Skiing or riding in the backcountry requires a certain level of snow safety knowledge, skill, and appropriate gear. But not so much at the local resort, right? Just hop on the lift and ski back down. Maybe head into the ungroomed trees for some powder. Fun.
Well, resort skiers and riders aren't immune from snow danger. Tree wells, those holes or voids of soft, loose snow found at the base of trees in deep powder, can be deadly. And they're not found only in the backcountry. If a skier or snowboarder goes off a groomed trail and falls upside down into a tree well, he will have a very tough time rescuing himself, and may suffocate.
In two experiments in the Canada and U.S. in which volunteers were placed in tree wells, 90 percent could not rescue themselves. The more you struggle in a tree well's unconsolidated snow, the deeper you sink and are immobilized.
If you don't have someone nearby to get you out, you can drown in minutes. It's called Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death (NARSID) and it's already happened several times this season at North American resorts.
This blog isn't meant to be alarmist or keep you off the snow, just to make you more aware. Earlier this month, I climbed back up an intermediate run as fast as possible to find my son, who had disappeared, had skied right off the trail and behind the trees. He couldn't get out of the deep, soft snow without my help. He was fine, but it was a good reminder of how blasé we can be in familiar surroundings. We'd just been cruising down an easy trail we've skied many times before.
For a wealth of info on tree well safety, visit www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com, a collaboration of the NW Avalanche Institute, Mt. Baker Ski Area, Crystal Mountain, and Dr. Robert Cadman.
There's also a printable version of their educational brochure, Tree Well & Deep Snow Safety Info (pdf).
Biggest tip: Ski or ride with your partner in sight, so they can witness a fall.