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Tree Well Almost got me - Page 2

post #31 of 47
Spindrift- doesn't sound so benign- it's good you guys are here. A longtime local-experienced guy- died last year in a tree well at Deer Valley, of all places. Thanks for your stories. Nice skiing report too, Cirque!
post #32 of 47
My treewell story is a bit more humerous. No danger, other than to my ego.

I was skiing with some buddies on an incredible powder day. I had been wanting to do a steepish, dense section, but nobody else was in the mood. On about the third run, I dipped off and started the line, intending to meet my buddies about two hundred yards down the way. The trees were pretty thick, and in one nice little funnel, I had to duck under some branches and continue through a narrow space between two trees. As I ducked under the branches, I sank even further into the powder, which killed my speed heading between the two trees. I sank up to about my shoulders in the well. My skis were still attached, and I couldn't move my feet at all. I tried climbing out, but you all know how that went. I tried hugging the tree and hugging/shimmying up the tree. It worked for a bit, but something kept gettting stuck. After trying this for what seemed like forever, I gave up, knowing that my buddies would notice that I wasn't with them and come looking for me. So I waited and waited and waited. Now, I wasn't that far off the main runs, and I could see skiers passing every so often. I could have called out, but thought against if for this stupid reason:

Several years ago, I was skiing with pretty much the same group of buddies. I wanted to try another steep chute, which they didn't want to do (jeez, I'm now realizing I need to ski with friends that have some balls), so they decided to go around the back and we'd meet at the bottom. Anyway, coming down the chute I tirgger a little "avalanche." I had just dropped in and made a couple of turns, then went up onto a ridge and turned back into the chute. The snow made that sickening horrible noise, with that sickening, horrible feeling (some of you know what I'm talking about), and just started to give. I had the sinking feeling of panic and doom. I straightlined it down a bit trying to out run it, and skied up onto the opposite ridge, hoping that the slide woud just pass me by. Close, but no cigar. Enough of the slide caught my skis, and I tumbled down with it. So I ended up a ways down the chute, but within sight and ear distance to the cat track where I was to meet my buddies. I don't know why, but this scared the hell out of me. I'm normally pretty cool, and have been in some pretty harrowing situations while skydiving, scuba diving, and mountain climbing. I'm usually pretty collected and calm, but I was like a screaching ninny on this thing. Ok, it WAS pretty scary. There was a little rock cliff right under me, and I kept thinking this this was going to slide again. My upper body was out of the snow, but my lower body and feet were covered and I couldn't move. All I could do was flap my arms like a frantic mess, and scream incoherently for help at the top of my lungs. I was also able to scream obsenities at people as they passed and didn't stop. So anyway, my buddies pull up just as I skrieked, "Help me, you F ing Cu*t!" to a (I'm sure) lovely older lady as she snow plowed by on the cat track. So anyway, they call ski patrol, since I guess none of them could hike up to help me out (Jeez2, I really do need to ski with new friends). Every thing is fine, and it really wasn't that big of a thing, but I was totally panicked. So I never hear the end of it.....even to this day. And even worse, I get it form my family too, and they weren't even there. Sometimes when I'm getting upset or a little frantic, they will say things like, "Hmmm, you'd think there was an avalanche somehwere." Or when I start to raise my voice, "Calm down, I'm not an avalanche." Yeah, we all have a good laugh.

Now back to the tree well. I'm not going to yell for fear of giving my buddies more ammo. I've got my back pack, and I've got food and all other kinds of stuff in there, so I feel pretty safe. I also have a sudoku book in my pack, so I decided I'll break that out while I'm waiting for my buddies. So after they yo yo the lift 3 times (yes, three times), and notice that I'm not with them, they decide to come search for me. They finally show up, and I'm there doing my sudoku puzzles, as they are laughing at my new predicament, and recounting my "avalanche" episode with equal delight. So I've been there forever already, I'm freezing, I can't feel my legs, and I'm crabby. So do you think they helped me out? NO! They ski down to the car to get a camera!!! So I had to wait there while they skied down to get the camera, and ski back up. But at least I was nice and calm. I'm sure I surprised them.

