Recent heavy snowfall in many parts of the West makes this a timely tale of caution:
Scott Allen Meyer died on January 8, 2011, at Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana on a calm and clear day in good snow conditions. There was no avalanche, and Scott was a skilled snowboarder. He never saw it coming.
What's worse, the same thing happened only a week before to 16-year-old Niclas Waeschle. These deaths were not only tragic, they were preventable.
What killed Scott and Niclas? They skied into invisible holes called tree wells.
People love to ski outside of ski area boundaries and especially through trees. It's ridiculously fun. But there's a problem with trees and snow: Every tree in the forest acts like an umbrella catching much of the snow that would otherwise fill in the space around the tree's trunk.
The umbrella effect creates an invisible column of air and loosely packed snow that's further disguised by the low-hanging branches themselves, which drape over the danger zone. Ski into this trap, experts say, and you have a 90% chance of dying.
Check out the warning stickers (left) put on mop buckets about how top-heavy toddlers can tip over into them and drown. A skier racing through the trees gets too close to an invisible tree well and he or she ends up pitching forward, headfirst and powerless to escape, in exactly the same way. (Or, worse, the skier crashes straight into a tree, breaks an arm or dislocates a shoulder and then falls in headfirst.)
Since the tree well is made of powdery snow, the more a skier struggles to get free, the more the bucket sucks them in and packs snow around them, immobilizing and finally suffocating them. Skiing off-piste is choosing to be a toddler waddling through a whole forest of half-full mop buckets, hoping for the best.
Experts urge caution for all backcountry ski endeavors, which includes carrying appropriate avalanche rescue gear. When it comes to tree wells, a few simple rules can help keep you safe:
1. Avoid deep snow and tree areas. Wells are most likely to exist in ungroomed areas around trees, but also can form near rocks and other features of uneven terrain.
2. If skiing through trees, remove your wrists from the ski poles' wrist straps to give yourself a better chance of being able to maneuver and "swim" free of deep powder wells.
3. Ski in pairs and watch each other at all times. The first minutes are critical in any accident involving tree wells. You must see your partner disappear and react immediately if you are to have any chance of saving his or her life.
4. If you are headed into a well, do all you can to stay upright. Headfirst entry into a tree well carries (obviously) more danger of entrapment and suffocation.
5. If you've landed in a tree well, do not struggle. Instead, make a space around your face to breathe and wait for your partner to rescue you.
6. If you see your partner go down, stay on the scene. Going for help will take too long. Dig deep and drag your buddy out with everything you've got. Many tree-well survival stories happened because a ski partner enacted a hasty rescue.
Off-piste skiing requires skill, responsibility and a high tolerance for risk. Make sure to educate yourself about the hazards of mountain environments. I recommend avalanche training and mentoring from an experienced partner.
You can start your education with the REI Expert Article series on avalanche safety. To learn more about tree wells, visit http://www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com. To learn more about wilderness medicine, visit WMI of NOLS.