S. J. Sackter: Tree well dangers
February 6, 2008
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 realized 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 also are 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.
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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, Minn.