A 29-year-old snowboarder died after falling into a tree well last Saturday at Whitefish Mountain Resort, marking the second such fatal accident this ski season. The victim worked as a probation and parole officer for the state of Montana, according to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office.
He had been snowboarding alone but was at the resort with friends, who were unable to locate or contact him. The missing snowboarder had last been seen at the top of the T-Bar 2 lift, so search efforts began there. He was found unconscious in a tree well to the south side of the lift. Rescuers initiated resuscitation efforts and Meyer was transported to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
A 16-year-old male skier was found buried in a tree well at Whitefish Mountain on Dec. 29 and died four days later when taken off life support. He also had been cruising the off-piste trees alone.
Tree well deaths are known as Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths (NARSID). In short, a skier or snowboarder falls upside down in the soft, loose snow at the base of a tree and suffocates. A tree well is a potentially deep pocket of loose snow that forms beneath the overhanging branches of evergreen trees as snow levels rise in the area surrounding the tree. If a person is trapped in a tree well, there is little hope of getting out without the help of someone else. The odds of surviving these situations alone are often low. And some studies show that once a victim struggles to get out, the snow packs in more tightly around the face.
Tree wells can trap skiers and snowboarders as they struggle to get out, according to information from a website put together in collaboration with the Northwest Avalanche Institute, Mount Baker Ski Area, Crystal Mountain and Dr. Robert Cadman, and can lead to suffocation: http://www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com/
Over the holidays, tree wells claimed the lives of a 29-year-old male snowboarder at China Peak Resort, Calif. and a 32-year-old female snowboarder on a snowcat trip at Retallack Lodge, B.C. A 20-year-old male snowboarder found dead in a creek on Dec. 25 at Whistler Blackcomb was trapped in an inverted position after falling in deep snow. His death is classified also as NARSID.
U.S. tree well fatalities currently stand at three for the 2010-11 season. In many years, NARSID accounts for 10 percent or more of the annual average U.S. ski resort fatalities. Most are skiers, but the snowboarder numbers are climbing.
La Nina winters with their prolific snow across much of the West aid in turning tree wells into death traps.
Skiers and snowboarders can avoid tree wells by staying on groomed runs. But for many, the thrill comes from plunging through powder pillows off piste. Skiing with a partner is the number one way to mitigate risk. Most NARSIDs occur when a skier got separated from ski buddies or skied alone