What you need to know about tree wells

Nothing in the world compares to skiing or riding in deep powder. It’s what keeps us motivated, season after season, to keep coming back to the mountains.

But, like any sport, skiing and riding are not without risk. Some are obvious — falling, catching an edge, getting injured, avalanches.

One hazard that is often overlooked, however, is the danger associated with tree wells.

A photo posted by Maddi (@mssimpz) on

Every year, tree wells — specifically, the Snow Immersion Suffocation (SIS) risk associated with falling into one — present a real danger to those skiing and riding in the trees, both at the resort and in the backcountry.

Think of a coniferous tree like a spruce, fir or Jack pine. When lots of snow falls around the tree, the branches at the lower reaches tend to prevent the snow from accumulating around the trunk.

Instead, the snow piles just outside the edges of the lowest branches and forms a well around the base of the tree. When you come close to the edge of that well, especially during or right after a big snowstorm, the sidewalls can collapse and down you go.

In the worst-case scenario, this puts you into the tree well headfirst, and believe me, it can be almost impossible to get out of one without help.

In the backcountry, for the most part, folks are a little more attuned to the risks associated with their activity. If you come ski with us, our guides will give you safety instructions and keep a good eye on you. But at the ski resort, we tend to let our guard down a little.

While many of the risks associated with backcountry skiing are mitigated at a resort, tree wells cannot be “controlled” the way avalanches can. Tree wells exist in the trees wherever there is snow.

So even on a bluebird powder day at a ski area, the dangers of tree wells are as real and present as they are in the backcountry. Thankfully, there are a bunch of things you can do to stay safe.

RELATED: 5 tips for safer tree skiing

With any risk, the easiest way to mitigate the danger is avoidance. With tree wells, that means staying on the groomed piste. The downside to that is missing one of the best aspects of skiing; there is no more magical experience than waist-deep turns in the forest on a storm day. It’s what skiing and riding are all about.

Thankfully, there are a few simple precautions you can take to mitigate the hazard of tree wells and hopefully avoid them altogether.

RELATED: Backcountry skiing: education versus intimidation

First, always ski and ride with a partner. In the trees, that means keeping them in sight at all times. This is critical and something any ski guide will tell you is number one on their list. If you or they go down, you need to be in a position to help or call for help. Standing in the lift line, waiting, does no one any good.

Waist deep in the trees. Is there anything better? Photo - Jun Yanagisawa
Waist deep in the trees. Is there anything better? Photo: Courtesy of Jun Yanagisawa Yuri Arcurs / Alamy

Second, when you do ski in the trees, ski to hit the snow. Focusing on avoiding trees tends to send you into them because you are looking right at them. If we ski or ride in a way where we focus on the snow instead of the trees, we tend to not get too close. On big powder days, give the trees a wide berth.

Finally, carry some gear with you. A whistle, cell phone, Recco system, shovel, probe and transceiver all can come in handy. It’s inbounds skiing, but all of those things could save your or your buddy’s life if one of you goes into a tree well.

Tree wells are scary. As a ski patroller, I see people trapped in them every year. So don’t take unnecessary chances. Definitely get out there on a powder day, but get informed and learn what you can do to stay safe.

One of the best resources for tree-well safety tips and information is www.deepsnowsafety.org, put together by the Northwest Avalanche Institute and the Mt. Baker Ski Area. And always ski with a buddy.

Be safe, ski hard.

—D’Arcy Mcleish

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