Anyway, even with help, it was very difficult getting out of that tree well. I'm just happy and fortunate that I didn't go in head first.
post #33 of 47
Thread Starter 
Holy crap Spindrift, glad you're OK, some great suggestions to add on here:
Whistle (I yelled for help, but no sound got out of the hole)
Radio (have one, didn't carry it)
Search/scan before moving when out of contact. (easy to do, why not)
Batteries (my Barryvox has a battery check every time you turn it on)

We have been getting light dry Utah-like powder here in the Sierra. When you combine that with well over 200 inches in settled snow and over 15 feet of new acculation in March alone, the hazard is tremendous...and invisible. The tree wells look filled, all you see are the tops of trees sticking out of 20 feet of snow. The low density snow around all the branches is just a trap waiting to be sprung. When the snow finally settles, we will see big bowls around the trees. Right now we need to be extra careful.

Originally Posted by spindrift
Well, this thread has provoked me to add to the discussion... Folks should take what both cirquerider and thatsagirl say to heart. Even inbounds. I repeat - even inbounds. Even 10 feet off trail...

Had a tree well experience last week. I was less than two seconds from entering a main trail. I have no idea how many people - including my partner - skied within spitting distance of me. They apparently had no idea either... No joke. The nature of the snow and terrain made me invisible & apparently virtually silent.

For me, the big lesson echos what cirquerider said - with the additional thought that if you choose to carry safety gear and to ski with partners for safety, be sure that your actions make that more than a feel-good exercise. The overhead is almost zero...

Key things we learned:

a) it pays to be sure your partner(s) knows where you are headed - just because they are near you does not mean they are paying attention when you take off
b) agree on a "protocol" for keeping track of one another and regrouping if you get split up - make no "assumptions" about where people are
c) carry spare batteries for all electronics - and carry any tools needed to install them
d) it is not a bad idea to whip out your beacon and do a quick check in search mode if you stop somewhere in tree well terrain and don't see your partner where you expect them to be (and keep in mind that in tree well country beacons are not just for slides anymore!).

Here's the long version:

I had my second tree well experience of the season on the backside of Stevens last week. Same general area as the first (the first was a non-event in itself, but happened the same day as a nearby OB tree well fatality). A reported 20" of fresh snow had fallen last Thursday. Much of it was relatively heavy. Some places were scrubbed - others were pooled with deep-ish snow. The mountain was already pretty cut up. Fresh tracks could be had but required a bit of poking around.

For those who know Stevens, cloudpeak & I skied from Aquarius Face and angled to Orion. Totally standard stuff. She came up behind me and stopped maybe 20 feet away from me in an open area. About 50 - 75 feet from the trail. I then hopped down and around a little corner into a small grove of trees to pick off a few remaining fresh turns before hitting the trail. I assumed she was watching me. What I did not know was that she was looking back up at the mountain when I took off. She turned around and I was gone. She apparently yelled for me & when she got no answer she assumed I had shot directly out to the trail. When she did not find me there, she yelled again & getting no response assumed I had gone around the corner on the trail & she headed down a few twists of the trail to see if I was there. And then waited. And then got concerned - enough that she was just about ping patrol when I finally showed up.

What she did not realize was that in less than 10 seconds (maybe as little as 5?) from when I had looked back and seen her stop, I had gone from standing near her to landing in a tree well. I had taken my baby shot of fresh snow & was turning hard left to head for the trail. I was skiing between two very obvious tree wells & splitting the +/- 8 foot distance between them about 50/50. As I turned left, the wall of the tree well to the outside of my turn gave way - just blew out. This was not even a case of the well hiding itself - the wall was right where it appeared to be - it was just not strong enough to hold a nearby turn. Next thing I knew I was on my back with my skis slightly over my head & jammed up on a tree. The snow was heavy enough to support me in this position & it was relatively easy work to get the skis off. Just luck. However, when I tried to stand I was immediately chest to neck deep. So, first thing I do is shout. No answer. ( I also made the mistake of not doing the whistle thing because my initial reaction was one of "this is not that urgent" - although I'm not sure it would have been heard anyway). Next thing I get the radio out and try to call call as a "courtesy". No answer (turns out she got an incoming beep & then her radio batteries died...). No way to walk out - just not happening in neck deep snow I can't walk in or step on. OK - I have uber-fat skis - I heave the poles and one ski out toward the trail and use the other to incrementally mantle myself through the well past the tree toward the trail. As I came out from under the tree I discovered that I had landed only 10-15 feet from the trail and that the branches of the tree came to the snow line almost exactly at the trail's edge. I literally mantled up through the branches and onto the trail - to the obvious surprise of the lone skier on the trail.

