Nicole Inglis: Quicksand on the mountain
February 24, 2012
Steamboat Springs — For an instant, my face was covered with snow. It was cold, dry and still. Nothing like the continuous wave of snow I'd felt on my face coming down Storm Peak South earlier Monday morning, skiing an untracked run of more than 30 inches of fresh snow.
I easily wiped the snow from my face and took a breath. I wasn't sure exactly how I'd come to be lying there in the trees to the left of Concentration. I had been traversing through the trees, looking for a few waist-deep turns before lunch, when I got tangled up and fell sideways.
I dug my forearm in to try and push myself out of the snow. I sank, slowly.
Suddenly, I became aware that my feet were above my head and my head was several feet below near the trunk of a medium-sized conifer.
A surge of fear accompanied the realization: I was stuck in a tree well.
In the loose snow that gathers around the base of evergreen trees is a hidden trap that hasn't been talked about much during this low snow year.
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But all it takes is one storm.
I was lucky that my head wasn't buried in the snow and that the tree well wasn't that large.
But that didn't make it any less frightening. My legs were tangled, and my shoulders were below the snow, which is nearly 70 inches deep at midmountain. Walls of snow 3 feet high stretched above my head, and there was nothing but quicksand below.
According to tree well safety website http://www.deepsnowsafety.org, which is run by the Northwest Avalanche Institute, hazardous tree wells can develop even around smaller evergreens.
According to the site, tree well accidents occur most commonly after big storms.
Tree well danger most recently hit close to home two winters ago when 22-year-old Grace Lynn McNeil was found dead in a tree well at the base of Chute 3 in January 2010. In the 2007-08 ski season, two men died in tree wells in Morningside Park, and a man died in deep snow in 2005 near Chute 2.
I would be lying if I said I didn't have a fleeting thought about being left there forever, but my skiing partner was within yelling distance.
It took me 15 minutes to work my way out. I had to remove one ski and writhe and wiggle to an upright position. Even then, I was armpit deep in snow and barely able to move. There were moments when I thought I wouldn't have the energy to get myself out. The voice of my skiing partner kept me calm, but I shook as I put my ski back on.
This column isn't meant to take the wind out of a great powder day's sails.
It's about recognizing this one moment of fear among the countless moments of bliss experienced that day.
Because on Monday, the thousands of skiers hooting and hollering as waves of Champagne Powder cascaded over their heads were so very in the moment.
But those moments are fleeting. They come and go, if they come at all.
On Sunday, when the beginnings of a legendary powder day were just beginning to fall from the skies, an avalanche near Stevens Pass, Wash., took the lives of three expert skiers, all influential ski industry personalities.
But as avalanche forecaster Spencer Logan said Wednesday, the avalanche doesn't know you're an expert.
In our relatively brief visits to the mountains, it's our responsibility to keep an important adage in mind: Live to ski another day.
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com