Tree well deep snow safety

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As the west gets pounded by storms in what has been a best winter season opening in years, hopefully everyone has been out powder farming the light, dry, deep crystalline snow.  When tracking up my local backcountry stash this weekend, I spied giant tree wells, big as black holes. Be careful of this lesser known mountain hazard: fall in a tree well or deep snow, and you can suffocate. Called Non-Avalanche Snow Immersion Death, or NARSID, it is better described Snow Immersion Suffocation.

The key is avoidance and quick partner rescue if you fall into a tree well. To avoid: ski and ride within your skills, use the proper tool (big pow mean big sticks), and employing a buddy system—stay in voice and visual contact, which you should be doing anyway. If you get sucked in: try to tuck, roll, and land upright, grab the tree trunk or a branch, and yell to alert your partner. If buried upside down, stay calm and create an air pocket, which is probably of paramount importance. Avalanche safety gear may speed rescue if your location is unknown. But know that you can suffocate as quickly as you can drown in water.

For more info, check out the comprehensive journal paper published recently in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine or the website

Be safe.

–Christopher Van Tilburg, MD

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