Too much snow in Austria: tree wells and NARSIDs

Too much snow in Austria: tree wells and NARSIDs

Snowmageddon is hammering Austria and the snow cover is getting thicker by the day. As a result, we see accidents in the Alps that we normally do not see. Already two people lost their lives last week because they were suffocating in the snow. (source). The Alps are faced with a phenomenon that you rarely read about: a NARSID. In addition to avalanches, NARSIDs are an alpine danger to pay attention to. NARSID stands for Non Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death. It’s a NARSID when you are killed in the snow, but it’s not caused by an avalanche.

What is a NARSID?

The prevention of a NARSID is a standard part of a saftey training in Canada and the US. You do not hear much about it in Europe. The reason for this is that the treewell is the biggest problem (67% of the NARSIDs is a tree well). You speak of a NARSID when a skier or snowboarder (generally head-first) falls into a tree well (or ditch or creek), gets stuck and eventually suffocates in the snow. If you fall upside down in a treewell, it is almost impossible to get out of it yourself. The so-called comrade rescue (rescue by your friends) is therefore the only option to be saved. The figures from the American avalanche services show that 90% of the riders who ended up in a tree well or other kind of NARSID could not free themselves.

What is a tree well?

A tree well is a hole that forms around the trunk of a tree. Because of the overhanging branches of the trees, the part of the trunk up to the first branch is not filled with snow and a well is created. Such a well can become quite deep, sometimes a meter or two! It is a mix of branches, loose snow and air. You often do not see a tree well with the naked eye.

There are a number of reasons why people in North America have more to do with tree wells than riders in Europe. Since North America is working with boundaries, it is much easier to ride between the trees. In addition, the tree line in states like Colorado is much higher than in Europe and in most American ski areas there is simply more snow than in Europe. Besides treewells you can think of ditches, creeks or other natural features such as pillows and cliffs.

Now that there is so much loose snow in the northern Alps, NARSIDs are also something to be pay attention to in the Alps.

What if you are caught in a tree well?

It is important to keep an eye on each other during the descent. Talk with your buddies. Keep each other in sight, communicate with sound (yodeling) or wait after an x-number of vertical. You’ll understand that your chances of a rescue will increase if you see your buddy disappear. When you feel that you are falling, at least let this be known by shouting (if you still get the chance). When you fall into a treewell, try to keep your head above the snow. You can also hold a trunk or possibly some roots. Do not start wrestling with your body, the chances are that you dig yourself deeper. And further … trust your buddy with who you are riding! If he is good, he will quickly dig you out.

** TIP: read this article about the risks in the backcountry**



NicZHAuthor9 January 2019 · 12:36

Thks for that Morris, very interesting

Matteo_DGAuthor10 January 2019 · 08:44

In addition to these dangers, I’d suggest that riding in deep snow far from the groomed slope require a lot of confidence and riding skills:\

  • falling with injures is not an option; the bad weather doesn’t allow the use of the heli and the deep snow require long time to the rescue to reach us.\
  • loosing/breaking a ski could turn in a big trouble. Deep, loose snow means that you can’t walk!\
  • you must ride “light”, surfing smoothly on the snow to save energies. Beginners tend to ski “heavy”, turning the skies by foot actions and spending a lot. You need your muscle strength to be ready for the emergency (digging, climbing up, …)

For the reason above, I advice to take in your backpacks (in addition to the shovel and the probe):\

  • the mountaineering map and/or a GPS device with the topographic map loaded (very useful in the trees!)\
  • thermos with warm drink and some energy bar (could make the difference)\
  • warm, dry clothes (like a down jacket) for a emergency bivouac

And of course, you don’t forget your climbing skins.

damianladaAuthor11 January 2019 · 15:07


wildstyleAuthor15 January 2019 · 07:15

I had to rescue a friend last sunday from a treewell in Tauplitz.

We were skiing about 25m between Pistes in Tauplitz, We were skiing in a groupm of 3 , 2 skiers and a snowboarder.
Snow was waist to chest deep fresh powder in the trees on a 25-35 degree slope.
I was 5m below him and 5m to the side when he went in.

The snowboarder made the mistake of becoming stopped between 2 trees, lost his balance and fell backwards into a treewell. I saw him drop in and then call out. I was with him in 60 seconds … but if i had been another 5m down it would have taken me a lot longer to get to him due to the depth of snow.

we called out for help while getting to him. 2 mins after i got to him, 3 other skiers came over to help / assist. noise works… any language.

Lessons (no expert … just commenting on what works for us):
Travel together, don’t race on ahead. look out for your buddies. Powder panic will lead to lost friends.
Take turns at being sweeper at the back of the group, riding more conservatively and checking everyone.
In deep snow, get as close/climb as much as you can on skis/board. Once your skis/board is off, use the ski/board as a snow anchor to assist your climb.
If its a life threatening situation, use the size of your group and share the tasks. One person takes charge, one person calls for help , one person goes for help, one person looks for assistance from others on the hill (higher maybe). Work the problem.
Creating a lot of noise works if there are skiers/boarders around.

A scary day but with a good outcome. Stay Safe.

‘Semper in Pulvere, modo profundum differat “
meteomorrisAuthor15 January 2019 · 08:10

@@wildstyle thanks for sharing. Luckily everything turned out okay!
LowGlowproAuthor15 January 2019 · 09:45

During the days like this and especially when it is deep like this week I wear my Avalung. I bought one when I was riding in States and I saw some people wearing it and they told me they wear it especially when they are riding trees.

It is possible that I look like a weirdo and people are looking at me wondering what is it I am wearing, but who cares. There are many different opinions on them, but after one personal experience, when I fell head first deep into a snowdrift. ( Mistake! I was next to the slope full of people, but alone and nobody saw me falling in, so no external help) I was happy I had it in my mouth as it took me about 15 minutes to liberate myself. Just to undo my skis took me about 10. (My legs were apart with the skis on, I could barely move my hands, I had to gradually make myself a space to move, it was impossible to use the poles to undo the skis.) But I could breathe calmly and I was slowly liberating myself without falling into a panic. I had similar experience a few years earlier without it and at that time I had luckily my friends around that helped me., But immediately after the fall I had mouth full of snow. It took them only about 2 minutes, before they got to me and started to dig me out, but I was starting to feel the lack of oxygen and I was starting to freak out already. Should I had to liberate myself, I think I had had a problem.
I hope to never get caught in real avy, but as long as I believe this thing could give me one more minute under the snow, I will still wear it no matter what people think.
Oh, and I ride always with it in my mouth as I don’t believe that I will have time to put it in my mouth when needed. (Especially when you fall like I did. It was strange in the beginning, but I got used to it. Especially when it is really cold and snowing, I find it actually easier to breathe through the tube.

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