Our Northwest

Skiers, assume all trees harbor dangerous wells

Tuesday, December 22, 2015by  Jon Osterberg

Sad news of a skier dying in a tree well at Snoqualmie Pass reminds us of unseen danger on the slopes.
     The 50-year-old man died Saturday when rescuers were unable to resuscitate him after he fell head-first into a tree well.
     Tree wells are pockets that form around tree trunks as the branches deflect falling snow. Thin, fluffy snow crust often hides the chamber below. Skiers who encounter tree wells can suffocate if they fall face down and become vertically wedged.
     Skiers can avoid danger by giving trees a wide berth, particularly if you venture off groomed slopes. Regardless of the terrain, you should assume that all trees have wells surrounding their trunks.
     This Seattle Times article offers advice for how to avoid or survive tree-well accidents.
     Ironically, my son and I once used a tree well to our advantage while backpacking. Our group unexpectedly found lingering snow on a May hike up the Waptus River. The entire campsite was still buried under the winter snowpack.
     Some in our group pitched their tents on top of the snow. Instead, we pitched ours in the shrinking remnant of a tree well on solid, semi-dry, warmer ground.
     Heavy mountain snowfall throughout our region will heighten tree-well danger for the next several days. Ski safely!

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