Here in the US upper Midwest we do not face the deep-powder-snow danger known as tree wells. Our chief danger is the crash ranging from trivial to the ultimate. However, out West there are two risks we do not face: snow immersion suffocation (SIS) and avalanche risks. The avalanche risks are well known and more dramatic than its cousin the tree well death. In fact, many Midwest and East coast skiers are really unaware of the risks of tree wells.
Tree Wells — What is Snow Immersion Suffocation?
Snow immersion suffocation (SIS) is the situation where a person is buried in deep snow and is unable to extricate themselves. The snow packs in and blocks a person’s ability to breath leading to suffocation. The most obvious way for this to happen is getting caught in an avalanche but there are other ways to get trapped in deep snow and that is the tree well.
Evergreen tree branches can prevent snow from packing down to create a solid base around the tree and this forms the well. It looks solid but is not and if a skier or a snowboarder happens to ride around the tree and in the well the mechanics often result in the skier trapped upside down in the well. The skier is essentially immobilized, hanging upside down, and buried by snow. This makes getting out without assistance near impossible. The result all too often is death by suffocation or exposure. Every now and then the skier is not found until the spring thaw melts the snow away.
One last cautionary, tree wells are a hazard anywhere there is deep snow and evergreen trees, this means in-bounds as well as in the backcountry, don’t let your guard down because you are skiing in trees well within the ski resort’s boundaries.
Tree Wells — What Can One Do?
The big number one rule of back-country skiing (though I have heard of tree wells in-bounds too) is to never go alone.
- Never ski the back-country alone
- Be prepared and carry:
- A probe
- A beacon
- A whistle
- Your Cellphone
- Do not strap your poles on
- Always stay in sight of your ski buddy
- Stop and regroup on a regular basis
Back Country Rules
Tree Wells — Have Fun
While some may decry this article as fear-mongering I like to think of it as education! I pine (yes, I am an oddball and love a good pun, the pun is intended) to ski in such settings. However, understand there is a risk of falling into a tree well and you need to be prepared to rescue your buddy or be rescued from one.
The West Coast and mountain states are receiving snow in quantities they have not seen in years and the skiers and snowboarders there are ecstatic. However, avalanche warnings, avalanche events, and reports of tree well deaths are coming in. If you go out there I want you to have a good time and come back safely. I recently had console one of my twitter friends who just lost a young friend of hers to a tree well, not fun folks.
Be smart and be prepared.