Tree well and Snow Immersion Safety: How to manage when stuck

January 30, 2020

This new video features how to manage tree wells, an often-overlooked danger when riding in the backcountry or at the resort. Watch and learn what to do if you ever find yourself stuck upside-down with limited air supply and range of motion.

Skiing or riding in deep snow? Deep snow immersion and tree wells are serious hazards. While staying safe in avalanche terrain is always on the mind of backcountry travelers, tree wells and snow immersion suffocation (SIS) are often overlooked components of snow safety. 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.

BCA's new video Treewell and Snow Immersion Safety illustrates what you can do if trapped in a tree well in deep snow. This video features how to manage tree wells, an often-overlooked danger both in the backcountry and at the resort. 

Produced by Sam Giffin of Mt Baker Media House, "Treewell and Snow Immersion Safety" is live and can be streamed on YouTube or viewed on the learn section.

BCA co-founder Bruce Edgerly explains why the avalanche safety brand decided to create this video. “This video has been a long time coming. When we were originally researching avalanche reports when we were developing our BC Link group communication system, we noticed how many tree well incidents could have been averted with two-way radios. The goal of our Treewell and Snow Immersion Safety video is mainly just awareness of the problem--and some confidence that they can survive if they relax and remember a few key points if it ever happens to them.”

In the six-minute film, skiers, riders, and snow safety professionals are interviewed about their tree well encounters and what to do if you ever find yourself stuck upside-down with both limited air supply and range of motion.

Paul Baugher, a leading researcher on SIS incidents and longtime Director of Northwest Avalanche Institute explains, “The time it takes to succumb to SIS is often very short. There are a number of cases where the victims were retrieved within 20 minutes, but it was too late. It should also be noted that most of the SIS fatalities have had partners. Unfortunately, the partners lost contact (did not keep them in sight) and realized their friends are not with them at the bottom of the lift. By the time they return to the last seen area, it is too late. The take-away is that you have to keep your partner in sight and be close enough to help in a timely manner.”

To help convey the importance of this topic, pro telemark skier and BCA ambassador Adam Ü—hailing from Glacier, Washington—talks about his strategy for staying calm in the event of getting stuck in a tree well and how to approach self-rescue if possible.

“BCA asked me if I would help with the video because I am one of their Baker-based athletes and I’ve known Sam, the filmmaker, for many years,” Ü notes about his participation in the film. “I am always happy to help with snow safety awareness. Raising awareness helps others, and talking about the various hazard and rescue scenarios keeps them fresh in my head. The last thing I want is to get complacent. An expert skier friend recently posted a video of skiing in otherwise innocuous terrain. But a random fall put him headfirst into a tree well. Getting stuck in a tree well can literally happen to anyone at any time.”

Ü reiterates Edgerly’s desire for this video to serve as an educational resource. “Hopefully, people acknowledge tree wells as a common hazard that is maybe overlooked on a day-to-day basis,” he notes. “People might be clued into avalanches but have no idea about tree wells or how to escape from them, even though it’s likely many skiers and snowboarders are in tree well hazard terrain far more often than they are in avalanche terrain. I know I certainly am! Keeping eyes and ears on your partners when you’re in the trees can be tough, but if there’s even a little bit more awareness and attention after someone sees this video, then it’s a win.”