British Columbia

2 deaths at B.C. ski resorts highlight hidden danger of tree wells

Backcountry guides say to stay calm, wait and activate any safety or tracking equipment you have if you fall into a tree well. Trying to dig yourself out may only make the situation worse.

Skier and snowboarder were killed in separate incidents in the Kootenays this past weekend

Skiers and snowboarders who fall into tree wells can suffocate if help doesn't arrive quickly. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

A pair of fatal accidents at ski resorts in the Kootenays over the weekend has outdoor enthusiasts warning of the dangers of tree wells: natural hazards that are found not only in the backcountry, but on resort slopes as well.

Tree wells are deep pockets of loose snow found near the base of evergreen trees. Skiers and snowboarders who fall into the wells can often suffocate if help doesn't come quickly.

Some of them, according to Vancouver-based backcountry skier and touring trip leader Byron Cole, are deep enough to swallow a six-foot-tall person.

"If you do fall head first with your skis still above your head and your feet are still locked into the bindings, its almost impossible to get yourself out," said Cole.

Running into trouble among the trees may have killed two men in separate ski resort incidents in the Kootenays this past weekend.

One was snowboarding at Whitewater Ski Resort in Nelson and the second was skiing at Fernie Alpine Resort. Both men were found unconscious by the time resort ski patrol got to them.

Whitewater, where the snowboarder was found, posted a bulletin about the dangers of tree wells less than a week before the man's death.

Frame stills from a video about the hazards of tree wells show a skier plunging head first into a depression of powder near the base of a tree. (Courtesy DeepSnowSafety.org)

'Stay calm and wait'

Cole said while the gut response may be to try and dig yourself out of the well, you can make the situation worse.

"If you do try to get yourself out, you can knock more snow off the tree ... and you can further bury yourself," he said.

"It's best to just stay calm and wait ... your friends will have to come find you and dig you out."

Cole says the best thing skiers and snowboarders can do to mitigate the risk is to never be on the mountain alone and carry a tracking beacon and whistle.

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