Dec. 15, but a lack of snow prohibited snowmobile and other winter vehicle access. Now, however, nearly all of the park's groomed roads are fully open.

The road linking Gardiner, Mont., with Mammoth Hot Springs and the park's Northeast Entrance at Cooke City, Mont., is plowed and open to wheeled vehicle traffic year-round.

Updated information on Yellowstone's over-snow and plowed roads is available 24 hours a day by calling 307-344-2117.

Lodging and limited services are available at Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot

Springs. A full list of authorized winter service providers can be found online at http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/wintbusn.htm.