Recently, I skied Lost Trail Powder Mountain, Montana, where 60 inches of snow have accumulated over the last two months. Because it was the end of the weekend and most of the runs were skied out, we dipped into some trees off Chair 2 in search of fresh turns. Sure enough, there it was—untouched, pure joy.
That evening, I heard the story of Bart Pickard, who at 65 had been skiing Lost Trail for many years. According to local authorities, he loved to ski the trees, often alone. On December 22, he went missing. After two days, the search and rescue team, along with Pickard’s family, suspended their search after heavy snowfall made it too difficult. He was eventually found on January 16—the day before we arrived, near the same tree line we had skied—by a ski instructor. Recent high winds swept enough snow out of the way to reveal his legs and one of his skis. Pickard was buried four feet under the snow in a tree well.
According to Steve Karkanen, director of the West Central Montana Avalanche Center, tree wells are formed when air pockets are created around the trunks of trees. Water vapor rises from the base of the trunk and turns the snow into a sand-like consistency. If a skier falls into a tree well, they will sink deeper and deeper into the snow the more they struggle to get out, similar to quicksand. The official cause of death in these fatalities is snow immersion suffocation (SIS).
The Northwest Avalanche Institute researches snow immersion deaths and how to prevent them. Director Paul Baugher says that the main reason this occurs is because snow immersion is an "underappreciated risk."
"No one really knows about it or thinks about it from a general skier's standpoint," Baugher says. "The first step is to appreciate the risk and that it exists."
This season alone, there've been five reported snow immersion deaths in the Northwest. For comparison, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has reported seven avalanche-related deaths of skiers and snowboarders nationwide. Most of the snow immersion fatalities occurred within the same week Pickard was reported missing, after heavy snowfall.
"Snow immersion and avalanches kind of go hand in hand. When risk goes up for one, risk goes up for the other," says Baugher.
We all love the hunt for powder and have our secret tree stashes. When skiing in the resort, it's easy to forget that there are real risks associated with a skier's decisions. Baugher says that tree well-related deaths and SIS almost always occur inbounds, but it is absolutely preventable.
If you choose to ski off the groomers (and let's be realistic, that means you), you are at risk. There are two things you can do to prevent SIS from happening.
Re-evaluate the philosophy of "there's no friends on a powder day." Your friend could be your lifeline. Baugher stresses that not only should you ski with a partner, but that you also must always have your partner in sight. The majority of deaths occur when skiers go with a partner, but they get separated in the trees. The other person usually ends up waiting at the bottom of the run or at the lift, but by the time they realize their partner isn't coming down, it could be too late.
People who get caught in tree wells can sometimes find air pockets and survive up to an hour, but for many their survival time is closer to 15 minutes.
When skiers do fall in deep snow on a tree line, it's common that your body starts to slide in a way that your head falls before your body. If this occurs, do everything you can to turn your body around to prevent falling into a tree well upside-down.
"It's the inverted position where you become immobilized. You can't remove yourself and your airway is under the snow, and that's the problem," Baugher says.
Digging your skis into the snow to turn around, bear hugging trees, or clinging onto branches can get skiers out of that position. That way, if you do fall into a tree well, you will be upright and your chances of getting out are much higher.