It will reduce the chance of tree wells

The skier who changed Brian Bell’s outlook on the ski-for-himself adage that “there are no friends” on Powder Days literally drowned in the snow. It was January 17, 2019, another day of fresh snow in a seemingly endless stream of them at the Fernie Alpine Resort in British Columbia.

Two friends were skiing together. Towards the end of the day, one of them made it to the bottom of the lift, but the other never showed up. As he retraced their tracks, he found his buddy in a deep drift. He jumped upside down in the soft snow and suffocated before help could arrive.

“I was alone at the resort that day skiing,” says Bell, program coordinator for Mountain Adventure Skills Training at the College of the Rockies in Fernie. “It could have been me. It could have been anyone. “

Check out a pristine slope and the first danger that comes to most skiers and boarders is the avalanche. But when it comes to skiing and in-bound driving, we’re four times more likely to die from drowning in snow, like that skier in Fernie, or choking in tree fountains.

“It’s the unspoken killer,” says Bell. “It seems like you should be able to save yourself, but you really can’t with unconsolidated snow. When you wobble, you just go deeper. “

Rob Whelan, Brian Bell

On average, four people die from suffocation every winter in the United States, says Paul Baugher, ski guide, retired professional skier and leading expert on choking in snow. So many have already died this winter. Most of the involved tree wells, a trench-like depression under the branches of conifers. Since then, many coroners and even skiers have mistaken the cause of death for exposure or collision. He believes the actual number of tree wells and deaths from asphyxiation is likely to be higher. And the number of incidents is increasing.

“We have more people chasing powder days,” he says. “That is more at risk.”

After investigating more than 50 snow suffocation deaths, Baugher noticed some trends. The most dangerous time is late in the day after a deep, dry snowfall.

Vail Powder Day skiingShutterstock

“All of the light powder is tracked down,” he says. “People start skiing in riskier places and in riskier ways, like turning very close to trees. You pop a tip or catch up in a drift and fly head first. This inverted position, especially in a tree well, can be fatal. “

Fly into the branches of evergreen trees, especially firs and spruces, and they give way easily but are difficult to push up, like a trapdoor. Skis and boards can haul in the branches and turn the person upside down. The snow in the moat is particularly unconsolidated and offers nothing to push. And the pages are unstable; The more people fight, the more snow falls on them.

It’s not just big trees. As part of a class project, Bell and some of his students analyzed hours of YouTube videos of incidents with tree fountains. A surprising number involved small trees.

“You lawn arrow right there,” he says. “It’s a funnel that puts your arms on your side. If no one sees it happen, it can be a death sentence. “

Mountain Adventure Skills Training ProgramStudents of the Mountain Adventure Skills Training program on the Fernie campus of the College of the Rockies. Patrick Logan – MAST student

Bell’s class also ran a series of extraction tests on both volunteers and dummies. Only two out of 20 volunteers were able to break free. Digging out the dummies took an average of 5 minutes and up to 17 minutes, roughly the same as an avalanche.

“If you get to the bottom of a run and your buddy doesn’t show up, it’ll be too late by the time you’re back upstairs and retrace your steps,” warns Bell.

Therefore, he no longer follows the usual powder day attitude of never waiting for ski friends.

“We’ll be easily lulled into complacency,” he says. “We think being at the resort means the hazards are controlled, but they are just as much as the resort can do. We have to take care of each other out there. “

Powder dayShutterstock

How to be a better ski friend

Even if you avoid skiing near conifers, there is still a chance that snow will suffocate. The best way to be safe on the mountain is to ski with a friend. But that is easier said than done. Here’s how to do it well.

– Stay within two or three turns of each other. In deep snow, it can take a long time to hike even a short distance uphill.

-The person on the back screams and yells all the time. When they get quiet, the front man stops immediately.

-If someone ends up in a tree well, get to them ASAP. Take off your skis, clear the snow to your waist and pull them off your belt.


If you end up in a tree by yourself, stay calm and try to keep snow away from your mouth. Scream for help, or better yet, carry a pipe and blow it three times.

– Try to take off your skis or board.

– Use the branches of the trees to climb up.

-If you can’t get out, call the ski patrol – put the number on your phone.

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