When thinking of high alpine dangers freeriders always think of avalanches first. But there's another risk that can't be underestimated, especially when you like treeskiing and there's a lot of fresh pow. The risk of falling in a treewell is one to think about. Tree well/ snow immersion suffocation accident can happen when a skier or snowboarder falls – usually headfirst – into a tree well or deep loose snow and becomes immobilized and trapped under the snow and suffocates.
Risk of suffocation
In an inverted position you can become trapped under the snow. Breathing becomes difficult as the loose snow packs in around you. Without immediate help from your partner, you may suffocate. Prevention of falling into a tree well or areas of deep snow is all-important because the odds of surviving deep snow immersion are low.
90% of people involved in Tree Well/ SIS hazard research experiments could NOT rescue themselves. If a partner is not there for immediate rescue, the skier or rider may die very quickly from suffocation – in many cases, he or she can die as quickly as someone can drown in water.
You can find more information about treewells on deepsnowsafety.org. You think it's not gonna happen to you? Check out the video and the story of Stewart Birmingham below.
It was the first or second day of a massive 5-day storm that dumped over 60 inches of snow on Vail, the very same storm that later that week took the life of my good friend Joe Timlin and 4 others in the deadly Loveland Pass avalanche. The storm that re-opened Vail and other ski areas a week after their "closing" day. My good friend Andy and I had a righteous day of shredding in-bounds with friends and decided to end the day by hiking for some good East Vail gnar and skiing home. Being a white-out day and somewhat variable snowpack, we decided to ski my preferred "safe" line, Tele-Park.
The snow felt good and the slope was loaded with a few feet of BLOWER pow. Me being the more experienced backcountry traveler I sent Andy down first, agreeing to meet just above the next shelf about 150yards down the line. Andy sends it down a pillow line and loses it, tumbling a few times over to a tree and then down into a tree-well, upside-down. By the time this happened he was already disappearing into the white-out of the storm from my perspective, but fortunately I saw a tree shake off all its snow. And then, silence. I quickly knew something was wrong and skied over to that tree. "Rescue mode" kicked in faster than ever as I approached the tree and BARELY saw a portion of the base of Andy's board.
He was completely upside-down and in a tree-well with his head about 6 feet under the surface which I was skiing on. For about 3 seconds I thought he was unconscious as there was no movement and I heard nothing and thought "this is really really bad, but this is what I am constantly prepared for." Andy quickly responded to my shouts and fortunately was alright but very very stuck as he was upside-down against the tree with his board strapped into his feet, thus locking him into a very cold and helpless grave. I quickly got my shovel out, started digging and got him out about 6 or 7 minutes later. We realized the camera was still rolling and were pleased to know that we have footage of the whole event.
All-in-all it was an unfortunate event that can happen to ANYONE, in-bounds or in the backcountry. People die from tree-well incidents every year. Had I not kept my eyes on Andy when he dropped into the line, had I been messing with my own gear and not watched intently, I would have skied 100yards past him only to find him not there, and the whole situation would have been much much MUCH scarier, as it was a white-out storm day and his shouts would not have been heard from that point.
Hiking back uphill to find him would have taken a long time. This was an end-of-the-day EV lap, which I rarely do, and it would have gotten dark within an hour of searching. This could have been Andy's grave that night but fortunately we know there is no other way to play in the backcountry than to follow rules that keep each other alive as best as we absolutely can. I got Andy out of there, we ripped the rest of the line (along which a portion of a storm slab broke off sympathetically 50 yards to the side of us and ran pretty far down the valley), and we got home safe. Always get home safe. Needless to say, the cheeseburgers and pale ales that followed were extra tasty, and it was good to be alive. Always play it safe in the backcountry, folks, it's not always just avalanches that can kill you!