There are lots of rumors circulating around the blogosphere today. (If you haven’t heard, the US Outdoor Store has reportedly purchased Mount Hood.) But here’s a cold hard truth: all that deep snow on the mountain this week comes with a hidden danger. Namely, tree wells.
Basically, as the name implies, the trouble occurs in deep snow around the base of trees, especially our variety of big evergreen trees. These trees sport big tree bows, which can prevent snow from consolidating around a tree’s base. This allows holes or depressions to form around the tree. The branches above in turn can hide these holes, essentially creating a trapdoor for skiers and riders to fall into.
If that doesn’t sound all that scary, consider this: these holes can measure six feet deep. And in a controlled experiment 90% of people who were placed in a tree well could not remove themselves (especially if they were face down). And while the volunteers for this study had plenty of snow safety experts on hand to yank them out, had they been left alone, they most likely would have suffocated.
To be sure, such incidents are rare. About 60 million people visit ski hills each year. And over the past five years there have only been about three tree well related deaths per year. But you don’t have to look far from home for tragic incidents. In 2007 a rider that had visited Mount Hood Meadows for years died after suffocating in a tree well.
So what can you do? Quite simply you could avoid any un-groomed areas where such dangers lurk. But since that probably isn’t going to happen, the number one rule is: ski with a buddy. By that I mean actually ski with your buddy—where you can see them and they can see you. If the snow hits the fan, they’re likely going to be the only ones that can provide help in time and vice versa.
But it’s also worth taking a few minutes to read up on the unfortunate phenomenon. The NW Avalanche Institute helps maintain an informative site on the topic. (A little knowledge goes a long way.)
And remember, nobody’s telling you not to go shred some pow, least of all me. But just be careful out there. Because winding up as the lead story for the 11:00 news ain’t no laughing matter.