Woman dies at Steamboat Ski Area | SteamboatToday.com

Woman dies at Steamboat Ski Area

23-year-old Arapahoe Basin ski instructor found in tree well

Zach Fridell

Skiers Wednesday morning passed by the sign marking the entrances to the "expert only" terrain at Steamboat Ski Area. Grace Lynn McNeil, a 23-year-old ski instructor who taught at Arapahoe Basin Ski and Snowboard Area, was found dead in a tree well at the base of Chute 3.
Matt Stensland

— Grace Lynn McNeil, a 23-year-old ski instructor who taught at Arapahoe Basin Ski and Snowboard Area, was found dead in a tree well Wednesday morning at Steamboat Ski Area.

Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg said McNeil was in Steam­boat Springs with several ski instructor friends and became separated from her group at about 1:30 Tuesday afternoon. Ski patrollers found her at 8:07 Wed­­nes­­day morning, but Ryg said she probably died Tuesday afternoon shortly after her friends noticed her missing.

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. spokesman Mike Lane said patrollers found the woman's body at the base of Chute 3, a double-black-diamond run in the Christmas Tree Bowl area. Ski patrollers and Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers searched for McNeil until about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Lane said, and resumed the search at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

Steamboat resident and Colorado Mountain College student Adam Dean said he had been friends with McNeil since sixth grade and attended col­­lege with her at Western Michigan University. Dean said McNeil came to town early Monday with three of her friends and that the group stayed at his house Monday night. They planned to leave after the day of skiing Tuesday.

"Skiing was probably her biggest passion; she loved it," Dean said.

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McNeil was on the ski team in high school and was a good skier, he said. Dean said he did not ski with the group Monday or Tuesday.

"She definitely loved life and lived a great one, and we all know she died doing what she loved," Dean said.

Ryg said the cause of death was not known. McNeil was found with about 2 feet of snow over her head in a tree well off the side of the run, and she was at a downward angle with her head lower than her feet. She was wearing a helmet, Ryg said, and there was no obvious head injury. Tree wells are areas of loose snow at the base of evergreen trees that can trap skiers and snowboarders, possibly causing suffocation.

Two men died in tree wells in Morningside Park at Steam­­boat Ski Area during the 2007-08 ski season, and in 2005, a skier died in deep snow near Chute 2. At least four other people have died this ski season in Colorado. Two hit trees at Breckenridge, and one was buried in a tree well at Wolf Creek Ski Area. At Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort, a girl died after hitting a tree Tuesday.

Ryg said McNeil originally was from Cedar, Mich., and her mother now lives in Nevada. Ryg said he notified McNeil's family Wednesday morning.

Arapahoe Basin spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer said McNeil was a children's instructor who began working with the resort in April.

"She was outgoing, quick with a smile and fantastic with the children she taught to ski," Hierholzer said. "Her supervisor described her as a rock-star employee."

An autopsy will be performed, probably in Jefferson County, to determine the cause of death.

On Tuesday, Lane said McNeil was skiing on Christmas Tree Bowl with friends and was last seen at skier's right of the Big Meadow area. The friends skied down to the Bar UE chairlift, said John Kohnke, of Ski Patrol, but McNeil did not come down.

— To reach Zach Fridell, call 871-4208 or e-mail zfridell@steamboatpilot.com

Tree well safety

Tree wells, the unpacked snow at the base of evergreen trees, can trap skiers and snowboarders much like quicksand and can cause suffocation.

According to http://www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com, a Web site put together by snow safety experts, the best action is to avoid tree wells. Although there is no way to tell which trees have tree wells, evergreen trees with boughs touching the snow are the most dangerous. There also is a greater risk of tree wells forming in ungroomed terrain.

The Web site recommends that if you do find yourself caught head-down at the base of a tree, resist the urge to struggle, as it can cause you to sink faster. Make a breathing space around your face to ensure a supply of air, and stay calm.

Stay within eyesight of a friend, and if you do see a friend go into a tree well, start digging immediately to give the person a chance to breathe.

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