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Deep Snow Safety in the Backcountry or the Resort

Tree well brochure available from and the Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association.

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, 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.


This reminds me of the silliest fall I ever had skiing.  I was still relatively new to the sport, at the stage where one could say if you aren’t falling you aren’t learning.  Well I was gliding down a run where they used snowmaking equipment.  The run followed the ski lift.  I caught an edge, and was sent toward a lift tower.  All I could do was redirect my vector by falling, which ended up sending me down the hole in the snow where the water hose for a snow gun emerged.  The hole was barely wider than my shoulders, and once down in the hole there was little room to maneuver and extract myself.  It was pretty funny – I could hear on lookers on the chairlift laugh at my stunt, and I likewise thought it was funny, but with only my skis sticking out of the hole I wondered how long it would be before I managed to extricate myself or someone else would come along and give a hand.  It was all very silly, but fate could have taken a different unfortunate turn.


Don't be apologetic about posting safety info! If people read this, feel under-educated or trained, they should stay off the snow... or, at the very least, ungroomed areas.

This last weekend, after some heavy pushing my wife couldn't continue.. she said "go on" I will wait for you down the trail. I said no way, we stay together no matter.. We didn't make the summit.. but the mountain will still be there..

I grew up in the mountains and had the honor of being in a scout troop led by former military and people experienced in the outdoors. It may sound corny now to some, but "Be Prepared" was a motto.

Our preparations start sometimes months before the season, We overpack, carry multiple sets of gloves, chemical warmers, parka's and waterproof gear. Sure we carry an extra 10 pounds of stuff or so every time. Many times the gear ends up strapped to the pack especially when you start at 15 degree's and then its 40 degree's and sunny.

The following is a story of a gal who recently had an emergency in Colo. on a 13'r. She told her hiking partner to "go on" He as I believe, you never leave your hiking partner.. read this.. it's awesome


Thanks for sharing that story, Jeff. It really drives home the need to always be prepared for an emergency and to spend a night out in harsh conditions. Glad she is alive and recovering.

That's a great story, Jeff. I'm glad to hear the woman survived and that her hiking partner was there for her. She sounds like a very fit person, but you never know what can happen.

We have our own rules hiking about never going past the next trail junction. Kids must always be with (including in sight of) an adult, etc. In winter we'd never split up, even as adults. And so on.

Ed, your fall sounds like one of those that could either be called very funny, if being watched by an observer, or potentially very scary, if it happened to you and especially if you were alone. Yikes! Glad you made it out.

Cleric, you're right that it's essential to be prepared. I think it's interesting how defenses can drop in familiar or less challenging situations.

My son was fine in the situation, but it was briefly scary. One minute we were flying down the lower easy section of a blue trail headed for the lift (he can ski anything on the mountain, so this was no big deal). I'd been watching him following behind me and had just had a talk with him about not skiing right on top of me. Then I waited longer than usual to look back and nothing. I stopped and waited. Still nothing. I started uphill and heard his panicked yells from somewhere uphill in the trees screaming for me. So I knew he was breathing, but thought he was injured, maybe had hit a tree.

It felt like a very long minute as I climbed back up to find him. No one skied by the whole time for me to ask if there was an injured kid up above. I just kept going as fast as I could and yelled a few times that I was coming.

He couldn't hear me though and had stopped yelling, so I had no idea if he was OK or not.

I found him about 10 feet or so off the trail, several feet below me, behind a tree. He couldn't climb back out on his own, but I helped him out with some guidance and a pole.

I then started thinking, what if he'd gone in headfirst? He could really have been struggling then. I started explaining tree wells and soft snow to him, without trying to scare him.

I messed up by not staying near him at all times, even on an easy groomer.

At the end of January, we took our Boy Scouts up to Grand Mesa for a day of snow shoeing and to practice our snow cave building. We hiked in about two miles and found a good spot with snow over six feet deep.

To demonstrate the danger of tree wells, I took off my snow shoes and walked up to a nearby tree. On open snow, I sank down to mid-calf level. When I got near the tree, I suddenly sank down to mid-chest level. I hadn't quite reached the edge of the branches when the bottom fell out and even though I was prepared for the drop, it still surprised me. It wasn't easy to climb back out being right side up. If I was head first, I would surely have needed some help.

I think my demonstration made the right impression on the boys as they steered well clear of any trees after that.

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