For many of us, skiing is the ultimate winter sport. And why shouldn’t it be? There are few other options out there that can boast of the same speed, agility and, most importantly, thrill factor of this exhilarating activity. Add to that some spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime views from the mountain top, as you zoom down its sides at over 50 mph, the chilled wind freezing your insides with every breath. Quite a feeling, isn’t it? Almost addictive, avid skiers would say.
But as with anything else, skiing also comes with its fair share of risks. And the failure to account for them could render one seriously injured or even dead. With its high-velocity chases, extreme temperatures, heavy equipment and uneven terrains, this is one adventure sport that requires extra care if any accidents are to be avoided.
When pondering over the many safety hazards of skiing, one of the first – and arguably, most obvious – things to come to mind is the threat of an avalanche. Granted, there is probably no worse outcome for a skier. But another key safety hazard to look out for a while out on the slopes is a tree well – just as deadly, if not more so, than an avalanche. Unfortunately, tree well hazard often goes overlooked, either due to complacency or a general lack of knowledge. But it should be taken very seriously, irrespective of how experienced one is or what kind of terrain they are skiing upon.
Hence, in an attempt to do our part, we have compiled this guide on tree wells in skiing, to give new and experienced skiers the chance to familiarize themselves with adequate precautions and retrieval measures, should they encounter one. Read on to find out more about the tree well hazard and what you can do to avoid it the next time you hit the slopes.
What is a tree well when skiing?
As per wikipedia, a tree well – also often referred to as a ‘spruce trap’ – is basically the space around the trunk of a tree that doesn’t receive the same amount of snow as its surrounding, open area. This creates a void or an area of loose snow directly beneath the branches that are dangerous for skiers, snowboarders and hikers as they could fall into them on their way.
At times, the tree well is too deep for one to climb out of. And to make matters worse, one usually fall into it head-first, as a result of an accident which could leave them injured or unconscious. Since the faller is literally in a well of snow, they are inconspicuous to others on the slope which increases the danger factor.
What makes a tree well so dangerous?
There is but one answer to this: Snow-Immersion Suffocation (SIS). As we just explained, a tree well forms when snow accumulates at the base of a tree only, and not under its branches. Hence, the denser the tree, the deeper the tree well could be.
As a result of this, a hole forms around the base which only gets deeper as the height of the snowpack increases. While falling in, skiers are bound to hit the tree trunk, thereby shaking it and causing any residual snow on its branches to fall down and bury them in the hole. Also, if the tree well is already deep enough, the surrounding snow banks can collapse too. Similar to an avalanche, they may end up trapped inside without any fresh air to breathe and ultimately suffocate to death.
Perhaps that is why most tree well accidents or SIS accidents happen during or just after snowstorms. In other words, the more fresh the snow, the greater the tree well hazard. There is also a greater chance of concussions, joint dislocations or broken bones herein, which makes the retrieval process even more complicated.
How to avoid a tree well when skiing?
In two separate experiments conducted in North America, about 90% of the volunteer skiers placed in tree wells temporarily were unable to escape! That is how important it is for skiers to know how to circumvent tree wells.
Fortunately, there are some tips and tricks one can employ to ensure they do not fall in. For starters, never ski alone. This goes without saying: there needs to be someone around to help or, at the very least, call out for help, should you fall in. Also, you must try and maintain visual and verbal contact with your ski buddy at all times, especially when skiing on gladed runs. If you should, at any point on the course, not be able to see or hear them, stop, wait and re-establish contact. As per global tree well safety guidelines, it is okay to assume they are in a tree well if you cannot immediately find your partner.
As such, larger ski groups should have established check-in points (a cat track or natural benches along the slope) to ensure all skiers are still above ground and within close proximity to one another. This is because anyone who is too far down on the slope or at the chair will naturally be unable to help the one stuck in a tree well a few hundred feet up. Bear in mind that due to the possibility of SIS, time is of the essence and it is only harder to make your way uphill in deep snow.
