So far this season I've heard of two skiers dying in tree wells within resort boundaries. One was a University of Colorado student at Wolf Creek in December. The latest was a 23-year-old ski instructor for Arapahoe Basin who was skiing at Steamboat on a day off.
Tree wells can seem benign, especially when surrounded by mountains of inviting pow, but they can be deadly. The good news is that they are avoidable and a few tips can help your chances of getting out alive. Stevens Pass ski area and the website Tree Well & Deep Snow Safety, put together by several Northwest resorts and organizations, publish good primers. Here are the basics:
1. Always (always!) ski deep glades with a partner and remain in visual contact. Don't get so far ahead that you couldn't dig your partner out.
2. If you feel yourself falling in, grab the tree trunk, branches or anything to prevent you from falling deeper.
3. If you fall deep with your board or skis over your head, do not struggle violently. You could just cause more snow to fall on top of your head. Stay calm (very important) and hollow out a space in front of your mouth so you can breathe. Slowly rock back and forth to heat and compact the snow. If your partner doesn't find you soon, you may be able to slowly maneuver your way out once the snow compacts.
4. Stay calm. I'm just reiterating it. It's important.
Stay safe out there! (And go shred some sick TREES!)