Our View: Seize slope safety opportunity


Editorial Board, May 2008 to August 2008

  • Bryna Larsen, publisher
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Mike Lawrence, city editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Eric Morris, community representative
  • Paul Draper, community representative

Contact the editorial board at (970) 871-4221 or editor@steamboatpilot.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

— Skiing and snowboarding are, by their very nature, dangerous activities. Nonetheless, the recent deaths of a skier and a snowboarder on the slopes of Mount Werner are powerful reminders for ski area operators to take all reasonable action to prevent additional tragedies.

On Jan. 15, 45-year-old Pennsylvania man Mark Joseph Stout died after falling into a tree well in Morningside Park at the Steamboat Ski Area. He had been skiing with his 15-year-old daughter and friends. The official cause of death was suffocation.

Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 25, 22-year-old Massachusetts resident Jared Daniel died after falling into a tree well in Morningside Park. A friend who was snowboarding with Daniel watched him fall into the deep snow, but was unable to make it back up the slope in time to save his life.

Deaths such as Stout's and Daniel's are referred to as Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths, or NARSIDs. Of the six deaths at the Steamboat Ski Area since 2000, four can be classified as NARSIDs.

Tree wells often are the common denominator in NARSIDs. Tree wells are the unstable holes or depressions that form around the base of trees when low branches prevent snow from falling in and creating snowpack around the trunks. Tree wells typically are hidden from plain view and can be so deep that skiers can't free themselves from their grasp. Tree wells usually form around the base of fir trees and other evergreens; aspens generally are not subject to tree well formation.

Unfortunately, tree wells and NARSIDs are unfamiliar terms to many skiers and riders, particularly those who live and ski in areas where deep powder snow is uncommon. That lack of awareness can be fatal when those skiers and riders visit somewhere like Steamboat, where more than 23 feet of snow already has fallen this season. Of course, experienced skiers and riders can just as easily be victims of tree wells and NARSIDs. Good advice is for skiers and riders to always stay within sight of a partner and to carry whistles attached to their season passes or ski jackets. The best advice is to learn about where tree wells typically form and avoid those areas, particularly when skiing or riding alone.

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. and its parent company, Intrawest, have the opportunity to be industry leaders in tree well and NARSID education. We urge them to seize that opportunity.

To date, no such information or signage exists to warn skiers about the specific presence and danger of tree wells. There is no mention of tree wells in the ski area's Responsibility Code, and they are not mentioned in the SlopeWise safety program. Yet four of the past six deaths at the ski area were the result of people falling headfirst into deep snow.

Incorporating tree well and NARSID information on trail maps, the skier Responsibility Code, the ski area's Web site and on signage throughout the ski mountain would be steps in the right direction.

Andy Wirth, vice president of marketing for Ski Corp. and Intrawest, said the companies are "going to do everything we can to think through this and augment what we can do, especially when it comes to tree skiing."

We hope that's the case. Ski Corp. has previously embraced worthwhile safety initiatives, notably the creation of the SlopeWise safety program for the 2005-06 ski season.

Skiers and riders ultimately must take responsibility for their actions and decisions on the slopes. All lift tickets and season passes detail the liability skiers and riders assume when they decide to spend a day at any ski resort. But the untimely deaths of Stout and Daniel should not be in vain.


SJSackter 9 years, 1 month ago

Letter to the Editor:

I was involved in being trapped in a tree well at Park City Utah after a heavy snowfall. I was on a steep slope amongst mixed conifers skiing within my ability, but, inadvertently dropped into a tree well. It was quite deep and well over my head- probably about 9 or 10 feet. Fortunately, I had one of my skis in the hole with me and I landed on my side with my head exposed. I was wedged in and unable to move. Panic set in and I realised that only a calm and focused effort would get me out. The mistakes I made were as follows: I got on the last chair of the day, second from the last non-patrol skier to ride up, I skied into a steep and heavily treed run, and (my biggest mistake) I was alone.

The fact that I was able to calm down and analyze my predicament was what allowed me to eventually use my ski and poles to build a ladder and climb out. I am not certain if a patroller would have found me on a sweep or not- nor did I care to wait.

Tree wells are dangerous, but skiing/snowboarding are also inherently dangerous sports. I believe it is incumbent on skiers/snowboarders to educate themselves as a routine part of learning the sport regarding potential hazards that surround them as they improve in ability and progress to more challenging terrain.

Accidents happen- people, even skilled riders, fall into tree wells. Knowing what to do beforehand may mean the difference between life and death.

It saddens me to read about any loss of life while enjoying such a great sport- be it avalanches, tree wells or on-mountain collisions. I deeply sympathize with families who have lost loved ones.

Some accidents are avoidable, some are not. Natural hazards exist at any ski area and not all can be identified, roped off or bulldozed out. Part of what these obstacles offer is the challenge to negotiate them successfully. Each individual is ultimately responsible for their own actions, and, as such, is responsible for knowing what to do in emergency situations. But- for your own safety: 1) Never ski alone 2)Always wear a helmet

S. J. Sackter St. Paul MN


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