All in all it turned out a pretty benign situation - but just by sheer luck of snow weight, how I landed, etc. On the other hand, a bad landing - head down, head impacting tree, etc., - or lighter/deeper snow in the well - and I could easily have been dead before I was found. And I was skiing with a partner & beeping!!!!!

Had I explicitly told cloudpeak I was heading into the grove of trees, she would have known where I was. The whole "where's spindrift" drill would have been a non-issue - and had I landed badly, she would have been moments away with beacon, shovel, etc. - even if she had not watched me the entire time. If we'd had a "standard operating procedure" agreement that whenever you get to a major natural intersection, landmark or trail interesction you wait & then call if the other does not show up, she could have called and if no response could have picked up a beacon signal. Had her radio not been dead, I could have told her all was fine - or asked for help... Oh, and one more thing regarding dead batteries - we are now carrying full spares for all devices (and in the case of Trackers, knives or toolkits that can open the battery cases). While it was a radio this time, how bad would it be to fail in a rescue because batteries you thought were OK were croaked in search mode - and you had no spares (yeah, you can't cover all contingencies - like a victim's batteries failing while they are buried - but you can still stack the odds more and more in favor of all going well - all for a couple bucks and a ounce or so...). Also, at least in this case, had cloudpeak flipped into search mode for a quick check upon failing to find me at the trail - the obvious meet point - she would have seen a stationary signal about 15-20 yards away...

Sorry, this is a such a long post about what turned out to be a non-event. But the lessons were dramatic to us. We were inbounds in a well traveled but off-piste area. An area we ski frequently (familiarity breeds...?) We were, we thought, skiing as a team. We were beeping (& know how to use our beacons) and had full avy packs - even though inbounds. And because we ignored a few simple precautions, and failed to take any number of simple "recovery" steps, the day could readily have headed south quickly.
post #34 of 47
cirquerider and spindrift have some good info. I've been in one as well and you who have been here a long time will remember.

The key is never ski trees alone even at a Resort. Always let the least experienced skier go down first. We always yell out something constantly back and forth to each other. Always meet up at the bottom of the run and wait for everyone.

Friends saved me. Had I been skiing alone, I'd still be there. We laughed about it and they made fun of me for days but the bottom line was I was in trouble. And, never ski with tunes on.
post #35 of 47
damn doc what bastards they were, you def need better ski buddies. people who stick together and help each other not enjoy the drama of your predicament. to get cameras while you become a popsicle is kinda sick
post #36 of 47
Thread Starter 
One thing I guess we can say for sure. All of us talking about it, have lived to tell the tale. Seems this happens more commonly than I imagined.

Doc, you can post those pics now
post #37 of 47
Originally Posted by Cirquerider
Batteries (my Barryvox has a battery check every time you turn it on)
I no longer trust battery tests in electronic devices. I've seen them way off too many times. My layman's theory is that the discharge curves on newer batteries are different than older style batteries and that the self tests get fooled into thinking there is more juice than there really is. They report A-OK and then dive to nothing. My Tracker is showing 93% (after about 5-6 days on the batteries) at the moment & I'm about ready to move those batteries into something less important to my life... Still, I will also be carrying spares in my pack in the future - whether for a parking lot swap if the self test looks low when starting out, or in a pinch in the field...
post #38 of 47
Originally Posted by Thatsagirl
The danger of treewells isn't relegated to just the backcountry. Out West, with the big pines, they're dangerous inbounds too. Have to pay attention skiing inbounds at Red, Fernie, PNW resorts, etc.

Yup, I had learned that too, would've never suspected had it not been for these kinds of posts.
post #39 of 47
Thanks to everyone who shared their stories. This is the only way we can learn about the dangers, as well as what to do if you get into a situation like this.

Sprindrift, it's amazing how all those "little things" turned into what could have been a disaster. Glad to hear it all worked out OK.

Doc, are you the same guy that Alfonse saw on the MRG single chair reading a book? I never realized books could be so handy on the mountain... And I'm with Cirquerider, you can post those pics now...

post #40 of 47
This is becoming a great tree well thread. Here's something I posted on another one awhile back:

"I have been in a few myself. The only time I was alone I ended up upside down with my skis in the branches. I managed to do an inverted crunch, released my bindings and then was hanging from the Salomon safty straps (this was a while ago) Fortunately, they had a quick release. That dropped me headfirst down the thing, but I got turned around and climbed out using the tree and the skis."

