Avalanches get all the blame, but they aren’t the only hazard lurking in the snow
It probably felt like no big deal. In the middle of a non-stop snow cycle in British Columbia, a snowboarder slid past the Whitewater Ski Resort boundary. Maybe he turned too close to a conifer tree. Or maybe he caught an edge and flew towards the tree like a javelin. However it happened, he ended head-down and board-up in a tree well; the funnel shaped pit of quicksand-like soft snow near the base of a tree. He likely struggled, but eventually he suffocated.
It sounds like a freak accident, but tree wells are more dangerous hazards than most skiers or boarders realize.
“Tree wells are the unspoken killers,” says Brian Bell, the program coordinator for the Mountain Adventure Skills Training Program at the Fernie, BC, campus of the College of the Rockies. “It seems like you should be able to self-rescue, but you can’t really. The more you wiggle the deeper you go and the more snow you knock on top of you.”
According to a BC Coroner’s report, tree wells killed more snowboarders than avalanches in the province between 2007 and 2016. Add in all non-avalanche related snow suffocations—tree wells and javelining into deep powder or snowdrifts—and drowning in the snow accounted for 27 per cent of all snowboarding deaths in the province. For skiers, avalanches and collisions with the ground and trees are bigger killers, but suffocating in loose snow caused four of 34 skier fatalities inside ski resort boundaries during the same time.
More skiers and snowboarders are dying this way, according to research out of the US, as both styles of sliding increasingly chase powder into tighter trees. In the US, a skier or boarder is 15 times more likely to die from a tree well than an avalanche when skiing inside a resort boundary.
Bell had heard the same from resorts, as well as helicopter and snowcat operations. During the 2019 winter he and his students teamed up with CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures to study tree wells and to develop rescue techniques.
They found dangerous tree well conditions are most common during and just after big snowfall events. While any size tree can create a tree well, they were surprised to learn small trees were the most dangerous, forming a narrow tube that pinned people against the tree where they were unable to move. Even in bigger tree wells, self-rescuing was almost impossible: when volunteers slipped into tree wells on purpose, just two out of 20 were able to get out on their own. Even digging someone out involved significant effort and time, averaging five minutes but taking up to 17.
The key to surviving a tree well, Bell says, is giving trees lots of space and skiing close to a partner and hooting and hollering to each other. “If you get to the bottom of a run and your buddy doesn’t show up, by the time you get back to the top and retrace your tracks, it’s going to be too late,” he warns.
That goes for outside and inside ski resorts. “We’re easily lulled into complacency,” he says. “We think being at the resort means the hazards are controlled, but there’s only so much the resort can do. We need to take care of each other out there.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020/21 issue, Everybody Outside.