SEPT 28, 2023
by Jennie Hughes
There’s nothing like breezing through your favourite tree run on a pow day. Maybe it's a few days post-powder dump and you and your buddies are desperately searching for that last little powder cache hidden in the glades. You’re cruising through, having the best day of the season, but watch out for tree wells!
What is a tree well?
A tree well is a hole that forms around the base of a tree trunk when snow falls. Similar to an umbrella, branches will prevent snow from falling around the trunk, which leaves a pretty deep and dangerous void. The higher the snowpack, the deeper the well will be; most tree well incidents will occur after high snowfall. Being trapped in a tree well without rescue can lead to suffocation, and when it comes to tree wells, smaller trees can be just as dangerous as larger trees.
What can we do to prevent tree well incidents?
The best way to avoid falling in tree wells is to eliminate the risk altogether; don’t ski or board in the trees! But where's the fun in that? To reduce the risk of falling into a tree well: stay aware, ride in control, and give the trees some space; don’t get too close. Most importantly, always ski/board with a partner! Make sure you’re in sight of each other and make noise. You might not be able to see your riding buddy at all times but as long as you can hear each other hooting and hollering, you know they’re safe and having fun!
What if you get trapped?
Stay calm! Hopefully, by now your partner has realised you’re missing. If your head is submersed in snow, try to make a space around your airways. It’s a good idea to keep a whistle on your jacket, if you have one handy use it now! Do what you can to keep your head above the surface, without struggling too much. Too much struggling can lead to more snow falling from the tree and burying you further; make slow and methodical movements to keep yourself afloat. If you can reach your phone (provided you have cell service) call the resort ski patrol or your local emergency service.
What if your partner is trapped?
You’ve realised you can’t hear your ski buddy hooting anymore, stop and regroup. Once you’ve located them, do not leave them! Evaluate the scene, ensure their airways are clear, and stay calm. Yell or whistle for help, and call ski patrol or emergency services if possible. Do not try to pull them out, instead position yourself downhill, determine where their airway is, and dig directly towards it. Expand the tunnel towards the airway until you can free your friend. If you’re out in the backcountry, you should have a shovel with you to make this rescue work. If you’re inbounds at the resort, you might not have a shovel handy; in this case, use your hands, the tip of your ski, or anything you can think of to get your partner out of there safely and efficiently. Don’t try to pull them out until they’re at least exposed at the waist or lower.
Bearing all this in mind, don’t be scared to have fun riding through the glades and tearing up your favourite tree run. Just have fun and more importantly, stay safe!