Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Killers in the Snow: Tree Wells

Ski Season approaches and I really want to be a backcountry skier, however...

Not too many things scare me. Mostly it has to do with not looking like a complete idiot which I guess is what this one is sort of related to.

There are some risks in mountaineering that are not avoidable like going through avalanche areas. I want to be more educated about avalanches so I'm thinking about taking this course:
(I do love the Babes classes)

or IMG's

Which looks totally cool though as always I do worry about not being a good enough skier.

However, going over the course particulars I spy something that has actually keep my up at night worrying about. I actually don't fear avalanches, so much as with avalanches I feel at least I have a chance. What I DO fear is: Tree Wells.

Tree Wells are collections of very soft powdery snow that collect underneath trees. The good thing is that a Tree Well is marked by a (surprise) tree. So if you avoid trees while skiing away from the groomed sloped of the ski resort you'll be fine. And if you want to be sure, then stay above tree line.

But there's a problem. To get above treeline you have to go through trees. AND also I am an intermediate skier who is getting better, but short on confidence, and have run into things (no trees) before on a kayak (for more info see my really long entry about my kayak class). It's called Object Fixation: where you run smack into what you're trying to avoid because you're, well. staring at it. (Look where you WANT to go, not where you don't).

The scary thing about Tree Wells is that they are almost impossible to get out of on your own. You run into the tree and suddenly upend into the super soft quicksand-like powder. Don't believe me? This set of web pages really scares me:

During a test 90% of people (and these are experienced skiers) could not get out on their own. Heebeejeebee.

They even have a clever acronym for it.
NARSID - Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death

It mostly occurs with trees that have a lot of lower limbs, so for a while I was reassuring myself that most of our trees don't have a lot of lower limbs. Then I read page 3. The number one region for NARSIDs is of course British Columbia. #2 is NOT Colorado or Washington State, it's California (eek), then followed by Colorado, then Washington, then Montana, then Oregon, Utah, Idaho, and finally Alaska.

I feel so reassured (not). I really do want to learn to backcountry ski, but NARSIDs usually occur on the ungroomed slopes. of the backcountry.

But the prevention pages give me some hope:

1. Avoid Deep Snow and Tree Areas

My response was: good luck with that, but the text clarified things for me.

"Remember, most of these accidents happen in treed areas during or right after deep snowfalls. Resisting the urge to ski or snowboard through the trees during deep powder conditions, no matter how inviting the untracked powder looks, is the easiest deep snow accident prevention."

Really? That's not so bad. Most of the time I want to backcountry ski is during the climbing season of May and June, which is after ski season. Tons of fresh snow is a rarity (new snow here and there is very common), Most of the snow is in a: warm during the day / refreeze at night cycle. There is not a lot of unconsolidated powder. So it turns out those "powder days" of the winter ski season that advanced skiers worship are the real killers, and during that time I'm at a ski resort or I'm snowshoeing.

The other tips are pretty common sense;
- ski with a partner and check in with them very often
- avoid trees (well duh)
- if you do fall in a Tree Well, clear some airspace by rocking your body gently and not thrashing
- "if you are sliding toward a tree well or a deep snow bank, do everything you can to avoid going inverted into the snow. Grab branches, hug the tree, or roll your body to get your feet below you. Do anything you can to keep your head above the surface or at least your feet below you."
- "carry a transceiver, shovel, probe, and whistle. This is the same personal rescue gear carried by backcountry skiers or snowboarders."

So maybe my fears are unfounded as I'm not a good enough skier to get myself killed that way. (I hope.)

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