The skier who changed Brian Bell’s attitude about “no friends on powder days” literally drowned in the snow. It was January 17, 2019, another in a seemingly endless stream of fresh snow days at Fernie Alpine Resort in British Columbia.
Two friends were skiing together. Near the end of the day one of them made it to the bottom of the lift, but the other never showed up. When he retraced their tracks he found his buddy in a deep drift. He’d javelined head first into the soft snow and suffocated before help could arrive.
“I was at the resort that day skiing by myself,” says Bell, the program coordinator for an adventure skills diploma program at College of the Rockies in Fernie. “It could have been me. It could have been anyone.”
Look at an untracked slope and the first hazard that comes to mind for most skiers and boarders is avalanche. But when it comes to skiing in bounds, we’re four times more likely to die from drowning in the snow, like that skier in Fernie, or suffocate in a tree well.
“It’s the unspoken killer,” says Bell. “It seems like you should be able to self rescue, but in unconsolidated snow you can’t really. When you wiggle you just go deeper.”
On average four people every winter in the U.S. die from non-avalanche related suffocation, says Paul Baugher, a ski guide, former professional ski patroller and leading expert on snow suffocation. That many have already died this winter. Most involved tree wells, a moat like depression under the boughs of conifer trees. Since, many coroners and even ski patrollers mistaken the cause of death as exposure or collisions, he thinks the actual number a tree well and snow suffocation deaths is probably higher. And the number of incidents are increasing.
“We have more people chasing powder days,” he says. “That’s more exposure to the risk.”
After studying more than 50 snow suffocation deaths Baugher started noticing some trends. The most dangerous time is late in the day after a deep, dry snowfall.
“All the easy powder is tracked out,” he says. “People start skiing in riskier places and in a riskier fashion, like turning really close to trees. They dive a tip or catch up in a drift and go flying head first. That inverted position, particularly in a tree well, can be lethal.” Fly into the boughs of evergreen trees, particularly firs and spruce, and they give way easily, but are hard to push up, like a trap door. Skis and boards can catch up on the branches, pinning the person up side down. The snow inside the moat is especially unconsolidated, providing nothing to push on. And the sides are unstable; the more people struggle the more snow falls down on them.
It’s not just big trees. As part of a class project, Bell and some of his students analyzed hours of YouTube videos of tree well incidents. A surprising number involved small trees.
“They lawn dart right in there,” he says. “It’s a funnel that pins their arms at their sides. If no one sees it happen it can be a death sentence.”
Bell’s class also performed a series of extraction tests, both with volunteers and dummies. Just two out of 20 volunteers were able to self extricate themselves. And digging out the dummies took an average of five minutes and up to 17, about the same as in an avalanche.
“If you get to the bottom of a run and your buddy doesn’t show up, by the time you get back to the top and retrace your tracks, it’s going to be too late,” Bell warns.
It’s why he’s no longer following the usual powder day attitude of never waiting for ski buddies.
“We’re easily lulled into complacency,” he says. “We think being at the resort means the hazards are controlled, but they’re only so much the resort can do. We need to take care of each other out there.”