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What are "tree wells," and why are they so dangerous for skiers?

What are "tree wells," and why are they so dangerous for skiers?
Posted at 12:00 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 14:00:44-05

KALISPELL — Two skiers have died in Montana in recent weeks after falling into tree wells. Tree wells are the dark abyss that are an unexpected hazard for skiers, but what are they?

“Essentially the area around the base of the tree that doesn't have consolidated snow but it's filled with air and branches,” explained Kate Atha, Whitefish Mountain Resort Assistant Ski Patrol manager. Atha also noted that tree wells can put you in a bind "because you aren't expecting to fall in one that's the biggest hazard it's a very unpredictable situation,” Atha said.

From the Ski Whitefish website:

A deep snow or tree well accident occurs when a rider or skier falls into an area of deep unconsolidated snow and becomes immobilized. The more the person struggles, the more entrapped in the snow they become. Deaths resulting from these kinds of accidents are referred to as a NARSID or Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death. Fortunately, these types of accidents are preventable.

The most important thing to remember if a person falls into a tree well is “to not panic, it's hard to gain footing and pull yourself out of it," Atha advised.

She also told MTN News that there are ways to avoid being left behind. “If you are skiing in the trees, ski with a partner or in a small group,” Atha said. “Have a plan in case you get separated and constantly check in with other members of your group.”

People should also have a noisemaker handy, according to Atha. “Having a whistle on you allows us to help locate you.”

Atha added that it’s also important that people be aware of what the conditions are, “follow the snow report and take it easy so you know what you're getting into.”

Anyone who falls into a tree a well should stay calm, make an air space, don’t struggle, and have a whistle just in case it’s needed. Finally, it’s advised that people follow the buddy system to ensure that everyone remains safe.