When Paula Lepporoli saw the snowboard attached to feet that weren't moving, she was sure the rider was dead.
Lepporoli, a ski patroller at Steamboat Ski Area, was skiing through the trees on Typhoon, between Cyclone and Tornado, just before 11 a.m. Saturday when a snowboard snagged in a branch caught her eye. Lepporoli's training kicked in as she popped off her skis and rushed to help. She dug out the rider's head, stuck 3 1/2 feet under the snow in a tree well.
"He wasn't breathing when I got there, and I cleared his airways, and he started breathing," the 20-year Ski Patrol veteran said. "It took us 10 minutes to get him out of there."
The 40-year-old Denver man survived and wasn't hospitalized, Lepporoli said. He has a wife and a 3-year-old son, she said. Lepporoli cleared compacted snow from the man's nose, mouth and throat. She didn't have to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
"After I got him out, he said, 'I knew I was in trouble. Every time I tried to move, I got further down,'" Lepporoli said.
Tree wells are unstable holes or depressions that form around the bases of trees when low branches prevent snow from filling in and creating snowpack around the trunk. Two men died from apparent suffocation in tree wells last winter at Steamboat Ski Area.
The man was with friends on the slopes, but they were way ahead of him, she said. The man said he was an experienced rider, which meant he was riding within his abilities, she said.
Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said the agency didn't have the man's name. This incident was the agency's first tree well problem of the season, he said.
Kohnke reminded people to ride with others and to watch out for one another.
"The general thing is never underestimate nature," he said.
Skiers and riders sometimes assume the main tree well danger comes on powder days, Kohnke said. But people sometimes get caught in granular, heavy spring snow.
"That phenomenon puts you at risk for skiing," he said. "Sometimes, people think it's only on big snow years with powder."
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. has tried to keep skiers and riders informed, spokesman Mike Lane said.
"We've definitely been very proactive with trying to educate people about what you encounter on the mountain, whether it's tree wells or obstacles or deep snow," Lane said.
The rider wasn't thinking about tree wells Saturday, Lepporoli said. He was snowboarding through the trees when he caught the front edge of his board in snow. The snag threw the rider downhill into a pine tree well where the snow wasn't compacted, Lepporoli said.
"It kind of took him off guard because we haven't had a lot of new snow lately," she said. "This was a north-facing treed slope, so the snow in there is still pretty good, pretty light, so it was all powdery snow that he came down in."
The man probably would have died if he hadn't gotten help, Lepporoli said, adding that he was "suffocating for sure."
"We got lucky on Saturday," she said.
Lepporoli was in the right place at the right time, Kohnke said. She's a professional, full-time Ski Patrol employee who has worked at the Steamboat Ski Area for 20 years.
She and two other Ski Patrol friends sat with the man for about 20 minutes to make sure he was OK. He passed the patrol's test for being mentally alert and neurologically safe. Lepporoli then skied down with him.
"I'm pretty pumped, for him mostly," she said. "He has a little 3-year-old son and a wife. He said, 'Now, I get to go home to my wife.' He was so thankful. It was awesome."
She said it was heartening to be able to save someone from a tree well after last year's deaths.
"I just got there right in the nick of time," Lepporoli said. "Right in the nick of time."
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