We were recently sent a link to the thought-provoking  Tree Well and Deep Snow Safety website. Every winter a number of  Washington skiers and snowboarders, who are skiing off-piste or who are ski touring, fall head-first into tree wells and suffocate. In technical term, ski-industry and avalanche experts refer to these suffocation as Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths of NARSIDs (did bureaucrats come up with this nomenclature or what?). The provinces and states with the dubious distinction of experiencing the highest percentage of these deaths are British Columbia (25%), California (19%), Colorado (17%), and Washington (13%).

Once trapped in a tree well with your feet higher than your head, it’s usually impossible to remove your skis or snowboard. Furthermore, struggling often makes you sink deeper into the hole and suffocate faster. This speaks to the importance of skiing with a partner and staying in close, visual contact with that partner as you descend. If you can’t reach each other fast, your partnership is a false security. People who dive into a tree well head first sometimes ‘drown’ as quickly as a person who has a cement block tied to his feet and is thrown into a river. No joke.

So take a deep breath and time how long you can hold it – that’s how quickly your partner needs to reach you. That should tell you something about the lame way most of us ski the trees together. We shoot down our own lines and after 50 turns yell for our partners. Then, we spend a few minutes on the move regrouping. In these cases if you or your partner took a dive into a tree well, you’d probably be toast…or dead meat.

Tree wells around small and medium-sized trees are often easier to fall victim to than you might suspect. In areas of heavy snowfall like BC and Washington, the wells of these trees can be farther from the trunk than you might suspect. Those wells might also be capped by a few branches supporting recent snows – a tiger trap set for you to crash into.

To reduce the odds of falling prey to these traps, ski or snowboard areas with moderately spaced trees so you don’t need to cut too close to the trunks and crowns of trees. Also don’t insert your hands through the straps of your ski poles so your arms are free if you do take a dive.

In the unfortunate event that you do dive into a tree well:

  • Do everything possible to keep from going down head first. Grab tree branches or the trunk to keep you head high. Struggle to swing your feet below your head while you’re still moving.
  • Once stopped, resist the urge to struggle violently to free yourself. Immediately, concentrate on establishing and maintaining the largest air space possible around your head. In controlled experiments, people who struggle usually sank deeper into their holes and cut off their air supply more quickly.
  • If you’re skiing with a partner, concentrate on relaxing and maximizing your air supply until your partner can help spring you.
  • If you’re skiing alone, ask yourself what madness led you to this lonely spot. Make peace with your sins and stupidity. Pray for the miracle of the wayward stranger finding the dying skier. Get ready to KYAG (ahhh, this is a non-bureaucratic acronym).

Here in Central Washington these tips (and many more discussed at Tree Well and Deep Snow Safety website) can keep you safer when skiing the off-piste/backcountry around Stevens Pass. Off-piste and backcountry skiing amongst the east-slope peaks flanking Wenatchee presents different hazards, here you might consider wearing a helmet in case you dive into a tree well and smack a rock.

This post was originally published on 2/1/08. 

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