When venturing off-piste into the trees or backcountry it is important to understand what they are and how you can prevent any possible unpleasant experiences with them. By continuing to gain knowledge, awareness, and skills, you can make better and more calculated decisions when playing in the mountains.
A tree well is formed when the branches of a tree shelter its trunk from falling snow. This causes a pocket of loose snow around the base of the tree. As snow continues to fall through the season this area grows, becoming deeper and wider.
Never underestimate a tree well! If you accidentally ride too close to the tree, the loosely packed, unbound snow can give way. It can happen in an instant, leaving you trapped in the well. You can end up head first in these wells, making it extremely difficult to get out or even unstrap your board to be able to upright yourself. They can completely drain your energy trying to get out as there is nothing to support your body weight. Loosely packed snow just gives way and suffocation can result. Tree wells sadly cause a number of fatalities to skiers and snowboards every season.
How To Dodge The Dangers Of Tree Wells
- When venturing into the trees, always buddy up and wait at the end of the tree section until you have a head count on everyone in your party.
- After heavy snowfall is when the danger can be most prevalent. There is a saying: “no friends on a powder day”, however, those friends might just save your life if you find yourself in a tree well.
- Pick a line where trees are spread out. Look at the space between the trees, not at the trees. Where you eyes look your body and board can follow. Keep ample space between your body and the tree.
- If you do end up in a tree well, try to roll so you land head up. It will be much easier to get out. Don’t panic if you end up face down in a tree well. If you start to thrash around it may cause the snow to collapse and cover you. Try to grab a branch or push off the trunk if you can to lever yourself out. Let a friend pull you from the feet to get you out.
Safety + Fun = More Fun!
- If you feel yourself going in face first get your hands up to your face / head to create an air pocket. This could give you vital time until someone can come to the rescue.
- Carry a phone with ski patrols / the friend you are out riding withs number on speed dial (or a whistle). When stuck and alone it could be a crucial lifeline. Head out with your phone fully charge and in an easily accessible pocket.
- On a big pow day carry a shovel and probe, it’s an added expense, however, it is definitely worth the money. With the shovel, you can quickly dig a friend out of danger. In a deep tree well, they may disappear completely causing you to have to probe to find the best spot to dig.
- Educate yourself on possible hazards at your resort or vacation destination to maximise your safety. Ask locals or ski patrol about any possible dangers, most resorts will also have complimentary mountain tours with a guide that knows the resort like the back of the hand. This can be an easy way to absorb all the information about the mountain your riding.
Keep in mind the hidden hazard of tree wells and have the focus of snowboarding safety front of mind. Always use common sense and stay present when riding off-piste. Enjoy the pow pow and tree runs with extra awareness and safety cues.
Check out this video to see how awkward and tiring it can be: