It was June and we were just outside the Mt. Baker Ski Area near the Bagley Lake Parking Lot. My children—who have grown up skiing and climbing—were horsing around in the snow. They were sledding, throwing snowballs, rolling around and pretty much doing everything that they could to get soaking wet in spring isothermal snow.
I wasn’t paying super close attention to my 8 year-old son. He was behind me building a fort near a dead tree. My 9 year-old daughter was sledding down a steep slope in front of me and I was watching her. Suddenly, I heard a yelp, and then, “Help! Help!”
I spun around to see what was going on. My son was no longer where he’d been playing.
He was gone.
I rushed over to the dead tree that he’d been playing next to and looked into the tree well. Caden was jammed six-feet down between the decaying remains of the tree and a wall of snow. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he scratched at the rotten white walls, trying to climb out.
I dropped to my stomach, grabbed his wrist and pulled. He was up and out in seconds…
Caden was a little rattled, but fine. A few minutes later he was rolling in the snow and sledding with his sister again.
But what if that’s not the way this played out? What if it had been winter and there was snow on the tree above him? Snow that would fall down as he struggled to get out, burying him? And what if he fell in headfirst? Such a fall could have been fatal, even in the wet June snowpack.
When people think about snow submersion incidents they nearly always think about avalanches. Avalanches are certainly an important thing for backcountry travelers to think about, but they’re not the only thing. Tree wells are incredibly dangerous.
A tree well is a hole in the seasonal snowpack around a tree trunk. Tree-branches act as a shelter for the space beneath, keeping snow from collecting up against the trunk while creating an air pocket. The same low branches that create the well may also camouflage the danger. It’s difficult to see that the snow next to the tree is unstable and that there might be a large air pocket.
The branches on a tree that create a tree well may also produce the second part of the tree well hazard. These branches tend to hold snow. When someone falls into a tree well, this snow can come down on top of them, further burying the victim.
Every year there are stories about people who have gone into a tree well and suffocated. Essentially, a skier or a snowboarder takes a fall and slides into a tree well. Sometimes they fall in right-side up, sometimes, upside down. When upside down it’s very difficult to get out. Indeed, struggling while upside down in a well can actually cause an individual to slip down further. The result is very similar to an avalanche; an individual suffocates in the snow. Tree wells are particularly dangerous after a big storm drops a lot of new powder.
Occasionally there are front-country avalanches, but they are exceedingly rare. Tree well accidents happen every year both in and out-of-bounds. They are a hazard that ski resorts really can’t manage. Individual riders have to manage the hazard themselves.
The Deep Snow Safety website indicates that, “the odds of surviving a deep snow immersion accident are low; especially if you are without a partner. In two experiments conducted in the U.S. and Canada in which volunteers were temporarily placed in a tree well, 90% could not rescue themselves.”
Here are some helpful—and possibly life-saving—hints to help you stay safe around tree wells:
Ski with a Partner
Skiing with a partner is the most important part of staying safe on a powder day. This means actually keeping track of your partner visually. If you speed ahead and are waiting at the bottom of the slope for your partner to show up, then you have failed to truly ski with the other person. Many of those who have died as a result of a tree well incident were with partners, but the partner did not actually witness the fall. Visual contact is important!
In addition to staying in visual contact, it is also important to be close enough to your partner that you could dig him out if an accident occurs. How long does that person have? Well, about as long as you can hold your breath… So you should be close enough to perform a rescue quickly.
If your partner goes into a hole, don’t leave to get help. Dig him out! Once you have reached the person’s face, be sure to clear the airway, as there might be snow in their mouth.
Carry Backcountry Equipment
Obviously digging requires a shovel. Be sure that you have a shovel, a beacon and a probe on any big snow days, in-bounds or out.
If you’re a skier, remove your ski pole straps. People who go into tree wells often have trouble removing these straps while in a hole.
Stay on Groomed Trails
Groomed trails are always the safest on big powder days. If you stray from the groomers you may expose yourself to tree well danger. If you do ski off the groomed runs, give trees a wide berth. There are no tree wells where there are no trees.
If You Fall in a Tree Well
If you realize that you are falling into a tree well, try to grab the tree and the branches. Once you’ve fallen in, try to hold onto the tree or branches so that you don’t fall in further.
As noted, struggling in a tree well often makes you sink more deeply. It can also cause snow from the branches above to fall down on top of you, simultaneously increasing both the difficulty of escape and the likelihood of suffocation. So if you do go into a hole, think. Don’t panic. Try to breathe calmly in order to conserve the little bit of air you might have while waiting for a rescue.
If you are in the hole, try to create a breathing space near your face. If you’re secure, try to rock your body gently in order to increase this space. Over time, heat from your body, along with rocking motions, will compact the snow. The hardening of the snow around you might allow you to work your way out of the hole.
Riding on the snow is one of the most enjoyable things in the world, but there are dangers that you should be well aware of. Tree wells are one of those dangers. But it is a danger that can be mitigated. Stay attuned to your location, surroundings and partners. Awareness is the key to survival…
Jason D. Martin is a professional climbing guide, a freelance writer and the director of operations at the American Alpine Institute. Jason co-authored Washington Ice: A Climbing Guide and Rock Climbing: The AMGA Single Pitch Manual; and authored Fun Climbs Red Rocks: Topropes and Moderates and Best Climbs Red Rocks.