Tips on Tree Well Safety for Skiers & Snowboarders

Tips on Tree Well Safety for Skiers & Snowboarders

Local Lexi

By Local Lexi \ January 12 2024

For the winter ahead, Ski Utah is focusing on safety and sharing tips and best practices to keep skiing and snowboarding fun.

To kick things off, we circled back to our old friend, the Skier's and Snowboarder's Responsibility Code. Of course, if you're new to the sport or a die-hard expert, good mountain manners are also important to practice. Here today, we've got additional tips to keep you safe on the slopes by providing info on how to recognize and avoid the hazards presented by tree wells.

Read on to learn how to avoid dangerous situations and deep snow immersion! 


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WHAT IS A TREE WELL?

When snow falls on a tree, the tree's dense branches shelter the area around the trunk of the tree from that snowfall. A tree well is the space around the tree's trunk that does not receive quite as much snow as the surrounding open areas. The well itself can be composed of thin, low-hanging branches, loose snow, and air pockets. This void surrounding the tree's trunk is often unconsolidated and presents a grave danger to unsuspecting hikers, snowshoers, snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders. In larger, old-growth forests tree wells as deep as 20 feet have been observed! 

Within Utah's ski areas, tree wells are typically created by evergreen trees such as fir or pine. 






WHY ARE TREE WELLS SO DANGEROUS?


Tree wells are typically located in forested areas beyond groomed trails. Those who venture off-piste should be well aware of the hazard that tree wells can present. Tree wells are incredibly dangerous because low-hanging branches can completely conceal the tree well itself.

Falling into a tree well can be problematic as the hole created in the snow can be too deep for a person to climb out. The surrounding snow may also be too loose and unconsolidated to provide support to climb out of the tree well.

In many cases, entry into a tree well is the result of a crash or an unexpected tumble so the victim falls in head-first, drastically increasing the risk of suffocation. This is referred to as snow immersion suffocation or SIS. It is instinctual for a victim to struggle or thrash around which can result in deeper immersion, increasing the likelihood of suffocation or asphyxiation.

Accidents in tree wells occur every winter both within resort boundaries and in the backcountry. They are especially prevalent in areas with deep snowpack and large trees, such as the terrain of the Pacific Northwest. Tree well accidents are most likely to occur after a deep snowstorm. The vast majority of tree well incidents affect expert and advanced skiers and snowboarders who are venturing beyond the groomed trails.

In experiments conducted in the US and Canada where people voluntarily entered a tree well while being supervised, 90% of people were unable to self-rescue (source). This sobering result illustrates how truly dangerous tree well entrapment can be. The likelihood that you can extricate yourself without assistance is terrifyingly low. 



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HOW CAN I PREVENT SNOW IMMERSION AND AVOID TREE WELLS?


A Respectful Distance
Firstly, rely on your common sense. A tree well cannot exist without a tree, so simply giving trees a wide berth is your first step to safely enjoying skiing and snowboarding. Tree wells are nearly impossible to identify and may easily be hidden by low-hanging branches. For this reason, treat all trees as a potential threat. The least risky terrain for tree wells will be on groomed runs. 


Always Ski or Ride in Control
Every skier and rider should already be doing this on groomed trails and beyond as a golden rule. For more on how to ride and ski responsibly, "Know the Code" and click here.


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Ski with a Partner
Skiing with a partner is generally just a great idea in the mountains, especially when there's fresh, deep snow. The trick here is to always keep your partner in visual contact. It is noteworthy that most victims involved in a fatal SIS or tree well accident were skiing with one or more partners.

If partners aren't keeping a vigilant watch for each other, you won't have a great 'last seen' reference and too much time may elapse when life-saving help could make the difference. In most cases of fatalities, the partner did not witness the fall so maintaining visual contact is critical! Make sure you are close enough to each other that you can quickly come to their assistance in the event of trouble. 


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Carry a Whistle 
There are a number of nifty whistles that can easily be attached to a backpack strap or the zipper of your jacket so you can loudly signal for help. Just be sure to place the whistle near your mouth for easy access. 

2-way Radios
Durable 2-way radios that can be attached to your jacket or backpack could make the difference between a timely rescue and a fatal accident. These can be super helpful for those who ski the resort and the backcountry. It's a worthy investment for expert/advanced skiers who tend to prefer extreme terrain or deep snow. 





Ditch the Pole Straps
Yup. You could find a tough situation far tougher if you're attached to your ski poles. Ditch the straps to give yourself a fighting chance. 


Carry Your Gear

On truly deep days, it pays to have equipment at the ready. Useful equipment in terrain where tree wells are possible includes a beacon, shovel, probe, Outerwear with RECCO reflectors, a whistle and a cell phone.


Get Your Digits 
Keep the number of your mountain's ski patrol or mountain operations saved in your phone. Having their number handy is helpful for more than just tree well incidents too.  




WHAT TO DO IF YOU'RE TRAPPED IN A TREE WELL


In many cases, people will enter a tree well head first as the snow gives way and the momentum of the skier or the snowboarder tumbles them forward into the snow. Instincts will kick in and the trapped skier or rider will want to thrash around and panic. The BEST thing to do is remain calm and move slowly within the unconsolidated snow. 

  • Brace an arm or leg against the tree or locate a branch or knot to grab to prevent sinking further into the hole.
  • As quickly as you can, yell or blow your whistle to attract attention while friends or others are still near.
  • Slowly move snow away from your face and airway and try to create the largest air pocket you can.
  • If feasible, stick a hand, leg or ski pole toward the snow surface to aid rescuers in locating you.
  • If possible, keep your feet below the level of your head.
  • If immersed under the snow, create as much airspace as you can and resist the strong instinct to panic or hyperventilate. Focus on slow, steady, even breathing and keeping your heart rate low. Try to think calmly and clearly about how best to extricate yourself. If the snow is very loose, added movement, squirming, or wiggling may worsen your situation. Assess what the snowpack is doing and make decisions accordingly.
  • If it's possible to communicate on your radio or phone, do so to alert others and initiate a rescue.



HOW TO RESCUE SOMEONE STUCK IN A TREE WELL 


As mentioned above, 90% of people involved in research experiments to simulate tree well immersion were unable to rescue themselves. For this reason, it's so important to stick close to your partner and maintain visual contact when skiing or snowboarding together. You are your partner's best chance for survival!
  • If your partner goes down, DO NOT leave to get help. Cry for help or use a whistle to attract others who can also assist. Calling ski patrol or the resort's emergency number is wise. 
  • Evaluate the scene and take care not to land yourself in the same tree well before you begin the rescue.
  • Prioritize locating the victim's airway and use caution to avoid filling the hole with more snow. Ensure the airway is clear before providing additional first aid or continuing to dig. 
  • Dig from below and do not attempt to extricate the victim from the direction they entered the hole.
  • Determine where the head/airway is located and dig adjacent to the victim.




  • GREAT RESOURCES ABOUT TREE WELLS & SIS PREVENTION

    https://www.deepsnowsafety.org/index.php/what-sis 

    http://blog.alpineinstitute.com/2012/02/dangers-of-tree-wells.html

    https://www.wikihow.com/Escape-a-Tree-Well-when-Skiing

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    RELATED ARTICLES 

    Good Manners on the Mountain - Click Here

    The Ski & Snowboard Responsibility Code - Click Here

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