Campaign focuses on tree well danger

“Tree Wells, Steer Clear” campaign from the National Ski Areas Association.

This is National Safety Awareness Week, an annual push by the National Ski Areas Association for more personal responsibility on the slopes.

If you’ve been skiing or riding for any time at all, you’ll recall some themes from previous ski safety weeks: “Lids on Kids,” promoting wearing ski helmets; “Heads Up,” an early push for the skier safety code; and “Objects are Closer than They Appear,” emphasizing the importance of maintaining control.

This year’s campaign features an eye-catching black-on-yellow sign depicting a skier’s track snaking down a wooded slope with the cautioning logo: “Tree Wells, Steer Clear.”

It’s a reference to the danger found in the deep, loose snow that collects around tree wells, which can act as death traps to skiers or riders caught in them.

Unfortunately, since these types of tree wells are rarely found on groomed slopes, it’s not only less-experienced skiers who find themselves trapped in tree wells, unable to get out.

According to, most of these accidents happen during or just after big snowfalls, which is the time skiers and boarders leave the groomed trails searching for powder snow.

“Deep snow and tree well suffocation accidents have been documented at many western ski areas that have heavy snowfalls, thick western forests, and lots of skiers and riders who regularly leave the designated trails,” says the website, a collaboration between the Northwest Avalanche Institute, Mount Baker Ski Area, Crystal Mountain and Dr. Robert Cadman.

In early January, a skier and a rider died after being found in tree wells in separate accidents a week apart at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

In all, five such deaths have been reported this winter at North American ski resorts.

Tree well deaths are classed in a separate category known as Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths (NARSID).

They occur when skiers or snowboarders end upside down in the unconsolidated snow at the base of a tree and suffocates.

The odds of surviving these situations are low when skiing or riding alone, the website reports.

“The number one danger with this type of accident is that the risk is completely under-appreciated,” said Paul Baugher, director of Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol, in an interview on

“About every four or five years, we have a spike of five or six tree well deaths in the U.S.,” said Baugher, who has tracked NARSID incidents since the 1970s. “It correlates well with deep snow winters.”

According to Baugher, in some years tree-well deaths account for 10 percent or more of the annual average U.S. ski resort fatalities.

Most are skiers, Baugher said, but the number of snowboarder incidents is climbing.


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