Forget Avalanches: Tree Wells are the Most Dangerous Obstacles at NorCal Ski Resorts

Heavenly Mountain Resort

If you’ve ever seen any semblance of an avalanche in person, you know why it gets much of the attention when discussing mountain safety. They’re loud, powerful and can mitigate any experienced skier to a helpless ragdoll.

But if you’re at a ski resort, there’s another killer that statistics show should be your main cause of concern.

During the winter of 2018-19, ski resorts saw record snowfall during the month of February. While there were a few small inbound avalanches in the Tahoe area, they didn’t take any lives. Meanwhile, tree wells took two lives during February and March in the Tahoe area. It’s a strong reminder that there are hidden dangers in the powder runs you know and love.

Tree wells are the depressions that are formed at the base of a tree that can be deep holes with loose snow. If you fall into a tree well, it may be impossible to get out and you may not be seen by passerby’s.

In 2019, both 62-year-old Brett Herrick and 40-year-old Danieson Crowder went missing on Tahoe mountains, only to be found dead in tree wells. While their friends and families knew they were on the mountain, ski patrol was unable to locate them in time.

While falling into a tree well can be a scary endeavor, there are some safety precautions you can take to stay safe on the mountain:

Carry a Beacon

This is a tactic used more frequently by big mountain riders, but it’s the best way to make sure you can be located. Without a beacon to let people know where you’re located, it’s nearly impossible to find anyone buried in the snow.

Avalanche transceivers are devices that emit a pulsed radio signal. If one gets buried in an avalanche, other transceivers carried by the party pick up the signal being emitted from under the snow. The receiving transceivers interpret the signal into a visual and audible display that assists the search.

But if you don’t want to shell out the cash for a beacon, try…

Carry a Whistle

Although not as effective as a beacon, a whistle can help alert people nearby of your location, or help ski patrol locate you during their search. This is an inexpensive purchase and could be the difference between life and death.

Ski with a Buddy

Photo: Discover Reno Tahoe

It’s always good to ski with friends, but it’s especially important on a powder day. There are so many reasons avoid skiing alone, as a buddy can help you out in any dangerous situation, including falling into a tree well. Just being able to know you are missing and know your approximate location can help you get rescued quickly. Note: The two skiers who died in tree wells in 2019 were both skiing alone.

Give Trees Their Space

This is obviously easier said than done, as terrain can unexpectedly change as you head down the mountain. But staying near groomed runs and out of forested areas can be the only way to avoid an encounter with a dangerous tree well.

Know the risks of the mountain and be prepared for dangerous situations out there.

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

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