Propelled by snowboards, fatter skis and the ceaseless quest for powder, more skiers are venturing into this winter wonderland. Let the Texans on spring break ski the groomers. Real powder hounds know where to go to shred the gnar.
But the trees hold a hidden danger, a threat that is little-known and poorly understood among skiers, one that claims a life on Colorado’s slopes nearly every year: tree wells, deep, soft snow that collects under pine trees and can pull down and drown a skier like quicksand.
Three skiers have died from suffocation in tree wells at North American resorts this season, two in Colorado and one in Idaho. All were skilled skiers. The deaths are prompting increased focus on the dangers of tree wells.
“Five or six years ago, nobody was talking about this stuff at all,” said Paul Baugher, a ski patrol supervisor in Washington state and head of the Northwest Avalanche Institute. “Every time one of these happened, people went, ‘Wow, that’s like the weirdest freak accident we’ve ever heard of,’ and nobody’s sharing the information.”
Baugher has researched tree-well fatalities and runs a website, treewelldeepsnowsafety.com. His research shows Colorado accounts for 17 percent of treewell fatalities in North America, behind only British Columbia — 24 percent — and California — 19 percent.
Such accidents are completely avoidable, he points out, by staying out of the trees and off ungroomed areas.
But what fun is that? Fortunately, committed tree-skiers can still enjoy the powder and minimize their risk by taking precautions.
On Dec. 8, when Alex Singer headed to Wolf Creek Ski Area, the resort was awash in powder. “We had over 70 inches of snow in that storm.,” said Wolf Creek CEO David Pitcher.
Singer, a University of Colorado at Boulder student, was a good skier, training to be a ski patroller at Copper Mountain. But when he plunged forward while tree skiing alone, he landed headfirst, became stuck and suffocated. He was just 200 feet from the chair lift.
“He just couldn’t get out,” Pitcher said. “It was really tragic. We didn’t discover him until the next day.”
Tree wells form when the thick branches of evergreens prevent snow from packing, so loose, fluffy powder several feet deep can collect around the trunk. When a skier falls in — usually head-first — the snow packs around him or her, and the situation is made worse when the collision brings snow on branches falling down on top of the collapsed skier.
“They’re skiing or snowboarding along in the powder snow and, for whatever reason, they get too close to the tree or lose control and they pitch forward. They pitch forward and get wedged down in the tree-well area,” said Gwyn Howat, operations manager at Mount Baker Ski Area in Washington, who runs the website with Baugher.
On Jan. 5, when Grace Lynn McNeil headed to Steamboat ski area with some friends, the northern Colorado resort was also deep in powder. McNeil, a ski instructor, was skiing Christmas Tree Bowl and her friends lost sight of her. Her body was found the next morning, in a tree well, where she died of suffocation.
Skiing with a buddy is one of the most important safety steps for tree-skiing, but her death shows that’s not foolproof. “Unfortunately, the buddies were skiing together but they waited for their friends at the bottom of the lift,” Howat said. “Someone who is in a tree well or in deep-snow immersion — people can die just about as quickly as you can drown. So it doesn’t do a lot of good to be a buddy and wait at the bottom of the lift when your buddy is in need.”
In simulated tree-well accidents that Baugher reconstructed, nine of 10 trapped skiers needed help getting out. So he suggests always skiing within earshot of your partner.
Snowboarders are twice as likely to be involved in a snow-immersion accident, because they are more likely to be skiing closer to trees. But skiers also are at risk. Baugher noted in many fatalities he has studied, skiers actually came out of their bindings and were still stuck.
Knowing the snow conditions is also key. Colorado snow, while not as wet and heavy as in the Pacific Northwest, can be just as deadly, because it can remain light, with low density, for much longer, Baugher said. The danger is worst during or right after a heavy snowfall.
Should you find yourself falling into a tree well, he said, “Fight like hell to stay out of that inverted position. Grab the tree. Yell. Make sure your partner is watching you.”
If trapped in the snow, don’t panic.
Free your arms if you can, and dig a pocket of air around your face before the snow packs down. “You need to be sure to get your arms around your face so you can push some snow out of the way,” said Pitcher, the Wolf Creek CEO. “You have to take the time to calm yourself and realize you’re not at the bottom of the ocean.
You’re not in an avalanche. You’re not very far from the surface.”