Tree well, deep snow suffocation risk serious this season
Ski patrol and communication staff at Steamboat Resort are pushing out a strong message about tree well and deep snow immersion hazard conditions so that skiers and riders will take the educational warnings seriously with the current deep snow conditions.
Two new signs are posted outside the exits at Thunderhead Lodge and the gondola, while dozens of other immersion warning signs are posted in higher areas of the resort. Educational posters are up in ski area bathroom stalls. Messages have been pushed out on social media and the Steamboat app.
“With the amount of snowfall already this season, we are experiencing deep snow conditions and want to remind guests to be cautious of tree wells, keep a safe distance and always ski or ride with a buddy,” noted a post on the Steamboat app Monday, Dec. 19.
“We are very aware of trying to get this message out there,” said Jon Feiges, ski patrol assistant director, who said the current snow-water equivalent is 122% of the annual average. “With such cold levels of temps, the snow has not had a chance to consolidate yet, hence these tree wells are bigger.”
A tree well or snow immersion suffocation accident can happen when a skier or snowboarder falls, usually headfirst, into a tree well or deep loose snow and becomes immobilized and trapped under the snow and suffocates, according to DeepSnowSafety.org. The immersed person may die as quickly as someone can drown in water.
Prevention from falling into a tree well or areas of deep snow is important because the odds of surviving deep snow immersion are low, and 90% of people involved in immersion research experiments could not rescue themselves without assistance, according to DeepSnowSafety.org.
“This is probably the first year in maybe five to six years where we’ve had a significant amount of snow with cold temps where we feel that risk of tree well and (non-avalanche-related snow immersion death),” Feiges said.
Last week, ski patrol received phone calls from several parties, both local youth skiers and visitors, who were stuck in deep snow and needed help digging out in the East Face and North St. Pats in-bounds area near the top of Mount Werner, Feiges said. Patrol has not responded to a head-first tree well immersion so far this season, he said.
A patroller for 22 seasons, Feiges noted at least two people have died from suffocation in snow in the Steamboat Springs area during the past 20 years.
Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association, said partner agency Northwest Avalanche Instituted has recorded 87 snow immersion suffocation fatalities from 2001 to 2022 at U.S. ski areas. Those statistics include 14 in both Colorado and Washington and 22 in California. Yet, striking a tree or hard snow rank as the top reasons for snow sports fatalities outside of medical conditions, Byrd said, with an average 40 overall in-bounds ski area deaths per year in the U.S.
Always ski or ride with a buddy.
Stay within 20 to 30 feet from each other with the stronger, more conservative skier in the rear. If the skier in the rear starts to fall, scream to the buddy in front.
If falling into a tree well or deep snow, throw your arms in front of your face to create an air pocket.
If you do get caught in a tree well or deep snow, stay calm and maintain the airway. Do not struggle as that causes more snow to cave in or fall.
The buddy digging the immersed person out must come in from the side and move snow away to protect the airway. Do not dive into the same tree well space and try to pull the person out.
Yell for help from other nearby skiers to help dig the person out from the sides. Confirm the immersed person is breathing, and call ski patrol.
More information about snow immersion suffocation is available online at DeepSnowSafety.org.
When skiers fall and are struggling in deep snow in general, one tip is to cross ski poles and place a hand on the X for s handhold to try to avoid sinking deeper. Or, try rolling onto your back like a bug and quickly flip your skis downhill.
Earlier this month, a 44-year-old Bellingham man snowboarding alone on Dec. 10 at Mount Baker Ski Area died in an apparent deep snow immersion, according to Mount Baker officials
“Skiing or riding in tree areas and deep snow is an individual choice and carries with it inherent risks. A fall into deep snow or a tree well can be suffocating and fatal,” according to Steamboat.com.
Steamboat Resort safety tips advise not to ski or ride too close to trees in deep or windblown snow conditions. If skiing or riding in deep snow or near trees, stay with a partner and remain in visual contact. If the partner becomes immersed, first try to clear an airway, then call Ski Patrol at 970-871-5911 or hit the Call Ski Patrol button on the Steamboat app.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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