I never though I was in danger, just stuck beyond belief. Now that I've seen a heard a bit more of the things I have a bit more respect, (though I still get some of the best pow right along the edge of the wells).
post #41 of 47
A treewell recentlly took an acomplished boader/skier/instructor inbounds at my local area, mount shasta. Reports say he was doing some trees solo after a good size dump. Thing was, it was just a few feet off of a trail. People on the trail saw his board upside down and found him, but it was too late. Very sad. They are holding a memorial for him on march 21.
post #42 of 47
Originally Posted by gobucks
A treewell recentlly took an acomplished boader/skier/instructor inbounds at my local area, mount shasta. Reports say he was doing some trees solo after a good size dump. Thing was, it was just a few feet off of a trail. People on the trail saw his board upside down and found him, but it was too late. Very sad. They are holding a memorial for him on march 21.
I am so so sorry to hear that report. No doubt, these things are deadlier than we give them credit for and we don't realize a true close call when they happen.
post #43 of 47
Thread Starter 
Very sad to hear about this incident. If you can't clear an air space, you really don't have much time. I was shocked at how effectively snow blocks any ability to take in air. Think about it. You are at high altitude, working hard. When you hit the hole, you are breathing hard, and suddenly there is no air. The clock ticks and you don't have much time. The break-away pole straps, an avalung and of course skiing with partner may be your best shot.

Anyway, I wrote a brief note to the Central Sierra Avalanche Center. They have been posting a tree well warning daily this week. Its important to work with (and donate to) the avalanche forecast centers as they can't be everywhere, and mostly their funding has been cut back.

Quote: Tree wells have become rather deep in some areas over the past few weeks and present a significant hazard to backcountry travelers.
Regarding the Mount Shasta fatality, I found the following. This makes at least five fatalities I am aware of this year from tree wells.

=Mt Shasta News
The recent death of Javier Salas at the Mount Shasta Board and Ski Park has heightened the need for skiers and snowboarders to be aware of certain dangers and take safety precautions.

The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department reported late last week that Salas, a snowboard instructor, died of asphyxiation March 6th. He was found off a run headfirst in powder snow in a tree well. Attempts with CPR to revive him were unsuccessful.

Experts have compiled a list of safety measures, that has been making the rounds on numerous ski resort websites, that if followed would dramatically decrease accident rates and increase chances of survival if an accident occurs.

The most important prevention step is to remain on groomed runs, resisting the urge to ski or snowboard through the trees during deep powder conditions.

For three important reasons, tree wells represent one of the greatest dangers of off run skiing.

The most obvious is simply running into the tree. According to the Far West Ski Association, head injuries account for a majority of skiing deaths and collisions with trees is a major cause. Helmets are considered a requirement for off run tree skiing.

Helmets, however, do not make you invulnerable. The National Ski Areas Association says if you hit a tree, object or another skier at moderate or high speed, over 12 miles per hour, a helmet may not prevent or reduce a serious injury.

A second danger is the area directly under the branches can create a deep area with very little snow from which a skier or boarder cannot climb out. Skiers have frozen to death because they could not get out of the wells and were forced to spend the night in sub-freezing temperatures.

In a recent experiment, 10 volunteers were temporarily placed in a simulated tree well. None could rescue themselves.

The third danger is the branches forming the canopy over the hole creates much deeper snow just outside the tree as the snow sloughs off the branches onto the slope.

Skiers and boarders caught head first in deep snow or powder face death by suffocation.

If you choose to ski or snowboard in the ungroomed, deep snow areas with trees, remember the following:

-- Ski with a partner - It is critical to ski or ride with a partner who remains in visual contact at all times. It does no good for your safety if you are under the snow and your partner is waiting for you at the bottom of the lift;

-- Keep visual contact - This means stopping and watching your partner descend at all times, then proceeding downhill while he or she watches you at all times. If you lose sight of your partner, they could lose their life;

-- Carry rescue gear - Carry the same personal rescue gear as backcountry skiers or snowboarders including a transceiver, shovel, probe and whistle.

