The Outsider: Watch yourself (and your friends) in the trees

Boy what an opening that was.

People were elated, calling it their deepest days ever and best opening conditions in recent memory. When you can drop into a run and feel like a fire hose of powder snow is pointed straight at your face… well, you kind of need to experience that for yourself.

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In my initial draft of this column, I went on for a few more paragraphs about how awesome it is to have all this right in our backyard and how lucky we are to have so much snow that we’re almost complaining about it.

But after hearing about the fatality on the mountain on Saturday, despite all my own gratifying powder sessions the last few days I couldn’t just do the “stoked on winter” set piece.

RCMP said on Monday (Nov. 28) that members of the public pulled the man from deep, unconsolidated snow. They didn’t specify whether or not that snow was in a tree well.

The technical term for tree well is Snow Immersion Suffocation (SIS), when a skier or snowboarder crashes and lands head first into deep or loose snow, becoming immobilized and trapped with no way to breathe. I’ve never been in this situation, but have seen it happen. And it’s not always around trees.

One time I saw a friend drop a small cliff into a powder-filled landing early in the season. There were no trees around. He landed too far forward and crashed head first into a depression, which was a recently covered creek.

As the rest of the group and I were busy laughing at his comical crash, we noticed he wasn’t getting up by himself and the only thing twitching above the snow was a ski pole. I quickly stepped over and fished him out by grabbing the ski pole. Once he surfaced he exclaimed that he had been unable to move or breathe.

Many Whistler locals tell these close call stories of SIS.

Last winter I lost a friend to a tree well accident. I had known her since my first season in Whistler 12 years ago. She was an excellent skier who knew the dangers, but got separated from her group and no one saw her crash. By the time help got there, she had already passed.

Accidents happen all the time, but these two events I just described had one big thing in common: it snowed about a metre in less than 72 hours.

Ski patrollers use the term “skier compaction” quite a lot in the early season. Having skiers and riders track out a slope stabilizes the snow, making it a firmer surface for new snow to fall upon and consolidates the snowpack making it less likely to avalanche. In other words, well-skied slopes are generally safer than those that are not. That applies to tree runs more than anything else.

While we may have had the deepest opening in a long time, there was little time for natural snow settlement and even less skier compaction before we all went out to score faceshots in the trees. I’m as guilty as the next ski bum for having a blasé attitude towards tree wells; I’m good enough to not crash, I’m a skier so I’ll be able to deal with extracting myself, I only ever land feet first into these holes. But it’s time to start taking this danger more seriously. I’ll even go as far as suggesting a public warning (similar to Avalanche Canada’s special snowpack warnings) when we get this much unconsolidated snow on the ground in such a short period.

If we’re going to have the winter that everyone is hoping for, let’s get through it without any more SIS deaths. Buddy up in the trees. Ski or ride conservative if you’re solo. And as dorky as it sounds, buy a whistle and store it in your jacket somewhere close to your face or chest. It could save your life.

For some great info on tree wells and SIS head to deepsnowsafety.org.

Vince Shuley respects trees. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Twitter @vinceshuley.

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