Tree Wells Are Responsible For 20% of All Ski Deaths. Do You Know How To Survive One?

Essential advice for escaping one of the biggest mountain killers

This claustrophobia inducing  video shows the dangers of tree wells when you venture under the rope or into the back country.

If you’re not familiar with them, tree wells occur when snow falls around a tree. The lower branches of the tree prevent the snow from compressing firmly.

The result is a deceptive, deep well around the trunk that unwitting skiers and snowboarders can fall into, and become trapped.

As the trapped person tries to free themselves, more snow falls around them, both restricting their movement, and preventing them from breathing properly. In short, it’s like being buried alive.

Sadly, 20 per cent of all ski and snowboard related deaths occur because of tree wells.


Ride with others

Chances of survival without help from at least one other person are chilling low. A staggering 90 per cent of tree well victims fail to free themselves unaided, which highlights the importance of riding with other people when venturing off piste.

However, if you do find yourself stuck in a tree well, all alone, there are a few things you can do to help yourself.


Remain calm

If the worst happens, although difficult and completely counter-intuitive, it’s imperative that you do not panic. Erratic movement will only disrupt the snow further, not only causing more powder to fall in around you, but possibly digging you in further, deeper into trouble. Put your energy into staying calm and thinking clearly.


Hug a tree

Grab on to the tree – ideally the trunk, but any part of the tree – and hang on to it as quickly as you possible can. The tree is a good, solid anchor, so clinging on to it should prevent you from dropping further into the well. It will also make you much easier to find as rescuers will have a very obvious point to work from.

The danger of tree wells – Image: Oliver Keane/


Breathing room

While not always possible, if there’s a pocket of air amid the snow surrounding you, try to use it. Gently move your head towards it and use it to breathe. The falling snow will have taken up a lot of the available space for air, so breathing can be difficult.

That’s why air pockets like this, when they occur, can keep you alive longer, increasing your chances of being rescued significantly.


Make A Move

At some point, if you are alone, you may have to bite the bullet and try to make your own way out. If you have the opportunity, and the energy, you can try to get out alone. However, again, it’s important to remain calm, and be methodical.

Use slow, deliberate rocking movements with your body. This will create air space around you, and the body heat generated may help the surrounding snow to become a little more compact, making it easier to climb out.

If you have enough room, try to turn your body upright – most tree well victims are stuck upside down. If you are close enough to it, use the tree to climb up, and out of the well.

This may well be a long and difficult process, but it is vital to remain positive, and remember that other people have successfully used this technique to escape from tree wells.

“”Tree lines are tempting, but can be a mine field”


Get clear

If you do manage to escape, get clear, away from the tree well as quickly as possible. You will have expended a lot of energy escaping, so the last thing you want to do is fall back into the same well, or another one.


Prevention beats cure

As with most natural hazards, prevention is much better than cure. As tempting as tree lines may be, they’re a potential mine-field, so don’t risk getting too close.

Ride with others, but if you absolutely have to go out alone, tell people where you’re planning to go, and when you’re planning to return.

And always, always take a fully working safety transceiver with you. A shovel is also a good thing to have with you, just incase you stumble across somebody else in trouble. Finding somebody trapped and not being able to help, is second only to being stuck yourself.


Practise makes perfect

It’s worth remembering that these basic tips alone will not keep you safe. Whatever your level of experience, book yourself on a training course if possible.

Practical advice, demonstrations, and the opportunity to practice and learn survival skills could be the difference between life and death should the worst happen.

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