A 34-year-old man was found unresponsive in a tree well near the Can-Can ski run on Bald Mountain in northern Idaho on Saturday. Derek Klein marks the fourth ski-related death in the country this season due to tree wells.
Paul Baugher, who's the director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute, says tree wells are one of the most overlooked ski hazards on any resort; almost every year someone ends up dying in one.
"This is one of those main hazards you have to worry about associated with powder skiing," Baugher said.
On average, about three people every year lose their lives due to tree wells or snow immersions.
"These are advanced skiers that we're talking about, no beginners," Baugher said.
What will happen is a skier or snowboarder will be enjoying the snow in the trees; they'll then fall and either get turned around and end up heading downhill or fall face first into a tree well. A treacherous patch of loose snow created when a tree’s lowest branches keep snow from packing into the area around the trunk. The snow will settle on the branches, which causes a deep pocket of quicksand-like snow.
"They become immobilized, they can't get themselves out, they lose their airway and they suffocate," Baugher said.
Last year, Winston Goss was skiing with his son Ethan at Brundage Mountain. Ethan zoomed past him, hit a jump, and then vanished beneath the snow. Thankfully, Ethan was able to be pulled out. Baugher says that's because this father and son followed the most important rule.
"Have a partner that keeps you in sight, that's the critical part, not just a partner, but they have to keep you in sight," Baugher said. "If you don't have a partner right there, you don't have a lot of time."
If you do find yourself in a situation where you're sliding down head first into a tree well, Baugher says do whatever you can to turn yourself upright. Grab onto the tree if you have too.
"Conserve air. You might try climbing up the trunk if you can, but if you're just getting worse and worse and more encased, save and conserve energy. Try and make an air pocket," Baugher said.
If your partner ever gets stuck in a tree well, Baugher says try to create an air pocket.
"Go for the airway. Don't try and bring the guy straight back out," Baugher said.
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