Tree Well Death Compels Us To Talk About Tree Well Safety

Lassen National Park Backcountry Skiing Splitboarding Skinning Cascade Mountain

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It’s with a heavy heart we heard about not one tree well death but multiple deaths occurring in North America over the past few weeks. With deep powdery snow comes an elusive killer that most people don’t talk about… tree wells. While avalanches are dangerous, this other kind of monster lurks inbounds. This has provoked us to write an article about tree well safety and how to stay safe when shredding the pow.

Carry A Whistle


I still vividly remember the story of a friend ending up head over heels in a tree well just below a chairlift at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Luckily, they carried a whistle on their jacket. Someone on the lift heard the whistle and notified ski patrol, saving their life. A plastic whistle only costs a buck and could really help if you do end up in trouble.

Ski With A Partner

Backcountry Ski Partner tree well safety
In the backcountry or inbounds … it’s always great to have a partner to share the “stoke” with

The old adage “no friends on a powder day” is something you should reconsider when tree skiing. Personally, I’d rather “spread the stoke” and enjoy fresh snow with a friend so we can grab a locally crafted brew and talk about just how awesome it was out there. Friends and powder go hand-in-hand for fun and added safety.

Give Trees Their Space

tree wellDon’t get us wrong… tree skiing is awesome! But, remember that smaller trees or trees with branches touching the snow are the ones that normally conceal a tree well. The branches help form a canopy over the hole, stopping the snow from filling it in as the snowpack increases. So, when shredding the glades during a big storm cycle, be sure to give those trees some space.

In the end, no matter how much of an expert you are, this can happen to you. Be sure to stay safe when storm skiing and remember to keep an eye on your buddy. Happy Pow Hunting!

9 thoughts on “Tree Well Death Compels Us To Talk About Tree Well Safety

  1. Great advice! I’m buying enough whistles for me and my wife’s jackets. You can’t be too safe out there.

  2. Wow so informative…never knew about tree Wells but localfreshies surely educates all…novice and expert alike. Thank you…

  3. This article is timely. I was recently skiing with friends in Montana and got off piste in some trees. After a few good turns, my line got tight (it ended) and I had to make a sharp left turn. I lost balance (or the snow gave way around a tree) and I fell sideways/backwards into a tree well. Good news is that I didn’t go too deep. Good news is that a buddy had given us some tree well safety tips (like be sure to grab for branches if you’re going down (this helped), don’t take both your skis off or you could go down further, be calm and think through your situation, and back yourself out of the tree well – don’t try to walk out, etc). I was also super glad to have my whistle in case I couldn’t get myself out. This article is a great reminder of how tree wells can be surprisingly bad. A follow-up with more specifics on how to extract from a tree well would be welcome ! Spread the good word. Regards, Dave

  4. Hold onto your poles with no straps engaged.
    You need your hands free to work with if you go into the well.
    Try to ski somewhat laterally with your partner.
    No use if the fallen skier can’t be reached because he is 200 vertical feet above you and it is impossible to reach them in deep pow.

  5. I am the author of a weekly snowsports column called “Snow Trax” that has run the Santa Fe New Mexican for more than 20 years. Here’s something I wrote that was first published on Feb. 10, 2011:

    Tree Wells Alert

    With the deeper snows come the formation of tree wells around the base of the pines that grace our mountains. They are formed as ground winds scour around the tree’s trunk and lower branches, which also act like an umbrella, shedding snow away from the trunk. Tree wells can kill a skier or snowboarder, so it’s wise to know a bit about them.

    There have been at least five such deaths in North America this winter, so far. Most of them are attributed to suffocation. Often the skier or boarder falls headfirst or sideways into the deep pits at a tree’s base and is trapped in an inverted position. Unable to release their binding, and immersed in loose snow they drug in with them, their body heat soon creates an ice cocoon around them, and they asphyxiate in 10 to 35 minutes. The official term is Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death (NARSID).

    Tests reveal that the struggle of the victims to free themselves often causes the snow to pack in faster and harder around them. Some tips to avoid becoming a human Popsicle? Give tree wells a width berth—they have a tendency to suck you in if you cut their edge. Ski with a partner and keep each other in sight. Unstrap your poles in the trees. Other tips and details are found at http://www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com

  6. As someone that found themselves upside down in a tree well. Stay calm! Easy to say but I know it is the reason I am typing this message on this day.

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