How to reduce the risks of tree wells

The skater who changed Brian Bell’s stance on the proverb “No friends in powder days” literally drowned in the snow. January 17, 2019, was a new snowy day in a seemingly endless stream Fernie Alpine Resort In British Columbia.

Two friends were skiing together. Toward the end of the day, one of them got down the elevator, but the other never showed up. When he retraces their paths, he finds his friend in a deep drift. He would first throw his head into the soft snow and choke before help arrived.

“I was at the resort that day skiing on my own,” said Bill, program coordinator for the Mountain Adventure Skills Training Program at The Rockies College in Ferney. “It could have been me. It could have been anyone.”

Look at an untracked slope and the first danger that comes to mind for most skiers and snowboarders is Avalanche. But when it comes to skiing and horseback riding, we’re four times more likely to die from drowning in the snow, like that skater in Verney, or choking in tree wells.

“He’s the invisible killer,” says Bill. “It looks like you should be able to save yourself, but in uncollected snow you can’t do that. When you shake, go deeper.”

Mountain Adventure Skills Training Program at the Rockies' Fernie Campus
Rob Whelan, Brian Bell

On average, four people die each winter in the US from asphyxia unrelated to an avalanche, says Paul Bauger, ski guide, former professional ski ranger and a leading snow throttle expert. Many have already died this winter. Most of them included tree wells, which are a trench-like depression beneath the branches of coniferous trees. Since then, many forensic doctors and even ski guards have mistaken the cause of death as an exposure or a collision; The actual number of tree well deaths and snow suffocation deaths is believed to be higher. And the number of accidents is increasing.

“We have more people chasing after the powder days,” he says. “This is more risk exposure.”

After studying more than 50 deaths from suffocation from snow, Bougher began to notice some trends. The most dangerous time is late in the day after a deep, dry snowfall.

Vail Ski Day Powder

“All easy powder is tracked,” he says. “People start skiing in more dangerous places and in a more dangerous way, like turning around near trees. They dive into a tip or catch a drift and go head first. This inverted position, especially in a tree well, can be fatal.”

They fly through the branches of evergreen trees, especially firs and spruces, and give way easily, but are difficult to push, like a trap door. Skates and planks can catch up with branches, and hold a person upside down. The snow in the moat is not particularly coherent, and provides nothing to squeeze out. Aspects are not stable. The more people suffer, the more snow will fall on them.

They are not just big trees. As part of the class project, Bill and some of his students analyzed hours of YouTube videos of tree well accidents. An amazing number of young trees.

“They are running out in the grass there,” he says. “It’s a funnel that ties their arms to their sides. If no one sees this happening, it could be a death sentence.”

Mountain Adventure Skills Training Program
Students in the Mountain Adventure Skills Training Program at the Rockies College’s Verney campus. Patrick Logan – MA student

Bell’s class also ran a series of extraction tests, with both volunteers and dummies. Only two of the 20 volunteers managed to extricate themselves. The dummies’ digging took an average of 5 minutes and up to 17 minutes, the same rate as an avalanche.

“If you get to the bottom of the run and your friend doesn’t show up, when you come back to the top and follow your paths, it will be too late,” Bill warns.

This is why he no longer follows the powdery day’s usual attitude of never waiting for your ski buddies.

“We calm down easily to complacency,” he says. “We think being in a resort means that risks are controlled, but there is a lot the resort can do. We need to take care of each other there.”

Powder day

How to be a better ski friend

Even if you avoid skiing near coniferous trees, there is still a chance of suffocation in snow. The best way to stay safe on the mountain is to ski with a friend. But this is easier said than done. Here’s how to do it well.

Stay two or three cycles apart from each other. In deep snow, short walks up the hill can take a long time.

– The person in the back is shouting constantly. If they fall silent, the front man stops immediately.

If someone ends up in a tree well, get to them as quickly as possible. Take off their skis, pull the snow off to their waist and pull them off their belt.


If you end up in a tree alone, stay calm and try to keep the snow out of your mouth. Call for help, or better yet, use a whistle and blow it three times.

Try to remove skis or board.

Use tree branches to climb.

-If you can’t get out, call the ski patrol – put the number on your phone.

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Written by Joseph

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