Tree wells are formed when low branches at the base of coniferous trees stop the snow from compacting and settling around the trunk. To make things worse, it is nearly impossible to tell how deep the depression is, as the low lying branches of the tree block the sight.
“Tree wells are one of the most dangerous potential hazards out there,” said Kris Hawryluik, head of Ski Patrol at Big White Ski Resort. “Always ski or ride with a buddy, and remain in visual contact with each other. If that fails, stop and call out.”
The simplest way to prevent a tree well catastrophe is to stick to marked, groomed runs. If you do go into treed, ungroomed areas, give the tree wells a wide berth. Always carry safety equipment with you, including a cell phone with the Big White’s ski patrol number (250-491-6160) and a whistle.
If you do fall into a tree well, do whatever you can to keep your head above the surface of the snow, and if possible, keep your feet below the level of your head. Yell or use your whistle to get your partner’s or nearby riders’ attention. Stay calm and resist the urge to struggle – this will conserve energy. Finally, trust that someone is looking for you.
If your partner falls into a tree well, don’t leave to get help. Stay with him or her, and use your cell phone to call for help. If you don’t have a cell phone, use your whistle to alert others. Evaluate the scene for your own safety, then immediately begin clearing snow from the airway.
Do not pull the victim out the way they fell in – instead, begin tunnelling in the direction of their head. Be careful not to knock more snow into the hole.