After losing one skier and one snowboarder to off-piste tree well accidents, Whitefish Mountain Resort officials are urging those wishing to take advantage of the deep powder covering the mountain to familiarize themselves with risks and safety techniques related to Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths, or NARSIDs.
A 29-year-old snowboarder lost his life in a tree well in an off-piste area at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Saturday, Jan. 8, less than a week after a 16-year-old skier was removed from life support after becoming trapped in a tree well in the same area of the mountain on Dec. 29.
“This has been a very sad and tragic two weeks for all of us at Whitefish Mountain Resort,” said Winter Sports, Inc. President and CEO Daniel photo: photo: alpinedave.com
Graves. “Losing three lives in two weeks, two in tree wells and one due to natural causes, affects us all deeply, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and families of the victims.”
A tree well is an area of deep, unconsolidated snow that forms beneath the overhanging branches of evergreen trees as the surrounding snow pack deepens. When a skier or snowboarder falls into a tree well, the loose snow packs in around and on top of them, making it very difficult to move and/or free oneself. Further struggle can worsen the predicament.
According to the industry-created website TreeWellDeepSnowSafety.com, 90% of volunteers placed into tree wells in two experiments could not rescue themselves.
For this reason, the only way to effectively prevent tree well and other NARSID deaths is to ski within sight of a ski buddy at all times, close enough to reach them in the amount of time a person can reasonably hold their breath.
“I think you need to ski off-piste similarly to how you ski back country or avalanche terrain,” said Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol Director Tary King. “Have a plan in place and stick to it. Talk to each other about how you are going to ski each run and stay close enough to help your buddy if needed.”
Resort spokesman Donnie Clapp added that skiing with tree wells in mind is different from how many experienced skiers and snowboarders explore the mountain with friends.
“It means I watch you ski a bit, then you stop and watch me ski a bit, and then we repeat. It does not mean regrouping at the lift and making sure everyone is there,” said Clapp.
King said that if a skier or snowboarder goes missing, Ski Patrol should be called immediately at 406-862-2940.
“It is better to err on the side of caution,” said King. “Let us use our resources to help you find your friend. I promise we won’t be upset if he or she turns up safe and sound somewhere.”
Neither of the two recent Whitefish Mountain Resort tree well victims had a ski buddy within sight or earshot at the time they became immersed in a tree well. Waeschle’s skis were spotted protruding from the snow after he had been trapped for an unknown amount of time. The 29-year-old victim of Jan. 8 was reported missing after he failed to rendezvous with friends for après-ski drinks at the end of the day.
“While there are few things more enjoyable to skiers and boarders than deep powder snow, it is so important to remember that skiing and riding come with inherent risks,” said Graves. “This should serve as a reminder to us all to keep a buddy in visual contact often.”
Resort officials are urging anyone who is planning to venture off of groomed trails, whether it may be their first time or they have been skiing powder for years, to visit TreeWellDeepSnowSafety.com before the next time they go skiing or snowboarding.