With 15 years in the snow sports industry, John Bell has seen a lot of snow and experienced a lot of different terrain.
But there’s one memory in particular that sticks out in his mind.
On a trip to a BC resort in 2014, Bell – who’s worked as a ski patroller, ski instructor, is a member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, and is certified by the Canadian Avalanche Association – was skiing in the trees with friends and “saw a ski next to an open hole” in a creek.
“I pulled over and found a person hanging upside down in the hole holding their head out of running water with their arms,” Bell told Daily Hive. “They were unable to get out on their own and it took two people to pull them out.”
Fortunately, the person wasn’t hurt, “but after getting wet in minus temperatures hypothermia wasn’t far off,” he furthered. The person was skiing alone “in an area marked with creek warnings, and it’s unlikely they would have lasted much longer if they hadn’t been rescued.”
For Bell, who was born and raised in Vancouver, but is now currently based out of Revelstoke, the incident was a stark reminder of a common mistake people make while skiing – particularly in the early season: “Skiing in marginal conditions and pushing themselves too hard,” he said.
Tree wells and early season hazards
While winter has arrived and the majority of BC’s ski resorts are now open – including Whistler, Cypress, Seymour, and Grouse – early season hazards do remain, Indeed, a snowboarder died on Whistler Blackcomb just last month, after falling into loose, unconsolidated snow.
And while tree wells are a hazard all season long, they “can be particularly unstable in early season” before the snowpack has settled, Bell explained. Basically holes in the ground underneath trees, they’re created when “branches prevent falling snow from reaching the ground the same way it does in open areas.”
People get stuck in them because once they’ve fallen in, the loose collapsable snow around the tree makes it almost impossible to climb out – especially if they’ve fallen in head first.
And while they can potentially spell big trouble, there are easy ways to avoid them.
“Choosing runs that have more open spaces between trees and not stopping or skiing near any trees,” Bell offered. “Skiing with a buddy and keeping them within sight, and regrouping regularly can also mitigate these hazards.”
Other common mistakes include ignoring resort closures and ducking boundary ropes.
Why do people make these mistakes in the first place?
“There is a tendency for people to try and pick up where they left off at the end of the last season without taking into account the atrophy of specific skills and strength during the off season,” Bell answered. “Excitement and over-confidence can also play a large role in making mistakes.”
Playing safe while having fun
The fact that risks exist in the mountains should not be a reason to avoid them altogether.
It’s possible to have “great fun” in the early season, and keep injury risk low, Bell noted. “Pick your lines carefully,” he said. “Stick together, and respect the mountain, yourself, and your fellow riders. ”
On its website, Revelstoke Mountain Resort offers a list of ideas for playing safe in the trees.
If you fall in a tree-well:
- Yell or use whistle to get your partners attention.
- Do whatever you can to keep your head above the surface of the snow including rolling, grabbing tree branches or the tree trunk. If possible, keep your feet below level of your head.
- If you become immersed, make a space around your face and protect your airway – resist the urge to struggle, it could compromise your airspace and entrap you further.
- Stay calm to conserve air.
- Trust your partner is on their way.
- If possible, use your cell phone to call ski patrol or the resort’s emergency number.
If your riding partner falls in a tree well:
- Don’t leave to get help – Stay with your partner.
- Call for additional resources. Use a whistle or yell for assistance. If possible, call ski patrol or the resort’s emergency phone number.
- Evaluate scene safety for yourself.
- Immediately begin rescue efforts.
- Go directly for the airway, and keep it clear, be careful not to knock more snow into the hole. Clear any snow from the airway and continue necessary first aid or extrication effort.
- Do not try to pull victim out the way they fell in. Instead, determine where the head is and tunnel in from the side.
- When tunnelling directly for the airway be careful not to knock more snow into the hole.
- Continue expanding the tunnel to the airway until you can extricate the body. Efficient “strategic shovelling techniques” with multiple rescuers is very useful.