Big Snow Can Also Bring Big Problems: Snow Immersion Suffocation

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suffocation, tree well
Tree Well Rescue. Image: National Geographic

Brought to you by Ski California

Powder days are great, one of the many reasons we ski and ride. Whether it’s 6” or 16”, cutting fresh tracks and taking face shots make everything worthwhile.

The rare storms, where we count snowfall in feet, not inches, will have us talking about it for years. Remember that storm in Feb 2023…

But big snow brings with it very real big problems. Firstly, avalanche risk. Avalanche danger in the Sierra is rated as ‘considerable’ right now, and avalanche terrain is best avoided. Another problem is ‘snow immersion suffocation’ (SIS).

Tree Well Fall. Image: Ski California
Tree Well Fall. Image: Ski California

Tree well and deep snow suffocation is a serious problem in the Western USA and Canada.

Incidents occur with deep snow accumulations and tree well immersions, where a skier or snowboarder falls into an area of deep, unconsolidated snow and becomes immobilized.

Since 2001, California has had more snow immersion deaths than any other state.

A tree well is a void or depression that forms around the base of a tree and most likely under the branches that hang from those trees, disguising the void. This void may contain a mix of low-hanging branches, loose snow, and air. While skiing or snowboarding, it is tough to determine if a tree well exists, so skiers and riders should treat every tree the same.

Skiers and snowboarders must understand the risks of deep snow, educate themselves, and strictly adhere to safety recommendations, including always skiing or riding within sight of a partner, especially when off a designated trail, within the trees, or in a gladed area.

Essential Safety Tips for Resort Guests

Each skier or snowboarder controls their level of risk. Only you can prevent this type of accident from happening. To minimize your risk, you must know how to travel safely with your partner(s) in these ungroomed deep-snow areas. Always ski or ride with a partner and within close sight.

Always stay in visual contact so your partner(s) can see you if you fall. Visual contact means stopping and watching your partner descend at all times, then proceeding downhill while they watch you at all times. It does no good if your partner is already waiting for you in the lift line while still descending the slope.

Stay close enough to either pull or dig out. Hold your breath while reading this if you have questions about what is “close enough” to assist someone in a tree well. The amount of time before your partner needs air may be how much time you have to pull or dig the person out of danger. Other factors, such as creating an air pocket or the entrapped skier’s position, may also affect this critical timeframe.

Remember, if you lose visual contact with your partner, you could lose your friend. It is essential to know that most people who have died in deep snow or tree well accidents had been skiing or riding with a partner at the time of their accident. Unfortunately, none of these partners was in immediate visual contact, so they could not help promptly.

Use appropriate equipment to minimize risks. When skiing or snowboarding in high-risk areas for deep snow or tree wells, wear a helmet, enter the ski patrol’s phone number into your smartphone, and carry a whistle in case you need to get someone’s attention if you become entrapped in deep snow or a tree well.

If you still have questions, contact your ski patrol. Ask your ski patrol about the current risks and conditions with deep snow at your local ski area before you explore risky terrain such as tree areas, glades, or off-trail terrain where deep snow and tree well risks exist.

Follow these helpful tips to stay safe on the Mountain. All the recent snowfall in California and the west, along with more in the forecast, makes for dangerous conditions, so always take necessary precautions and never venture out alone.

Stay Safe Out There. Image: Ski California
Stay Safe Out There. Image: Ski California

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3 thoughts on “Big Snow Can Also Bring Big Problems: Snow Immersion Suffocation

  1. There is a great video from Whitewater Ski Area Ski Patrol showing tree well immersion. Watch it and you can see that it is not easy to self rescue–when in the trees ski with a partner or better yet too and play leapfrog to keep an eye on each other. Here is the link…If you do not click links, search for: “Whitewater Ski Area Ski Patrol tree well” and this should be the top hit.

  2. Saw lots of scary situations at Mammoth today — dozens of people digging out, and not even that far off the groomed trail. There was one incident that required emergency personnel to drive up the mountain to help someone dig out.

    How long does it usually take for the snow to “firm up” after a big storm like this?

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