Tree-Well Epidemic 2017-18

Tree-Well Epidemic 2017-18
April 7, 2018 Orvel Miskiw

With the winter of 2017-18 still in progress, tree-wells have already caused at least 5 deaths of skiers and snow boarders in western Canada and the U.S. this season. 5 happened in one week. This is an unusual and alarming toll, as safety authorities say that tree-well deaths are uncommon, with rarely more than one in any winter.

In Alberta, we tend to think of a tree well as an occasional nuisance but rarely of much concern; ‘it’s an open cone around the base of a tree, with a maximum depth of less than the height of a person’, so someone passing or standing too close may veer or topple toward the tree, but generally suffers only a frustrating entanglement in branches and snow.

But in the B.C. interior and other regions with heavy precipitation, snow depths may range typically from 3 to 6 metres — that’s 20 feet — and even more in places. Entire trees may be engulfed by snow, with the shedding action of the branches of the usual coniferous tree protecting its footprint and causing a rapid buildup around the perimeter. A tree may be completely covered and hidden, but the snow actually conceals the tree in a bottle-shaped pit of a hundred cubic feet or more in volume, expanding downward to the base 5 metres below.

A skier or boarder who comes too close may find the transformed ‘hollow’ snow sinks, and his ride drops and stops, so he falls over, and goes headfirst into the tree-well if he happens to topple in that direction. With his feet anchored by his boards at the surface, he hangs inverted in the well, with loose snow falling in on and around him from the surface and collapsing walls of the well.

Victims are rarely killed outright, but rather asphyxiate in the snow or are trapped and eventually freeze.

These recent tree-well fatalities naturally arouse fresh interest in what/more we can do to avoid becoming victims, protect our friends, and help or save victims. Someone even suggested that skiers could consider roping up for tree-skiing.

Safety for skiers, boarders, and even snow shoers demands a strict buddy system and continual communication with our partners. Traveling in larger groups is recommended, and all group members should carry shovels and transceivers. Victims are strongly advised to concentrate first on getting free of ski poles and their ‘ride’ so they can maneuver in the well and maintain air space for breathing.

See a more extensive discussion of tree wells on the Safety Page, accessed from Resources on the Home Page.


1 Comment

  1. Ian Hunt 6 years ago

    One of the recent deaths was a friend of mine. Ultra safety conscious. Learning of his death and the nature of the incident has made me think about tree skiing so that I (we) can learn from his loss. My take home message is to make sure you ski with at least one partner and such that you know where each other are at all times…

Leave a reply