A pair of skiers line up next to a tree well warning sign as they wait to load the Morningside lift Wednesday afternoon at Steamboat Ski Area.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

A pair of skiers line up next to a tree well warning sign as they wait to load the Morningside lift Wednesday afternoon at Steamboat Ski Area.

Awareness week to promote education after this month’s tree well death

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The Steamboat Ski Area will hold booths, distribute information, host safety sessions and generally promote awareness of ski safety during the National Safety Awareness Week this week, organized by the National Ski Areas Association.

— As ski areas across Colorado gear up for National Safety Awareness Week, which started Saturday and runs through Friday, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. has a special interest in promoting tree well safety and is finding new ways to educate skiers.

An Arapahoe Basin Ski and Snowboard Area instructor, Grace Lynn McNeil, was found dead in a tree well Jan. 6 at the bottom of Chute 3 at Steamboat Ski Area. In January 2008, two other skiers died in the natural hazards.

Although all ski areas face the challenge of preventing tree well deaths, because the quicksand-like snow at the base of trees is a natural result of heavy snowfall, Steamboat Ski Area is particularly prone to tree wells because of its tree skiing and traditionally deep powder.

Dave Byrd, director of education for the National Ski Areas Association, which is organizing the safety week, said Steamboat is one of the few areas in the state with enough snow right now to have a risk of tree wells. He said that Ski Corp. didn’t do anything wrong in the case of McNeil and that education, signs and patrolling all are good ways to help keep skiers and riders safe.

Steamboat is tackling the issue through education and new signs scheduled to debut at the National Ski Areas Ass­ociation conference Tuesday and Wednesday in Steamboat.

There is a warning sign at the base of the Morningside Lift, an area known for deep, ungroomed powder, and the new sign will be placed at several more locations, including at the top of the lift where Chute 3 starts, Ski Corp. spokeswoman Loryn Kasten said.

Ski Patrol Director John Ko­h­nke said ski patrollers also would distribute information during National Safety Awareness Week from a booth at the base of the ski area with tips about how to avoid falling into tree wells.

Tree well experts say that once a person is in a tree well, it can be very difficult to get out, so the best way to stay safe is to avoid the evergreen trees with overhanging boughs that cause tree wells to form.

Kohnke said tree well safety information is being added to school education programs, with patrollers visiting every school in Routt County in the next couple of weeks.

“I think education is the single most important thing that you can do when you think about all the trees that are up there,” he said. “What makes Steamboat unique is our tree scheme. No other ski area, or very few, in Colorado has anything like Steamboat.”

Kasten said that during the safety week, the Steamboat Springs Fire Department will staff a booth at the base area and will raffle off two helmets and raise money for avalanche beacons for training.

Equipment

Byrd said equipment such as beacons and avalungs —devices that allow people to breathe when trapped under the snow — can be important lifesaving tools for people skiing in expert terrain or outside of ski boundaries. McNeil died on a double-black-diamond run with a grade of 61.8 percent — the third steepest on the mountain after Chutes 2 and 1.

“There’s not a silver bullet on this issue,” Byrd said, but staying close to friends and moving carefully around the trees are two ways skiers and riders can keep themselves safe.

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