There sure is a lot of excitement that comes along with big snowfalls of over 6 feet; however, there is also a high level of danger involved – especially with this season’s unusual snowfall.The scary truth is that the odds of surviving a deep snow immersion accident are low, only 10%. Don’t worry, your trusty Sierra snow reporter is here to provide you with all the safety tips needed to have fun and stay safe on the mountain!
Understanding the Dangers of Deep Snow
As a snow sports enthusiast, it is vital to understand the dangers of deep snow and know how to prevent accidents such as NARSID (Non-Avalanche-Related Snow Immersion Death). About 65% of NARSID cases occur in tree wells, while the other 35% take place in deep snow.
You might be asking yourself, what exactly is tree well?! Great question! A tree well is a depression that forms around the base of a tree. These wells are hidden from view by the tree’s low hanging branches and a light blanket of new snow. There is no easy way to identify if a particular tree has a dangerous tree well by sight, so prevention is the best tip I can give you.
The most important prevention step is to remain on groomed trails and resist the urge to ski or ride through the trees during deep powder conditions, no matter how tempting the untouched goods may appear. Check out the daily mountain conditions report for up-to-date information on groomed and ungroomed terrain at Sierra.
Skiing or riding in deep powder-filled tree areas is a choice, so if you go that route ALWAYS REMEMBER:
1. Buddy Up & Keep Them In Sight
It is critical to ski or ride with a partner who remains in visual contact at all times. In many cases, some of the deaths which have occurred due to tree well incidents may have been avoided had:
- the person been with a partner
- the partner saw the person fall and
- the partner was close enough to assist digging the victim out in a timely manner.
It does NO GOOD for your safety if you are under the snow and your partner is waiting for you at the bottom of the lift. If you have any question about what a “timely manner” is to assist someone in a tree well, hold your breath now as you are reading this and the amount of time until you need air is approximately how much time your partner has to help get you out of danger. Other factors such as creating an air pocket or the nature of how you fall into the well may extend this critical timeframe.
VISUAL CONTACT means stopping and watching your partner descend at all times, then proceeding downhill while he or she watches you at all times. IF YOU LOSE VISUAL SIGHT OF YOUR PARTNER, YOU COULD LOSE YOUR FRIEND.
2. Ski or Ride Defensively
· Choose areas of widely spaced trees. You should be able to ski or ride between the trees so that if you lose control you do not fall into a tree well.
· As you ski or ride, avoid looking at trees, rather look at the areas in between them and your body will usually follow suit.
· If you are a skier, remove your pole straps before heading down a powder slope. Trapped skiers have difficulty removing the pole straps, which can hamper efforts to escape or clear an air space to breathe.
3. Carry Backcountry Gear
Carry the same personal rescue gear as backcountry skiers or snowboarders:
· Fully Charged Cell Phone
MOST IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP – What to do if you go down??
· Avoid going down.If you are sliding toward a tree well or a deep snow bank, do everything you can to avoid going down: grab branches, hug the tree, or anything to stay above the surface.
· Resist the urge to struggle violently.The more you struggle, the more snow will fall into the well from the branches and area around the well and compact around you.
· Make a breathing space around your face,instead of panicking. Then move your body carefully in a rocking manner to hollow out the snow and give you space and air.
· Stay calm. Hopefully, your partner will have seen what happened and will come to your rescue within minutes. If not, experts advise staying calm while waiting for assistance. Survival chances are improved if you maintain your air space. Over time, heat generated by your body, combined with your rocking motions, will compact the snow, and you may be able to work your way out
Avalanches are an inherent risk of the sport due to the nature of snow and its application on steep, mountainous terrain.
When skiing and snowboarding you get to decide what level of risk you want to accept. If you do choose to accept the risks of skiing and snowboarding in deep powder snow or in the trees, you can significantly reduce the risk of a tree well or deep snow accident. Awareness is the key to safety on the slopes so pass this on to all of your friends and family!
Stay safe out there and have fun!
Content by Mt. Baker Ski Area, Inc. 2006
Excerpts from article written by Robert Cadman, PhD