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I agree that there are no good ways to die, but the worst way for a skier to go may be in a "tree well." And although many skiers will never see the inside of a tree well just thinking about it makes me uncomfortable.
Each season you hear about someone who got stuck while skiing in deep snow and who died from suffocation or hypothermia. This may come as a surprise to someone new to Colorado or not familiar with deep snows found in the high country. Just last week I read the story of a young man from Steamboat who fell in deep snow and suffocated.
He was an expert skier who suffered no apparent trauma. He simply fell in such a way that he couldn't get up.
So what is a "tree well?" It is a hollow space around the base of a tree that is created after substantial amounts of snow build up. Tree wells are found in forested or gladed areas. In a state such as Colorado, where the average annual snowfall is between 300 and 400 inches, they're common.
As snow accumulates around the tree, the low hanging branches create pockets of either loose snow or air. The branches prevent the snow from packing in around the tree. Ski too close and you fall in, usually head first.
This was something I learned firsthand. I was 19 when I first moved from Connecticut — where a powder day was 3 inches of moisture-laden oatmeal — to Colorado.
Vail was one of the first places I skied and where I discovered the deep champagne powder for which Colorado is famous. It had been snowing off and on for about two weeks and 3 feet of snow had fallen in two days. I was with a group of friends when we headed to the back bowls for my first taste of Colorado powder.
Although I was a fully certified ski instructor at the time, deep snow was foreign to me, and so was the technique to ski it. Because the powder snow was light, fluffy and bottomless it required a completely different technique than what I had been using for the New England ice.
It's hard to imagine but when 20 feet to 30 feet of snow accumulate on the ground, large portions of trees get buried, making them look shorter than they are.
I remember skiing past a small pine tree (that was sticking out above the snow surface only 10 or 15 feet) as though I were passing a slalom (race) pole. As I went by the tree I came so close that the branches underneath gave way. I lost my balance and fell headfirst into the tree well. As I fell the loose snow began to pack in behind me. When I came to a stop I was upside down. I immediately began to struggle to right myself. When I pushed my arm down to find firm ground it went straight into the abyss that was the tree well. I did the same with the other arm with the same results.
Now I was completely helpless, hanging upside down, both arms fully extended, only supported by the skis still on my feet that were stuck in the tree.
The friends I was skiing with were no help because they never saw me fall, and after I did I was not visible.
As panic came over me the loose surface snow, which was so light and fluffy, started to fill in around my face and smother me. The more I moved the more snow packed in around my face and body.
I realized I was in a desperate situation. I knew I had to replace panic with reason or else I would die. I took a quick catch-breath of air, stopped moving and waited for the snow to settle. Slowly and gently I pushed my head back to create an air pocket and turned my face to the side to catch another breath. With each movement the snow packed tighter around me as I sank deeper into the tree well.
Ever so slowly I was able to turn my body slightly so that the majority of my weight was on my right shoulder. From there I was able to free an arm and grab a tree branch to keep from dropping lower into the tree well. Inch-by-inch I was able to pull myself up using the tree branches. It took over an hour for me to extricate myself from the tree well.
This was one of my scariest moments on skis, but it should not discourage you from enjoying deep-powder days. Just know that with deep snow, skiing too close to the pine trees can put you in the same situation.
Fortunately, tree well incidents are easily avoided. But here are some precautions you can take when skiing deep powder.
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