It’s every skiing parent’s nightmare—you finally get your little dude or dudette skiing powder in the woods when they go flying headfirst into a breath-smothering tree well. That’s exactly what happened to Winston Goss and his son Ethan. As seen in the video above, Ethan falls into a shallow tree well at Brundage Mountain Resort in McCall, Idaho, and panics as he realizes he can’t breathe. Thankfully, Winston was skiing behind his son with a watchful eye, or this happy ending could have been tragic.
But it’s not just kids who should be alert to the dangers of tree wells, the hidden cavities of loose, uncompacted snow that form under the branches of coniferous trees in deep snow. According to the Northwest Avalanche Institute, 50 skiers and snowboarders have died in tree wells in American ski areas in the last 15 years, most of them experts. Like all good powder hounds, they head for glades and forests, where sheltering boughs protect the snow from sun and wind and snowplowing tourists. But it only takes catching an edge or losing focus for a moment for even expert skiers to take a spill. Fall near a tree, which in extreme cases can be completely buried under snow, and its well can swallow you in an instant, packing your airway with snow. As you try to escape, snow collapses around you, rendering you immobile and unable to breathe.
No one wants to be immobile and unable to breathe. Here’s how to avoid it.
—Always, no seriously always, ski with a partner in the trees. And keep in sight of each other at all times. When legendary mountaineer and snow-safety expert Peter Lev fell into a tree well at Whitefish Resort in 2011 he was only 50 feet away from his wife. She couldn’t see him. He survived thanks to the AvaLung he was wearing and his ability to climb out using the tree’s branches. Lev’s case is unusual—in one study, 90 percent of people were unable to extricate themselves from tree wells.
—Don’t panic. Sudden movement can cause you to sink deeper and bring more snow down on you. Keep as calm as possible and attempt to clear an air pocket in the snow near you mouth so you can breathe. If you have a phone or radio, use it to call for help. If you’re on your own, gently rock back and forth to clear space and attempt to use the branches or trunk of the tree to carefully push yourself back to the surface. This may not work, but it’s your best shot.
—Be prepared. If you’re skiing deep powder in the trees, even in-bounds at a ski area, it’s smart to carry a standard backcountry kit: beacon, shovel, probe. Beacons make it a lot easier to find your buried buddy, and shovels will make extracting him or her much quicker. When digging, go for the head first and come from the side, not the top. This ensures you don’t push more snow down and gets the buried person breathing clear air, and everybody wants to breathe clear air. Especially when you’re trapped in a tree well.