Woman’s Scary Tree Well Experience Reminds Us It’s Not Just Avalanches That Can Kill During Heavy Snow

SnowBrains |
tree well, snow immersion suffocation,
Credit: Jill Simek. 12.10.2021

With periods of heavy snow the safety focus is often on avalanches, and quite rightly so as the tragic fatality at Crystal Mountain, WA, on Saturday highlights. However, there are other dangers that come with deep snow. One of those is snow immersion suffocation, most commonly caused by falling into a tree well.

The Friends of the Chugach Avalanche Center shared a story yesterday from a woman who had a scary tree well experience at the weekend. 

Last night we received a firsthand report of a full deep snow immersion burial in a tree well on Tincan that occurred on Friday. The skier and her partner had gotten separated skiing in the Tincan Trees, but luckily she was able to self-rescue after being fully buried headfirst. With all of the focus given to the current complicated avalanche hazard, it is easy to overlook other potentially deadly hazards. This is a scary reminder to keep an eye on your partners at all times, and be ready to jump into action if needed.

Thank you to the skier for sharing the details of this near-miss. More info on our observations page: https://www.cnfaic.org/observations/tincan-trees-80/

Photo: Looking down into the tree well that the skier was able to dig herself out of.

Thankfully she was able to self-rescue. Her full story is below:

TinCan up track to about 2300ft. Skied 3 runs in trees in ~24” new snow. Discussed with ski partner the hazards of the snowpack and the need to avoid steep terrain and run outs. Less focus was given on other hazards, specifically tree wells and difficulty moving in deep snow. On the last run, I unintentionally skied out of sight of my partner. Shortly after he lost visual, I lost control in the deep snow and crashed head first down a tree well, buried to my skis. Assuming my partner witnessed the event, I didn’t panic (too much) and waited for my rescue. Next thing I heard was my partner on the radio informing me that he had made the bottom of the run (and a little more because he didn’t see me and assumed I had kept going). I told him I was buried and needed help, but soon realized he would be a while getting to me. Already reaching the limits of my personal comfort, I decided the best course of action would be an attempt at self rescue. With careful movements, and some luck, I was able to find the surface and dig myself out. Garmin indicated 5min total burial time.

Important lessons learned on risk analysis, communication, and complacency in the back country.

tree well
Credit: Jill Simek. 12.10.2021

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, like the one hitting California right now, where we count snowfall in feet, not inches, will have us talking about it for years. Remember that storm in Dec 2021…

But big snow brings with it very real big problems.

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, there have been more snow immersion deaths in California than in 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 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.

Key Safety Tips for Resort Guests

Each skier or snowboarder controls his or her own level of risk. Only you can prevent this type of accident from happening. 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 and never venture out alone.

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

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