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Tree well talk grows

Many skiers still unaware of dangers

Melinda Dudley

Steamboat Springs — With all of the signs hung on lift poles at the Steamboat Ski Area, frequent skier Paxton McVoy wondered Saturday why there aren't more that warn about the dangers of tree wells. — With all of the signs hung on lift poles at the Steamboat Ski Area, frequent skier Paxton McVoy wondered Saturday why there aren't more that warn about the dangers of tree wells.

— With all of the signs hung on lift poles at the Steamboat Ski Area, frequent skier Paxton McVoy wondered Saturday why there aren’t more that warn about the dangers of tree wells.

“Instead of having signs on the lifts saying keep track of your gear, maybe they should have signs saying keep away from trees,” he said.

The Boulder man was skiing Saturday with his father, Steamboat Springs resident Steve McVoy, the day after a 22-year-old man died in Morningside Park at the ski area. Jared Daniel, of Auburn, Mass., died Friday after falling into a tree well on the intermediate Snooze Bar trail.

It was Steamboat’s second snow immersion fatality, in a tree well, in only 10 days.

Tree wells are unstable holes or depressions that form around the bases of trees when low branches prevent snow from filling in and creating snowpack around the trunk.

A friend snowboarding with Daniel was unable to pull him out on his own, and it took about 15 minutes before the friend and others who stopped to help were able to free Daniel from the snow. Steamboat Ski Patrol arrived on scene about 2:30 p.m. to find guests already performing CPR, but despite life-support measures, Daniel was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

Daniel’s cause of death is expected to be suffocation, though the investigation is ongoing, Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg said Friday.

The McVoys said Steamboat’s recent fatalities call attention to the need for more education about the dangers of tree wells.

“I don’t think a lot of people even know what tree wells are,” Steve McVoy said. “I’ve ridden up with people on the lift today who are saying, ‘Some guy died in a tree well – what’s a tree well?'”

While more signage explaining tree wells and possibly pointing out areas of tree well danger may be useful, it could be a difficult proposition for a ski area as large as Steamboat, said North Carolina resident John Matoska, who took his kids on the slopes Saturday.

“It’s such a big mountain – I don’t know what you could do,” said Matoska, a frequent Steamboat visitor whose family owns a condo here. “I don’t know how you could physically do it – it’s almost 3,000 acres up here, and most of that’s trees.”

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. officials did not return calls for comment Saturday.

Daniel passed away just as National Skier Safety Awareness Week was ending at the Steamboat Ski Area – a banner promoting Steamboat’s SlopeWise safety initiatives still fluttered on the gondola building Saturday.

A 45-year-old man died under similar circumstances at the Steamboat Ski Area Jan. 15. Mark Joseph Stout, of Ottsville, Pa., was skiing with his 15-year-old daughter and friends when he fell behind the group on the intermediate Cowboy Coffee trail.

Stout’s family and friends waited for him at the bottom of the run, then reported him missing to Steamboat Ski Patrol. He was pronounced dead shortly after patrollers located his body.

Ski area officials and Ryg determined that Stout fell into a tree well, where he died of suffocation.

Ski and snowboarding deaths caused by suffocation are referred to as Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths, or NARSIDs. Of the six deaths at the Steamboat Ski Area since 2000, four total and the three most recent fatalities can be classified as NARSIDs.

In 2005, 46-year-old Thomas Dolven of Denver died after falling headfirst into deep snow near the bottom of Chute 2 on the upper mountain. In 2000, 23-year-old Matthew Westley of Steamboat suffocated after falling headfirst into deep snow off the Frying Pan trail in Morningside Park.

An average of 10 people die on Colorado ski slopes each year. In addition to deaths at Steamboat, the winter of 2007-08 has seen several other fatalities across the state, at areas including Vail, Breckenridge, Wolf Creek and Durango Mountain Resort.


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