WHITEFISH – The recent death of a Whitefish snowboarder is raising questions about tree well safety.

“Tree wells generally form when we’re getting lots of snow at a quick period. It’s basically dry, loose unconsolidated snow that forms at the base of some of our trees. Probably one of the more underestimated hazards of skiing in the trees,” explained Jeff Soyland with the ski patrol at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

A tree well is a void that forms around the base of a tree and can contain low hanging branches, loose air, and snow. There is no way to tell whether a tree has a well or not so it is best to treat every tree as if it were dangerous.

Soyland says if you do get caught, the smallest thing you bring with you might be the thing that saves your life.

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“Don’t use pole straps. If your hand is in there and you get confined in a tree well, you don’t have use of your hands, so you want to kind of keep your hands out of the pole straps when you’re skiing in the trees,” Soyland said.

“Have a whistle close to your mouth so that if you were to get into trouble get into a tree well, you can alert your partner let them know that you’re having trouble,” he added.

Both Soyland and the American Avalanche Institute recommend that the safest way to avoid tree wells is by going on groomed runs only. But it is inevitable that skiers and snowboarders will still go through the trees on those powder days, so, they had some tips for them as well.

“You know, that’s often times where some of the best powder is, is in the trees. So, some things to think about is [to] use the buddy system. Try to keep your partners in sight be there to aid them and then they will be there to help you if you get into trouble,” Soyland told MTN News.

Many times when riders fall into wellsthey go face first, and that can be life-threatening as it is nearly impossible to get out without the help of others. Soyland says if you are digging a friend out of a well, ensuring they have air is the most important step.

“If you go to get your partner out of a tree well you want to just dig in from the side and expose their face expose their airway because basically, they need oxygen they are drowning in deep snow. And the sooner that you can expose that airway get them oxygen, the greater chance of survival.”

Skiers and snowboarders need to remember to ski with a buddy.

-Jack Ginsburg reporting for MTN

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