Another small but imperative safety tip is to attach a whistle to your own and your ski buddies’ jackets. This may come in handy in case someone falls in: they can blow the whistle to alert everyone else and direct them to themselves.
Last but certainly not least, assume all trees on the slope have wells underneath, even the relatively small ones. The issue is visibility. Tree wells are difficult to spot with the naked eye, especially when one is zooming downhill at such high speeds. Not to mention, the low-hanging branches of the trees obscure the hidden holes underneath. Therefore, experts recommend skiing as far away from trees as possible, lest you get caught.
What to do if you fall in a tree well?
First things first: do not panic. This is in no way to trivialize the situation you are in but simply, to avoid any additional drama. Panicking will only impair your ability to react in a positive manner. We understand it will be difficult, but you must try to keep your composure so you can preserve air and pull yourself out or beckon for help.
Once you regain mental balance and have made sense of what has happened, yell or whistle out as loud as you can to get your fellow skiers’ attention. You should also try to grab the tree trunk, one of the branches or, literally, anything else that could prevent you from sliding further in. Remember, they may take some time to find you. While they are doing so, try to make space for breathing, like an air pocket around your face and mouth. This practice can buy you some much-needed time while you wait to be rescued down in the snow.
Another key point that those fluent in ski safety hazards often stress is that one should not move around too much whilst stuck in a tree well. Again, we agree this is easier said than done. But struggling too much will only cause more snow to fall on you, thereby pushing you deeper and deeper into the hole. Try to remain still and maintain your air and energy levels until you are found.
What to do if your partner falls in a tree well?
Any experienced skier knows the importance of vigilance on and off the piste. Being alert is imperative not only to avoid tree wells when skiing but to ensure 100% safety for yourself and your ski partners as well.
But if you still end up losing one of them, immediately contact ski patrol and try to identify their last seen location. Then, begin looking for them while the ski patrol is on its way. A great way to start is by switching on the search mode on your safety beacons. If your partner is wearing one too, the beacon will direct you to wherever they are using the same techniques as in a slide.
In general, it is advisable to invest in beacons to make sure no one from your troupe goes missing. If you do not have one, consider the Artex Personal Locator Beacon, which has the capacity to issue a 406 MHz distress signal directly to Search and Rescue authorities worldwide. It also comes with an attached LED strobe light and a 66-channel GPS receiver and a 21.5 MHz homing signal which make the retrieval process much easier and faster.
However, if neither of you wore beacons, quiet down and try to listen to any whistling or shouting. If the fallen partner’s tracks are still visible in the snow, follow them down to the very end. This will likely be the spot where they fell in.
Remember: this could take some time. Hence, try to remain calm, lest you panic and lose your ability to think productively. And if you are lucky enough to locate your partner, be sure not to pull them out the way they fell in. Instead, try to determine the direction of their head and foot and tunnel in from the side accordingly.
Mind you; you must do so carefully so as to avoid knocking more snow into the tree well and burying them even deeper. Experts recommend clearing the snow off of their heads first to allow the passage of air. Expand the tunnel to the airway until there is ample space for you to pull your partner out.
Many ski schools around the US include a module or two on “strategic shoveling techniques” like conveyor digging to teach skiers how to dig out their partners faster. The technique is taught as part of the Avalanche Skills 1 (AST 1) course.
Our Final Thoughts
It is not secret that skiing is an extreme sport and not meant for the faint-hearted. The risks involved herein are aplenty, falling in a tree well being just one of them. These snow traps can often be deeper than one would expect and very difficult to pull oneself out of.
That is why, expert skiers and those proficient in US ski safety rules and regulations advise against hitting the slopes all alone. Whenever possible, it is best to have at least one other skier accompanying you so they can at least call for help if you fall, if not rescue you themselves. They also stress the importance of keeping calm if you or your ski partner(s) fall in a tree well so as to ensure the rescue operation is smooth.
Either way, it is best to keep abreast with ski emergency response techniques before one hits the slopes. There are many ski schools around the US that offer courses in avalanche safety and/or other problems you may encounter whilst up there. Knowing what to do beforehand can save time, energy and ultimately, lives.