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article imageOp-Ed: Tree well dangers, know them and ski with a buddy Special

By Elizabeth Parker     Jan 4, 2013 in Sports
The extreme lack of knowledge on the existence and dangers of tree wells became very apparent me to me a year ago when skiing with my brother at Whistler Mountain, British Columbia.
As a professional skier I am aware that many skiers don't know the risks but I thought my own brother who skied trees and slack country (side areas at ski resorts but not marked runs) with me for many years was well aware of the risks. I had been in a tree well in Utah in 2010, a couple years after learning their dangers and what to do in one, and was sure I had told him but apparently not. Mentioning in the morning as we set out to ski, the fresh snow the night before would make small tree wells for the opening weekend and my brother said "What".
Surprised I explained that a tree well forms when lots of fresh snow falls, and the heavy branches of the pine type trees block the majority of the snow from falling and packing against the trunk. A very loose layer of snow hides that it is really a hole. When a skier encounters the loose area close to the tree, they often fall or flip in to the hole, and the snow around the base area and on the branches collapses in on them and can drown or trap them in the hole. That day my brother found out first hand what a tree well was as fell in a very small one while wearing his Go Pro helm and it was running.
These tree wells kill an average of 4+ skiers a year and climbing according to Paul Baugher and reported by Back Country Access' blog. Even a small one like above that my brother went in would be a real hazard to a 10 or 12 year old skiing. Typically a skier lands upside down in the tree well when their skis catch the area of no snow, and then the skier flips over diving head first into the hole. In places of deep snow these wells are deeper then the height of the skier. A 30 foot base of snow will leave a 50 foot tree still poking through by 20 feet and a very deep hole under those branches that can be spread out quite far from what appears to be the base of the tree. Checking the depth of the hole with a ski pole before removing skis or letting go of a branch is suggested. The pursuit of fresh powder in the past 10 years has greatly increased the incidents of these in bounds suffocation or SIS's (snow immersion suffocation) as skiers search for freshies (fresh untracked powder) and move closer to tree bases each run to catch the fresh powder.
More skiers have died in the past 20 years being buried in bounds in tree wells or creek beds then those reported in back country avalanches. 64 SIS deaths occurred between 1990 and 2011 while there have been 60 out-of-bounds avalanche deaths as reported in Paul Baugher's data on Back Country Access' blog. Possible reasons for this are many but it is suspected the lack of experience and respect for the terrain in the skiers mind and just plain lack of knowledge of the risks since they are at a patrolled ski resort are the main factors in the increase in deaths over the past 10 years.
With an average of 3.5 Narsid's (non avalanche snow immersion death) or now called SIS (snow immersion suffocation) death's a year in the past 20 years, and two thirds of those being from landing inverted in a tree well, it would be wise to learn about these dangers before you find yourself upside down in a tree well. From 1990 to 2001 the risk of death from SIS in bounds was pretty consistent at 2 per year accept for 1993 and 1997 where it spiked at 4 per year. Since 2002, the deaths from SIS have been a minimum of 3 culminating at 9 per year in 2011 as reported by the, a page show casing much of Paul Baugher's research with the Northwest Avalanche Institute and making skiers aware of the dangers of tree wells. This increase can't be ignored and more information on the risks has got to get out of the average skier.
Two skiers at the top of Blackcomb Mountain  getting ready to head down the hill on a fresh powder d...
Two skiers at the top of Blackcomb Mountain, getting ready to head down the hill on a fresh powder day at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort.
In early January 2011, when two deaths happened at Whitefish Ski Resort, MT as reported in On The Snow, there was an additional effort put in by western ski resorts to try to get the information out to all resort skiers that when they ski off piste (ungroomed trails) there are hazards and dangers they should be aware of and what to do. Mt. Baker, WA made up a tree well brochure highlighting the risks and need to ski with a buddy and on heavy snow days actually required people to have a buddy before being allowed on the chair lift as reported by Powder. The heavy snow winter of 2010/2011 is believed to have played a significant part in that years spike in tree well deaths to 9. Number one rule, resorts want to make skiers aware of the need to not only ski with a buddy but to keep that buddy in view at all times. The largest difference between back country skiers and in bound off piste skiers is back country skiers know the risks and keep their buddy in view at all times. Don't lose visual contact with your buddy.
Before you head out this season on that incredible powder day, familiarize yourself with the risks. Look it up and remember, there may be no friends on a powder day but take a buddy and make sure they'll keep you in view at all times. If you do go in to a tree well and your buddy has to come find you, statistics say you won't survive. You must see it happen and assist immediately to have any significant chance of surviving an inverted fall into a tree well as reported by the American Alpine Institute here.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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