Tree Wells: Silent killers

On Wednesday morning, ski patrollers at Steamboat Springs found the body of Grace Lynn McNeil, a ski instructor at Arapahoe Basin who had been reported missing Tuesday afternoon. McNeil, who was 23 and originally from Michigan, was described as a good skier who had been on her high school ski team. She had been working as a children's ski instructor since April. 

Though the cause of death is unknown at this point, early signs point to the possibility of McNeil falling into a tree well at the bottom of Chute 3 in Christmas Tree Bowl. Earlier this season, a 22-year old CU student, Alex Singer, fell into a tree well at Wolf Creek and died.

A tree well is an area of loose snow that forms at the the base of an evergreen tree, underneath the trees branches. Because of the way the snow blows in around the base of the tree, a skier can sink deeply into the snow in a tree well. If a skier falls into a tree well headfirst, more snow on the branches can fall in and compact around the skier, making it very difficult to extricate himself from the tree well without assistance. A skier trapped in a tree well can quickly suffocate.

According to data from a report treewelldeepsnowsafety.com, in a supervised experiment, 90 percent of skiers voluntarily buried in a tree well were unable to extricate themselves from a tree well without assistance.

I can remember skiing glades at Winter Park a few years ago and falling into a small depression near a tree. While it wasn't a true tree well, in the sense that my head was never buried, getting out took several minutes, and required grabbing onto the tree trunk and branches and doing a delicate ballet till I got my skis lower than my head and I could stand up.

It's a stark reminder: When skiing deep powder in gladed areas, which can be some of the most rewarding terrain to ski, be careful not to ski too close to the trees, and always ski with a partner in sight who can help you should get into trouble.

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Candace Horgan