The 2017 ski and snowboard season has gotten off to a phenomenal start with amazing levels of snowfall from Whistler to Niseko. However with increase snowfall comes increased risks both on and off-piest. Tree wells are often overlooked as potentially life threatening mountain hazards. Less spectacular and visible than avalanches, they are more common and just as dangerous if not more so. As with avalanches a basic understanding of the threats posed and self-rescue and survival techniques can mean the difference between life and death. The threat of tree wells is made even more prominent as they can occur in-bound, in areas where skiers and borders feel otherwise safe and familiar.
What is a tree well? A tree well is formed when snowfall surrounds the base of a tree yet a void is left as branches directly above the tree well keep snow from accumulated around the trunk of the tree. Think of an umbrella keeping the trunk of the tree ‘dry’. The higher the snowpack, the deeper and more dangerous the tree well.
Danger comes when a skier or boarder falls into a tree well, becoming trapped with the impact potentially knocking snow from branches above onto the individual below. Falling headfirst or being buried by falling snow can cause snow-immersion suffocation (SIS).
The highest risk of becoming trapped in a tree well comes after large snowfalls. The best way to avoid becoming trapped in a tree well is to stay clear of trees! Duh! But if you do ski or ride glades remember that all trees pose a tree well threat, even small trees which don’t appear to pose a risk. Small trees can have surprisingly deep, dangerous tree wells which catch skiers and boarders off guard.
What are some tips to avoid tree wells and survive a tree well incident?
- Always ski or ride with a buddy. 90% of tree well entrapment tests found that individuals could not self-rescue. Having a friend nearby can mean the difference between life and death.
- Maintain visual contact with that friend and others in your group.
- If you see someone who has fallen into a tree well do not assume that they can self rescue, stop and provide assistance and if possible flag down ski patrol, time is critical when dealing with tree well entrapment and SIS.
- Ski and ride with a whistle that is within easy reach, ideally located as close to your mouth as possible.
If you find yourself trapped in a tree well, what should you do?
- Try to prevent yourself from sliding further down into the tree well by any means possible. Grab branches, wedge yourself against the trunk, the further into the tree well you sink the increase level of danger and risk of SIS.
- If you are trapped in the tree well, do not struggle. Struggling after you have fallen in will only lead to the risk of snow falling from branches above and burying you further.
- Try to make an air pocket around your face and mouth, this small pocket of air can mean the difference between life and death as every minute of air increase the likelihood of surviving long enough to be rescued.
- Stay as calm as possible.
- Stay as calm as possible.
- Stay as calm as possible. Yup three times. Panicking will increase your rate of air consumption and potentially trap you further. Stay calm and yell or blow your whistle to attract attention and rescue.
What should I do if a member of my party falls into a tree well?
- If you cannot immediately find your missing person contact ski patrol and direct them towards your friend’s last known location, then being to search for your missing person.
- Listen for any noise which may indicate where your friend is located.
- If you have an avalanche beacon switch to search mode and use the same techniques you would with a avalanche rescue.
- If you find the tree well victim, determine where their head is and tunnel in from the side to provide immediate air and minimize further injury.
- An avalanche skill 1 course will provide you with skills necessary for the best methods to tunnel and rescue a trapped individual. Always tunnel directly to the individuals airway and be careful not to knock more snow onto the victim. Expand out the tunnel to the airway until you can pull your partner out.
To learn more please visit: www.deepsnowsafety.org/index.php