At the American Alpine Institute, we spend a lot of time talking about avalanches. We run dozens of avalanche courses a season and highlight avalanche near misses and fatalities on this blog. But we haven't spent much time talking about another major frontcountry and backcountry danger: tree-wells
Every year there are stories about people who have gone into a tree-well upside down and suffocated. Essentially, a skier or a snowboarder takes a fall and slides into a tree-well upside down. When this happens it's very difficult for one to extract him or herself. Indeed, struggling upside down in a well can actually cause an individual to slip down further. The result is very similar to an avalanche, an individual suffocates in the snow.
Occasionally we report on frontcountry avalanches, but they are rare. Tree-well accidents happen every year both in-bounds and out-of-bounds. The wells are particularly dangerous after a big snow storm that dropped a lot of powder.
The Tree-Well and Deep Snow Safety website indicates that, "the odds of surviving a deep snow immersion accident are low; especially if you are not with a partner. In two experiments conducted in the U.S. and Canada in which volunteers were temporarily placed in a tree well, 90% COULD NOT rescue themselves."
The following video portrays a shocking demonstration of just how dangerous tree-wells can be:
Following is a breakdown of what to do in the event of a tree-well accident:
Ski with a Partner
First and foremost, skiing with a partner is the most important part of staying safe on a powder day. And skiing with a partner means keeping track of him or her visually. If you speed ahead and are waiting at the bottom of the slope for your partner in the tree-well, then you have failed to truly ski with your partner. Many of those who have died as a result of a tree-well incident were with partners, but they did not actually witness the fall. Visual contact is important!
In addition to staying in visual contact, it is important to be close enough to your partner that you could dig him out if an accident occurs. How long does that person have? Well, about as long as you can hold your breath...so you should be close enough to perform a rescue quickly.
If your partner goes into a hole, don't leave to get help. Dig him or her out! Once you have reached the person's face, be sure to clear the airway as there might be snow in the mouth.
Carry Backcountry Equipment
Obviously digging requires a shovel. Be sure that you have a shovel, a beacon and a probe on any big snow days, in-bounds or out.
If you're a skier, remove your ski pole straps. People who go into tree-wells often have trouble removing these straps while in a hole.
Stay on Groomed Trails
On big powder days, groomed trails are always the safest. However, if you really want to enjoy the powder or you want to ski in the backcountry, you'll expose yourself to tree-well danger.
If you are off the groomed trails, stay away from the trees. There will not be a tree-well where there is no tree.
If You Fall in a Tree-Well
If you realize that you are falling into a tree-well, try to grab the tree and the tree-branches. Once you've fallen in, try to hold onto the tree or branches so that you don't fall in further.
Struggling in a tree-well often makes you sink more deeply. So if you're in the hole, think. Don't panic. Try to breathe calmly in order to conserve the little bit of air you might have while waiting for a rescue.
If you are in the hole, try to create a breathing space near your face. If you're secure, try to rock your body gently in order to increase this space. Over time, heat from your body, along with rocking motions, will compact the snow. The hardening of the snow around you might allow you to work your way out of the hole.
Following are a few great sites with information about tree-well related incidents:
Stevens Pass Tree-Wells
Tree-Well and Deep Snow Safety
How to Escape a Tree-Well
Tree-wells are dangerous, but they are a danger that can be mitigated and avoided. Pay attention to your surroundings and to your partners in order to stay safe while skiing or snowboarding.
--Jason D. Martin