I’m Stuck in a Tree Well, and I Can’t Get Out!

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The death rate for snowboarders is about one-third lower than for skiers, according to the National Ski Areas Association. The injury rate for snowboarders, however, is about twice as high as for skiers.

“I expected, along with everyone else, that the death rate in snowboarding would be higher than skiing if for no other reason than the demographic of risk — snowboarders tend to be young, aggressive males,” says Jasper Shealy, a professor emeritus at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology who studies winter-sports fatalities. “So, we looked into this. The primary way you die [in snow sports] is that you slide into something — a tree, for example. Snowboards act like a huge sea anchor, so they don't have the opportunity to slide into objects as easily. Whereas skiers release from their bindings.”

Approximately 40 skiers and snowboarders die a year. ESPN recently reported that 25 skiing and 13 snowboarding fatalities occurred during the 2009-2010 winter season. Of those 38 individuals, 30 were males.

Person-to-person collisions, hitting trees, dropping off cliffs and falling into tree wells are among the causes of death reported. Many of these incidents are classified as Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths (NARSIDs), which average 3.5 per winter.

Tree wells have proved to be particularly deadly, especially in areas of deep powder away from well-traveled slopes. Evergreen trees typically have low hanging branches that prohibit snow from consolidating around the base of the tree; deep holes form that are hidden from view. Two-thirds of snow immersion deaths involve people falling head-first into a tree well and suffocating.

Snowboarder James Drummond is among the fortunate athletes who've survived tree well crashes. “I was positive I was going to die,” says Drummond, who was stuck upside down in six feet of snow on Mount Shasta this week. He captured the incident with his head-cam:

“It was hard to watch, but it was a little embarrassing, too,” Drummond says. “I was really scared.”

–Whitney Dreier

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