Skiers affectionately refer to crystal-encased trees as "snow ghosts." But it's what lies beneath them — tree wells — that can trap the unwary and literally take their breath away.

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Snowboarder Evan Wang suddenly found himself upside down in a hole in the snow, and the so-called “Cascade powder” was packing in around his head and chest, threatening to suffocate him.


“I was pretty much vertical,” he said. “And pretty much stuck.”


But unlike some skiers or snowboarders who find themselves in this position, Wang was going to survive — because he was not alone in the snow. A team of volunteers, including a physician with an oxygen tank, was standing by to pull him free after less than two minutes.


Wang’s short-lived trip into a simulated “tree well” — the pocket that forms beneath trees during times of heavy snowfall — was just an experiment, part of a larger project to learn more about “deep snow immersion.” It’s an all-too-common threat, but one that is actually poorly understood — and dangerously underestimated, said Paul Baugher, who designed the experiment, done last year.


“It’s happening a lot more than you think,” Baugher said.


By tracking down reports from all over the country, Baugher, the head of Crystal Mountain’s ski patrol and also director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute, has found that the deaths are often wrongly attributed to simple collisions with trees. As he unraveled the facts, he says, he discovered that in many of the cases, the skiers and snowboarders died because they fell into tree wells and suffocated.


Avoiding deep snow immersion



Recognize dangerous conditions: During times of heavy snowfall, steep, ungroomed slopes through thick forests pose the most danger, although deep snow immersions have also occurred in open terrain and on the flats. Assume all trees have deep wells beneath them.

If you’re heading for a tree well: Do everything you can to avoid going in head-first. Grab tree branches. Deliberately fall before you get there. Roll to get your feet down or spread-eagle to stop the plunge. If you go in, protect your airway by making a pocket around your face. Don’t struggle, and stay calm.


Practice good partnership: That means keeping visual and voice contact while in trees or ungroomed areas. Survival time once someone is buried is extremely short.


Be prepared and dig fast: If you’re skiing ungroomed, treed areas, bring a shovel and a whistle. If you’re a skier, don’t wear pole straps. If your partner goes in, dig fast. Seconds count.


Educate yourself: Mt. Baker Ski Area hands out a Tree Well and Deep Snow Safety brochure, which is online at www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com/.



Sources: Paul Baugher, “Risk Trends at U.S. and British Columbia Ski Areas: An evaluation of the Risk of Snow Immersion versus Avalanche Burials”; and Gwyn Howat, Mt. Baker Ski Area.




Carol M. Ostrom



In fact, such deaths accounted for 40 percent of all snowboarder fatalities in the U.S. last year, Baugher contends. He presented his research last week at a meeting of ski-area operators in Vail, Colo.



Boarders’ risk higher



Last winter, four people died in Washington from deep snow immersion. In North America, Washington is fourth in the number of immersion fatalities, after British Columbia, California and Colorado. Nationally, snowboarders are twice as likely as skiers to become victims.


By comparison, only one person died in an avalanche in Washington last year, Baugher said. Yet “everybody knows” about the dangers of avalanches, the subject of many seminars, he said.


Some people have already heeded the warnings. Mt. Baker Ski Area now hands out safety brochures to educate people on the subject.


But many snow-sports enthusiasts still underestimate the danger of falling into a tree well or deep pile of snow, Baugher believes.


They mistakenly believe that the danger only lies out-of-bounds, in extreme terrain.


Or they assume that their releasable bindings will pop free and they can struggle to escape.


“But when you go in, you go in with a lot of snow that follows you from snow-laden branches,” Baugher said. “As you move around and start to compact that snow, it’s not very long before you’re immobilized.”


And when a skier or snowboarder disappears from sight, skiing buddies sometimes ski down to the lift and wait.



Seven of 10 need help



In his experiment, only three of the 10 volunteers were able to extricate themselves. The rest had to be pulled out, blue and sputtering, Baugher recalled.


“They looked like hell warmed over,” he said.


If anyone remains unconvinced, there’s Laurie Macartney’s story.


While skiing just off a cat track at Crystal Mountain last winter, Macartney lost a ski and fell headfirst into a tree well, dragging snow in with her.


Instantly, she recalled, she knew she was stuck, her body encased. She could move her head, in a helmet, only a quarter inch; her hands, maybe two inches.


She couldn’t move her back or chest.


There was no snow on her face, and she had a small pocket of air. But as an emergency medical technician and 37-year volunteer ski patroller, she knew she was running out of air.


Her husband, John, also a veteran ski patroller, figured Laurie had skied ahead. But as he continued down the hill, he caught sight of a wiggling ski. Unaware that the buried skier was his wife, he began to pull on her legs.


“She was really stuck in there,” John recalled. “The snow had really packed in around her.”


John yelled for help to a skier below, but Laurie Macartney was unconscious by the time the two dug her out.


John, stunned to realize the skier was his wife, began rescue breathing. And Laurie lived to tell the tale.


For the Macartneys, the lesson is that skiing partners should always stay in contact. Laurie had passed out after only about eight minutes, even though her airway was clear.


“Once somebody goes into a tree well, somebody’s going to have to get to them pretty fast,” John Macartney said.


For Wang, the volunteer snowboard patroller at Crystal, his time in the simulated tree well was “eye-opening.” Only a couple years ago, “nobody really paid much attention” to such dangers, he said.


“Hopefully, with Paul’s efforts and the efforts up at Mount Baker, more people will be aware of this,” he said. “Seems like the best defense against it is to not get yourself in that situation.”



Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com