A fatal snowboarding accident at Mammoth Mountain recently has prompted questions about tree well accidents and how people can avoid them.
In late February, a 43-year-old woman was found deceased in a tree well near Chair 12. A tree well is the space left underneath the boughs of a snow covered conifer tree. The hollow area may melt out to form an empty space as the weather warms, but after storms, the tree well can be filled with light, unconsolidated snow.
If a skier falls into a tree well head first, it can be impossible for the skier to escape. Victims often suffocate before help arrives. The situation is very similar to a person who is buried by an avalanche. For this reason, a tree well fatality is listed as a non-avalanche related snow immersion death, or NASRID. Tree wells are commonly involved in these fatalities, but not always. In about a third of the cases a person dies after falling inverted into deep powder in an area without a tree well.
According to the National Ski Area Association website, there are roughly 50-60 million skier visits nationwide per year. Of the millions of visits to ski resorts each winter, there are on average about 40 fatalities a year over the past ten years. Tree well and other immersion deaths have run about three a year over the past five years, according to Paul Baugher, the Director of the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol. He helps run a website, treewellanddeepsnowsafety.com, which is dedicated to getting the word out about the tree well hazards.
Tree strikes and other collisions lead to many fatalities, but tree well accidents do happen. Baugher says that the risk of a tree well death at a ski resort in the United States is actually greater than the risk of dying in an avalanche.
Prevention and protection from deep snow accidents is straight forward. Baugher says that people need to first be aware of the risk when skiing in deep snow. The other tip for travelling in deep powder and trees is to ski with a partner who can help pull you out if you fall and get stuck. Since suffocation is a real issue, having a partner is not enough. Baugher says that your partner needs to be close enough to help. He suggests shorter pitches through trees. If you do find yourself falling into a tree well, grab branches, do a summersault, roll over or do whatever you can to avoid ending up inverted with your head down in the snow.