After two deaths, rescuers highlight danger of tree wells at ski resorts

Portland Mountain Rescue spokesman Mark Morford demonstrates how skiers and snowboarders become trapped in a tree well. (KATU Photo)

After two deaths last week at Mt. Bachelor, local rescuers are highlighting the dangers that tree wells pose to skiers and snowboarders.

"You're skiing down a slope, yippee, it's powder snow, and all of a sudden you get to the tree well and it collapses underneath of you," said Mark Morford, the public information officer with Portland Mountain Rescue.

Morford used a whiteboard and a toy skier to illustrate just how dangerous tree wells can be.

"The skier or snowboarder tumbles, their skis keep their feet on the surface, but their head and torso goes into the tree well," said Morford.

It becomes incredibly difficult to right yourself once you've landed headfirst in a deep pile of snow.

"Once you're there, the big risk is that you suffocate," said Morford.

A tree well is an area or void of loose snow around the trunk of a tree. The branches at the base of a tree can prevent deep snow from accumulating around its trunk. However, snow does accumulate outside of that immediate protection zone. After a lot of snow has fallen, it's hard to distinguish between the two areas. Anyone who happens to fall into the void can be enveloped in deep, powdery snow.

Experts say the best way to prevent such accidents is to know the risks and avoid the hazards. However, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of survival.

Morford recommends grabbing onto something as you fall. If you can quickly recognize the problem, you might be able to grab a branch of the tree to prevent an upside-down immersion. If that can't be avoided, Morford says you should immediately create a space to breathe.

"Right away, you want to bust out a space around your face that will have air in it so you can breathe for a long time," he said. "You can use your hands; you can move your head around to bust out a breathing space."

Morford says snow around the mouth can become icy and simply block your ability to breath. People can also inhale large amounts of powdery snow and, in effect, drown.

If it's possible, a skier and snowboarder should also try to undo their bindings. However, Morford says that's not usually possible.

Morford also recommends skiers and snowboarders never ski or ride alone, especially on non-groomed runs in the trees.

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