Snowboarder Killed in Deep Snow Immersion Incident at Mount Baker Ski Area, WA, on Saturday

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Mount Baker, WA. Credit:

A  snowboarder died Saturday in a deep snow immersion incident in an extreme danger zone cliff area of Mount Baker Ski Area, according to CEO Gwyn Howat. Cascade Daily News reports that the victim was a 44-year-old Bellingham man who appeared to be riding alone in the Pan Dome area of the resort—a seldom skied zone of the mountain just north of Chair 1.

It had been snowing heavily at Mount Baker at the time of the incident. The powder was deep. A group of riders in the Pan Dome area reported seeing the tip of a snowboard sticking out of the snow around 11:15 am on Saturday and not shortly thereafter ski patrol was dispatched to the scene. Rescue teams unburied the man, finding him unresponsive. He had been buried for an unknown length of time. CPR and other medical measures were performed to no avail, according to CDN.

“Mount Baker puts out our heartfelt condolences to his friends and family for this loss, as well as to the Mount Baker community that he was a part of,” Howat said in an interview Sunday morning.

This is the first fatality at Mount Baker this season—and hopefully the last. 

Snow Immersion Suffocation, Explained

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.

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 very difficult 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 a gladed area.

Tree Well Rescue. Image: National Geographic

Key Safety Tips for Resort Guests

Always ski or ride with a partner and within close sight. To minimize your risk, you must know how to travel safely with your partner(s) in these ungroomed deep-snow areas.

Always stay in visual contact so that 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 he or she watches 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. If you have any questions about what “close enough” to assist someone in a tree well is, hold your breath while reading this. 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 important 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 in a timely manner.

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 what the current risks and conditions are 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 out there, so always take necessary precautions.

Photo courtesy Ski California

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