Skiing on a snowboarder’s blindside often feels like the most dangerous place on the mountain. But according to a study by the B.C. Coroner Service, a skier is more likely to die from falling in a tree well than a collision with a boarder.
“We don’t talk about drowning in the snow much,” says Brian Bell, the outdoor program co-ordinator at the College of the Rockies in Fernie. “There’s no signage and little education about it. Tree wells are the unspoken killers.”
In places that get lots of snow the branches of conifer trees, like cedars, firs and spruce, deflect snow away from the trunk, creating a moat of super-soft snow particularly in early season. Fall into it or even ski too close and it’s possible to get stuck with your arms pinned and unable to clear snow from your face. Skiers have asphyxiated in as little as 15 minutes.
“It seems like you should be able to self rescue, but you can’t,” Bell explains. “The more you wiggle, the deeper you go and the more snow you knock down on yourself.”
The coroner’s study found that of the 70 skiers who died in B.C. between the winter of 2007-08 and 2015-16, six asphyxiated in a tree well, while only two succumbed after a collision with a snowboarder. The leading causes of death were avalanches and falls (29 and 12 deaths respectively).
Lots of research has focused on those mechanisms, but few have studied how to get out of a tree well. In winter 2019, Bell and his students set out to find out. To get a better sense of how it happens, they studied YouTube videos, mostly head cam footage, of tree-well accidents. “We had no idea how common it was,” Bell says. Then they teamed up with CMH Kootenay, a heli-ski operation south of Revelstoke, to test different extraction methods in real tree wells with a dummy and volunteers.
They found all tree wells are dangerous, but were surprised to discover small spindly trees create funnels that are especially hard to escape. “People just lawn dart right in there and the tube shape pins them tight,” Bell says. “You don’t have a chance of escaping on your own.”
The research shocked Bell into changing his ski behaviour. “To me, the key is to ski close with your buddy, even at the ski area,” he says. “Without them you’re toast.”
Here are Bell’s tree-well rescue tips:
What to do if you get stuck in a tree well
• Stay calm.
• Clear snow out of your mouth and around your face.
• Try to remove skis and poles.
• Use the tree branches to orientate yourself.
• Blow a whistle to attract attention.
• Use skis and poles like a ladder to climb the well.
How to help a buddy get out of a tree well
• Let him know you’re there.
• Stay back from the edge so you don’t knock more snow down.
• Call ski patrol.
• Start digging one to two metres back from the victim.
• Don’t try to pull him out until you’ve dug down to his waist level or lower.
• Clear airway as soon as possible.