The conditions on Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s Lincoln Mountain last Saturday were picture perfect. The week’s storms had dumped more than six feet of snow, and this was a day for exhilaration – and risk.
But then, tragedy struck. At 1:30 p.m. Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol were told that Erica Patterson, 43, from Hidden Hills in Los Angeles County, had become separated from her husband while snowboarding through the trees.
Ski patrollers searched the area and at 4:25 p.m. found Patterson about 50 yards off the side of a run in a tree well. Patterson was found when a senior ski patroller probed tree wells and first discovered her snowboard buried under the snow.
Tree wells – frequently found in the Western states and British Columbia where snowfall is heaviest – can suffocate much like a water drowning. The more a person struggles the deeper they sink. Without immediate help, the skier or rider can die quickly from suffocation.
Such deaths are called Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths. While 65 percent are from tree wells, the remaining accidents are caused by deep immersions into areas like snow banks. Many of the accidents happen during or after big snowfalls which also is when skiers and snowboarders are most tempted to leave the groomed runs in search of powder, often going into the trees.
Using the buddy system is one of the most important things an Alpine enthusiast can do when skiing or riding in deep snow.