How to save yourself and rescue others when caught in a tree well

tree well

It’s a powder day after an overnight dump of fresh fluffy snow on top of days of powder falls previously. The snow has never been this good, the sun is shining, you’re skiing inbounds on avalanche controlled off piste terrain, loving the tree runs and you’re living your best life.

Only that life could be cut short in an instant when you fall into deep snow, or worse, slip into an unassuming tree well. If you’re skiing alone then your chances of survival are low, really low. 

Tree well and snow immersion deaths are real. Once you fall into snow banks that then collapse on top of you, into creek beds where you can’t move without shifting snow that again falls on top of you, or into tree wells where others simply cannot see you, then you have a 10% chance of being able to rescue yourself.

It happened to these two in Whistler who were lucky to be found. It happened to this guy in a snow bank, also in Whistler, the year before and it happened on a run at Jackson Hole to this woman. All of them survived thanks to other people who prevented them from dying a suffocating death. 

The moral is don’t ski or snowboard alone, especially on powder days. Prevention is key to avoiding tree wells and snow immersions. Ski with a buddy, attach a tree well whistler to the zip of your jacket near your mouth so you can maneuver it into your lips and blow so others can hear you. Put ski patrol’s number in your phone so you can call them immediately should your buddy go down.

What to do if you find yourself immersed or in a tree well

Yell, loudly, use your whistle and do everything you can to keep your head above the surface of the snow. Grab tree branches, grab the tree trunk, drop your feet below your head (if you can) and use your hands (if you can) to create a pocket of air near your nose and mouth.

Do not struggle, this can create more snow to collapse on top of you. 

Do not panic (no, really, do not panic, breathe slowly).

How to save someone if they are in a tree well or immersion

Keep your ski buddy in sight at all times. Regroup often, especially in trees.
 
Should your buddy get caught then do not leave them, call patrol, yell for others. Try to clear the snow around your buddy’s airway. Be careful not to push more snow onto your buddy.
 
When pulling or digging them out do not do so from the way they fell in. You need to get to the airway as fast as possible so dig at an angle towards their face.  
 
 
Check out the Deep Snow Safety website for more information.
 
 

Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.

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