The beauty of deep powder in the mountains; if you are like me, you seek out this feeling to all ends, relishing in the joy that comes with every floaty turn. In many cases, the quest for the goods takes you off the ski runs and into the trees; and while the snow may be deep and plentiful in the woods, there is also a hidden danger: tree wells.
When it snows in the trees, the branches around will cause the snow near the trunk to be much less dense than the snowpack around it. This isn’t any rocket science; the fact that the branches prevent the snow from hitting the ground means there won’t be as much snow as where it can fall straight down. But it’s in the appearance of looking full and packed that is the real danger. Sometimes there can be significantly less volume of snow in a tree well. Sadly many people don’t realize this until it’s too late and they find themselves upside down.
If this is you or a friend you are skiing/riding with it can be a frightening situation. It’s true that quick action is needed, but panicking will not help anything. Take these steps into consideration and you will get out to ride another day.
Step 1: Be Prepared
This happens before even setting out on the slopes. But having a few items handy will prepare you for the worst, and make any rescue efforts much easier. If you are in cell reception, having a phone with a full charge will allow you to call for help. Sometimes in the cold the battery life is drastically shortened; if your phone is like this you might want to invest in a battery pack, or at least leave the phone powered off for when you need it.
Other items to have handy are a small piece of rope or nylon webbing that can fit in your pocket. We’ll talk about that later. If you are using a backpack, a small collapsible shovel will be well worth bringing along for many reasons, tree well rescue included.
Step 2: Remain Calm
This holds true whether you are the victim or the rescuer. If you have fallen in, the number one thing you have to do is not move around too much, as this can allow more snow to fall around you and potentially block an airway. Many tree well related deaths are due to suffocation because of this fact. If you are the rescuer, remind the victim to stay calm, and that help is here. As the rescuer, be sure to take a few deep breaths and proceed slowly and methodically; rushing through will never help the situation. In fact, it could even make matters worse if you misstep and endanger yourself.
When there are others present, send for help if you don’t have cell phone reception. If you do have reception, then everyone should stay together once the call has been made to cooperate toward a rescue.
If help is on the way and the victim is not in any sharp pain and can talk to you, don’t try anything until trained help arrives. You do not want to make the problem worse. Sometimes the best thing you can do is make sure nobody else gets in harm’s way and place your skis or board in the snow uphill of the tree to give people ample warning there is a human in the snow.
Step 3: Pull the person downhill using whatever tools available
If the victim is not responding then you need to do what you can to get them out as soon as possible. If you do have a shovel, you can make things easier digging down to the level of the victim downhill of the tree. Then pulling them to safety will be a breeze. If you do not have a shovel, then do what you can to get them out safely. Having rope or webbing handy will allow you to tie onto the victim and pull them out, usually by the feet.
If they have skis or a board on, you will want to determine if removing their skis/board from their feet will speed up the process or slow it down. Sometimes the boards provide something to hold onto, and sometimes it is so buried in the snow that it only complicates things. It will be totally situational as to what happens.
Hopefully by reading this you will see the gravity of the situation and avoid the trees after a big snow dump. If you do decide to go in the trees, make sure you are within sight of a buddy at all times. If the worst case scenario does happen, at least you will be as prepared as possible.