-- Remove pole straps - If you are a skier, remove your pole straps before heading down a powder slope. Trapped skiers have difficulty removing the pole straps, which can hamper efforts to escape or clear and air space to breathe.

So what do you do if you go down? The following procedures might save your life:

-- If you are sliding toward a tree well or a deep snow bank, do everything you can to avoid going down such as grabbing branches, hugging the tree, or anything to stay above the surface;

-- If you go down, resist the urge to struggle violently. The more you struggle, the more snow will fall into the well from the branches and area around the well and compact around you;

-- Instead of panicking, try first to make a breathing space around your face. Then move your body carefully in a rocking manner to hollow out the snow and give you space and air; and

-- Staying calm while waiting for assistance. Survival chances are improved if you maintain your air space. Over time, heat generated by your body, combined with your rocking motions, will compact the snow, and you may be able to work your way out.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, during the past 10 years, approximately 38 people have died skiing and snowboarding per year on average.

During the 2004-05 season, 45 fatalities occurred out of the 56.9 million skier/snowboarder days reported for the season. Thirty of the fatalities were skiers, 39 male, six female; and 15 of the fatalities were snowboarders, 14 male, one female.

In comparison to other physical activities and sports, the skiing and snowboarding death rate appears low with the National Safety Council reporting for 2003 2,100 deaths from drowning and 700 bicyclists killed nationwide.
KTVU[/url]]MOUNT SHASTA, Calif. -- Aguilera said it was the park's first ski-related fatality in its 20 years. But authorities have said this winter has been a deadly one: 10 skiers or boarders have died since late January, including a Reno man who died Thursday at Northstar-at-Tahoe and another who died in the Lake Tahoe area earlier this week.A seasoned ski instructor and mountain guide was found dead in a powder-filled tree well, the 10th skier or snowboarder to die in Northern California since late January. A pair of skiers spotted the snowboard of Xaivier Casa Apia, 30, around noon Monday and alerted rescue personnel, who were unable to revive him, said Andrew Aguilera, president of Mt. Shasta Board & Ski Park. Apia was on his day off and apparently plowed through 3 feet of new snow. Exceptionally heavy snow can create hollows around the base of trees beneath low-hanging branches, making it easy for skiers or boarders to fall in. Apia lived in Mount Shasta with his wife and worked as a mountain guide in his native Peru in the off-season.
post #44 of 47
I've posted some personal stories here on previous tree well threads. A very serious danger for me as I often ski powder days solo and through the tightest tree areas that others have not picked off. Twice over the years I've been caught in tree wells both of which were difficult to extract myself from and gave me a healthy scare. These days I always have a whistle in my parka at a little pocket up near my neck. If in a moment I am on a certain collision course into a tree well, I make a major effort to keep my skis together as having one ski caught under a branch with the other ski in a different orientation can make leverage in light deep fluff very awkward. If one's head is going under while falling, try to push your goggles over the nose. A key to getting out is being able to eject out of at least one ski binding. Doing so one can re-orient and have a chance of extracting a ski that might be caught up in branches under the snow near a trunk. I can eject out of my Soloman step in bindings by using pole tip pressure at the rear of the binding. However in fluff there may be little to leverage against. With considerable effort if my position is allowable, I can grab the ski tail with a hand, scrunch together, and provide enough to leverage against. ...David
post #45 of 47
Good Posts!

What makes tree wells here in the Northwest is those fir trees with low branches that directs snow outward and leaves a pit underneath. While riding up the lift at Crystal Mtn. this year, I have observed huge tree wells, thinking that I could easily ski between them. After hearing several times about the snow giving away... I know that its just risky without a partner.

With all the deep snow we are getting, it's not just tree wells that cause problems. Had a ski partner fall face first into deep snow and had to assist him so he could breathe.

I bought an avalung.. haven't worn it yet because I have been lift skiing. May have to rethink that.
post #46 of 47
Good thread made me think after reading Cirquerider's occurance.

I did find out earlier this month that tree's do not make good slalom gates, they tend to eat you up and spin you backwards.

When used as Slalom gates this then places your rib cage directly into the tree learning lesson # 2

Tree's don't move.

Thanks maybe I should be more carefull of those tree's I have been stuck many many times.
post #47 of 47
Thread Starter 
I love skiing trees. Its the unexpected holes under the low branches that are the problem. Its really a rare condition during extreme snowfall events. Awareness just makes us stronger.

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