Tree wells or snow traps — quite dangerous

Tree wells or snow traps — quite dangerous


Whether you are a mountain skier or a snowboarder, nothing beats a ride down after a heavy sprinkling of fresh snow. However, what might look like a smooth ride is fraught with danger which not all of us are aware of. Below, we are going to look at tree wells, also known as spruce or snow traps.

Elephant Skiers’ trap

If you think it’s only an avalanche that can get you trapped while riding downhill, watch out for tree wells, hidden areas of loose snow around a tree.

A tree well is an area of low-density snow that is often formed under evergreen trees, such as fir, with large branches. The hanging branches block snow from accumulating under the tree in large quantities, creating an area of loose snow (a mix of snow and air). Such voids are hard to spot as they are hidden by the tree’s low hanging branches, which makes it virtually impossible for riders to tell where the danger lies.

Tree wells typically occur after heavy snowfalls, when a certain amount of fresh snow fills the space under the tree. It does not usually fill it up, but creates a soft blanket of loose snow which might become a deadly trap for inexperienced outdoor enthusiasts.

This is what it looks like tree wells. Illustration: Valerya Milovanova / 

Skiers or snowboarders fall into these traps, often headfirst, which significantly increases the risks of injury or suffocation. Similar wells can occur in areas full of rocks or boulders. As the snow falls, it creates a fluffy cover between the boulders and hides a dangerous trap underneath. If you fall in, you might either hit the rocks or get stuck hanging upside down. