British Columbia

Strategic digging: Research finds a better way to save someone stuck in a tree well

New research out of a Fernie, B.C., college has found what researchers believe is the best way to save someone stuck in a tree well.

A combination of conveyor digging and pulling could save a life

Researchers believe they have found the best technique for rescuing someone caught in a tree well: a combination of conveyor-style digging and pulling. (GROGL/Shutterstock)

Researchers at a B.C. college have found what they believe is the most efficient way to save someone stuck in a tree well, a potentially deadly event.

Tree wells form when a tree acts as an umbrella, preventing snow from reaching its base. Depending on the height of the snowpack, it can create a hole up to three-metres deep.

When backcountry adventurers fall into tree wells, they often go in head first which causes them to lose consciousness and, in some cases, die.

Rob Whelan, lead guide and manager of CMH Heli-Skiing, worked with the College of the Rockies in the East Kootenay community of Fernie, B.C. on researching rescue techniques. 

His students spent months trying to figure out the most efficient way to save a person stuck in a tree well. They came up with a combination of strategic "conveyor-style" shovelling and pulling, that ultimately creates a ramp out of the snow.

"The lead shoveler shovels as fast as you can move the snow just back behind them," Whelan told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

"The shovelers are spaced in line about 80 centimetres apart and they form a conveyor of snow moving backwards, basically forming this ramp."

A skier demonstrates the depth of a tree well for the U.S. public safety information website (Courtesy

That ramp, Whelan said, is what makes it safer and easier to access the person stuck in the tree well.

It's important for the digging to stop near the waist of the suspended individual, because that makes the rescue faster and easier.

This technique was developed using a life-sized, 114-kilogram dummy to simulate someone stuck upside down in a tree well. The team applied different types of digging and pulling to find the quickest, safest way to get it out.

Until now, common practices for rescuers has been to dig hard and fast or to try to pull the person out immediately, though Whelan's students' research showed this could injure the person being rescued.

"As it turns out the worst approach is to simply grab on to somebody and try and pull," Whelan said.  

"We really did a lot of damage to this big strong dummy just by pulling, and the more people that were involved in the pulling effort the worse it got." 

With files from Daybreak South


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