Tree wells are a hole or depression that forms around the base of a coniferous (pine) tree. (Contributed)

Big White warns skiers to avoid tree wells after two fatalities at other resorts

Tree wells form when low branches at the base of coniferous trees stop snow from settling at trunk

Skiing in the southern Okanagan can be extremely fun and even exhilarating at times, but it can also be deadly.

In response to the recent deaths of a skier and a snowboarder in the Kootenays, Big White Ski Resort is warning its visitors to stay clear of tree wells.

On Jan. 20, a snowboarder was found unresponsive in a tree well in the backcountry near Whitewater Ski Resort.

According to the RCMP, the snowboarder was discovered in a tree well shortly after noon by a passerby who began CPR and called for support. The man was then transported to a first aid station at the resort where BC Ambulance Services pronounced him dead. Then, just hours later another man was found unresponsive in the snow among the trees at Fernie Alpine Ski Resort.

Kris Hawryluik, director of ski patrol at Big White, said tree wells are a real danger this year because of the all the snow they’ve had.

“Historically what we’ve noticed here at Big White is once you reach the two-meter mark with snowpack depths the tree wells become a high-risk factor,” said Hawryluik.

“We’ve surpassed the two-meter mark two weeks ago, so then the tree wells become a real hazardous thing on the hill and they’re everywhere. The wells are typically around coniferous trees, which is all we have here at Big White. So, top to bottom, every single run, that’s where the hazard exists.”

READ MORE: UPDATE: Kelowna snowboarder being mourned at Big White

Tree wells are formed when low branches at the base of coniferous trees stop the snow from compacting and settling around the trunk. To make things worse, it is nearly impossible to tell how deep the depression is, as the low lying branches of the tree block the sight.

“As far as mitigating the risk, there’s nothing (the ski patrol) can do,” said Hawryluik.

“It’s just a fact of nature. Now, it’s up to the individual.”

READ MORE: Skier dies at Fernie Alpine Resort

Hawryluik recommends that beginner and intermediate skiers stay on the marked trails at all costs. For more advanced skiers that venture off piste, he strongly encourages skiing with a partner and to have a pre-determined meeting place. In addition, partners should always have visual contact and if you lose visual contact it’s good to call out, or even better yet, carry a whistle.

But, in the event that someone falls into a tree well, he said it is absolutely vital that you stay calm and wait for help.

“If you do go into the tree well and you’re feet first, try to take your skis or board off and you can use the tree branches as a bit of a latter to crawl out,” said Hawryluik.

“Now, if you go head first, which is common when you go into tree wells, try and call out for help and the important thing is don’t struggle, don’t panic. If you start to panic you will sink deeper and deeper.

Other tips include:

  • Yell or use whistle to get your partners attention.
  • Do whatever you can to keep your head above the surface of the snow including rolling, grabbing tree branches or the tree trunk. If possible, keep your feet below level of your head.
  • If you become immersed, make a space around your face and protect your airway – resist the urge to struggle, it could compromise your airspace and entrap you further.
  • Stay calm to conserve air.
  • Trust your partner is on their way.

According to Hawryluik, in 87 per cent of tree well fatalities a piece of the person, whether it be a ski or a leg is visible. So, if you don’t struggle, it gives people a visual indicator of your location.

When asked about tree well related deaths at Big White, Hawryluik would not give numbers but did want to make it known that there have been instances throughout the resort’s history.

If you or anybody else is trapped in a tree well do not hesitate to call ski patrol at (250-491-6160).

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