Staying Alive in the Trees

January 14, 2011 by  
Filed under Trail Boss News, Trail Boss Outdoor Tips

At least five people have died this winter after falling into tree wells while skiing or boarding, a reminder that not all mountain hazards come in the form of avalanches. Tree wells are formed in deep snow, when the boughs of the tree form a hollow space around the trunk as the snow builds upside outside it. In places where the snow is ultra deep and there isn’t much skier traffic, wells can be over six feet deep. If a skier or boarder falls into one, they’re often upside down, with skis or board above, and the snow tumbles on top of them and suffocates them.

This winter’s fatalities include two at Whitefish Mountain, Montana, two in British Columbia, and one in California.

“The number one danger with this type of accident is that the risk is completely under-appreciated,” Paul Baugher, director of Crystal Mountain ski patrol, told

Indeed, many skiers and boarders have never heard of tree wells. Avalanches, getting lost, and hitting a tree are much more on the radar as potential hazards. But tree wells…if you’ve ever fallen into one, you know how quickly you can find yourself in trouble. Feet are often well above your head, it’s difficult it not impossible to get out of your bindings, and snow might be raining down on you.

According to Baugher, 90 percent of sliders who fall into tree wells are unable to get out without help. Read that again: 90 percent.

That means riding with a partner in the trees is critically important. This 60-Second Expert video, which we posted last year and still has the site’s former name, covers the need to maintain communication with your partner. But it isn’t just staying in communication, it’s also staying in sight. If you’re upside down in a well, odds are no one’s going to hear you, even if you have a rescue whistle and somehow get it to your mouth.

Here are four rules of tree skiing safety:

1. Stay in communication.

2. Stay in sight.

3. Ride in control. Yeah, letting it rip is half the fun. But be smart.

4. If your partner falls into a tree well, don’t leave to get help. As with an avalanche, time is precious and you need to be the rescuer.

For more on tree wells and tree-skiing safety, check out



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