We are well into the winter season and snow totals are piling up. With two recent tree well fatalities in February 2021, one at Jackson Hole in Wyoming and one at Bridger Bowl in Montana, it is an appropriate time to review deep-snow and learn tree well safety. Last season, two tree well fatalities in Canada and one tree well fatality in the United States occurred in February 2020 as well.
While staying safe in avalanche terrain is always on the mind of backcountry travelers, tree wells and snow immersion suffocation (SIS) is a component of snow safety that is often overlooked. It turns out that 20 percent of fatalities in public ski areas are due to deep snow immersion. Tree well incidents are preventable, and with some practice, removing a victim from a tree well can be a swift and efficient process.
WHAT IS A TREE WELL?
Tree wells are deep pockets of loose snow found near the base of evergreen trees. Skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers who fall into the wells can often die from suffocation or asphyxiation if help doesn’t come quickly. Read on to learn tree well safety and best practices from the experts at DeepSnowSafety.org, the College of the Rockies at Fernie, and Canadian Mountain Holidays.
Here are some tips for managing tree wells and other SIS accidents.
- Have the proper equipment. When skiing in deep snow, carry a shovel and make sure that it’s accessible. A recent study conducted by the College of the Rockies and Canadian Mountain Holidays found that using a shovel with a hoe mode feature (like the RS EXT or the D-2 EXT) is the most effective way to clear snow when rescuing a victim from a tree well.
- Ride with a partner. Keeping a partner within visual and verbal distance can be the difference between languishing in a tree well and speedy rescue. If your partner falls in a tree well, don’t leave to find help. If needed, call for patrol or search-and-rescue, but start digging immediately. Two-way radios like the BC Link are crucial in communicating with friends that are out of your sight, including potential tree well victims.
- Give large trees a wide berth. Large trees with wide, low-hanging branches can fully engulf a person who is over six feet tall. Give these large trees distance when skiing and riding in deep snow.
- Stay Calm. If you’ve fallen in a tree well, staying calm will slow your breathing and prevent any more snow from falling on top of you.
- Use the T-rescue shoveling method for tree well rescue.
- Start digging a platform just below the victim.
- A minimum of three rescuers works best.
- Two rescuers focus on digging “pulling platforms” (1-meter square platforms at the lip of the tree well on each side of the victim).
- Unless the victim is clearly being held up by their skis or snowboard, the equipment should be removed and set aside as quickly as possible so as not to impede the shoveling process.
- The third rescuer digs a “receiving platform” between the two pulling platforms.
- Dig until the receiving platform is level, wide enough for rescuers to attend to the victim once pulled out, and reaches just below the victim’s waist.
- If the victim is upside-down, pull on the hem of the jacket instead of the pants or belt.
In this video, Gwen Howit, operations manager at Mt. Baker Ski Area presents the dangers of tree wells and snow immersion suffocation. Video courtesy of https://www.deepsnowsafety.org/
Improving Best Practices for Tree Well Risk and Incidents
Research collaboration between Mountain Adventure Skills Training (MAST) program, the College of the Rockies – Fernie Campus, and Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) has resulted in the creation of an informative white paper on tree well rescue best practices. To continue reading about tree well and deep snow immersion, click here. BCA sends our condolences to the tree well victims' friends and families mentioned in this story.
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Below: Tree well extrication practice scenario with a manikin (not a real human in photo).