January and February are storm months. The powder deposits have been record-setting over the past several years, resulting in rising tree well accidents and deaths.
Tree wells form around the trunks of densely branched small to medium-sized evergreen trees. As snow piles, the branches shed the snow to the perimeter. The area under the canopy and next to the trunk receives very little snow creating a void or hole next to the trunk. After a few good snowfalls, the void can extend from nearly the ground up to the surface. After significant powder events, the holes are masked by the light snow on top and become veritable “tiger-traps.” The well typically only extends to the outermost branches making the danger zone from a foot or two to several feet away from the lowest visible branch.
Tree wells can swallow people whole. The danger is suffocation under the snow. Skiing/riding with a buddy is your best defense. Always keep within visual and audible distance of the buddy. Be on high alert when skiing through trees; like icebergs, 90% of the tree could be under the snow, so be careful even in the small trees. If you find yourself falling toward a tree, especially face first, use your last moments to grab onto something, hug a branch grab a stick, anything to save your face from submerging near the trunk. Catching yourself with your hands on the snow will be similar to diving into a deep pool of water.
If you go down head first, put your arms above your head and create an air space. You will very likely find yourself upside down under the snow with your skis or board still on the surface. Do your best to remain calm, and focus your energy on creating a breathing pocket. You can survive if you keep your head and don’t struggle or panic. Trying to self-extract yourself will likely only collapse the snow around you, making breathing more difficult. Your best bet is to get comfy and wait for rescue. Try yelling or screaming every fifteen to thirty seconds. Hopefully, your buddy is nearby and can assist you quickly. It may take a few minutes or several hours, but you will likely be found if you remain calm.
Extracting a buddy requires a cool head and deliberate action. First, do not panic. Improper caution and procedure will likely collapse more snow into the well and cause further panic or suffocation. Your priority is to open up an airway to the victim’s face. Start beside the person, a few feet away, and dig down toward their head. Keep digging until you open clear communication with them or are sure that they have clear access to fresh air. From here, excavate down in a manner that allows you to extract them without further burying them.
One critical piece of gear that will quickly allow you to find and save the victim or be found and protected if you are the one under the snow is a beacon. Beacons keep dozens of lives each year from burying events in the snow, such as avalanches. Before heading out to the trees, activate your beacons in transmit mode. Be sure you and your party are adequately trained ahead of time.