When Mike Quigley's friend bought him a high-end whistle for his birthday, he dutifully attached it to the breast pocket of his ski jacket.
Two months later, while skiing in fresh powder on Whistler Mountain, that tiny noisemaker would help save his life after he fell head first into a tree well.
Quigley had been living in Whistler for a few seasons and was familiar with the risk of skiing in the trees after a dump of snow. "There were several periods that season where we got a lot of snow in a short period of time," he said. "I remember that being a huge issue with tree wells."
Still, one afternoon near the end of a day of skiing, he was weaving through the trees when he realized he was far ahead of his friend. He stopped to let him catch up. "I was a little close to the base of a tree and it collapsed to one side and caused me to fall with my head down hill," he said. "I was completely head first in a tree well. I could feel my skis were sticking out. I knew it wasn't the bottom of the well and I worried about it collapsing and falling in deeper."
That's when he remembered the whistle. "It was on the zipper pocket close to my face," he said. "I made a small motion and I could blow on it."
Soon after, his friend - the same one who bought him the whistle - yanked him out to safety. "I'm fairly survivalist, so I don't want to say I'd be dead (if help hadn't come), but it felt like I was in a very dire situation," he said.
This winter there have been two tree well fatalities in Canada, one in bounds on Whistler Mountain in January and the other just last week in the Pemberton backcountry. Tree wells - deep depressions around a tree - can happen anywhere after a big snowfall. Low hanging branches block snow from filling in the area around the base of the trunk and when someone falls in head first, the void fills with snow, trapping and sometimes suffocating the victim.
According to deepsnowsafety.org, the only official website in the U.S. dedicated to educating people on tree well and snow immersion suffocation (SIS) danger (nothing similar exists in Canada), 90 per cent of people involved in tree well or SIS hazard research could not rescue themselves. That means unless you're sticking close to a friend - which all experts recommend you do when riding in trees - your chances of freeing yourself are very slim.
Wayne Flann, a longtime Whistler Blackcomb ski patroller, member of the Canadian Avalanche Association and field rescue leader with Whistler Search and Rescue, is one of the lucky few who have freed themselves from a scary situation. "I fell into a tree well when I first moved back here in '79," he said. "To this day, it was one of the scariest things I had ever been involved with. I fell in and my buddy was already gone. I had never even heard about tree wells before."
He struggled for 15 minutes, but managed to get his bindings off (the risk is even higher for snowboarders who have a more difficult binding release) and climb out. "It was a horrible experience," he said. "It really opened up my eyes to the fact that you should not be skiing by yourself."
While the number of people attending avalanche safety courses in recent years has skyrocketed, little outreach is dedicated to educating outdoor enthusiasts about the risks of tree wells - despite the fact that anyone in bounds or in the backcountry is at risk. "Especially in Canada, I don't think there's enough information out there," Flann said. "We could do more. There's no one taking it quite as seriously as those guys (at deepsnowsafety.org)."
There are a few tips to follow if you ever find yourself stuck in a tree well, according to that website. First, yell or use a whistle to get your partner's attention. Then, do whatever you can to keep your head above snow. If that's not possible, make a space around your face to help protect your airway and try to remain calm. If possible, use a phone to call ski patrol.
Quigley's advice: slow down and assess the terrain you're riding.
"Sometimes as Whistlerites, you party hard, you ski hard and you have this semi-addictive lifestyle," he said. "As a group we need to remember to step back and look at what we're doing and assess the danger as far as your life goes. Maybe you don't want to ski that line if it looks unstable or go through those trees."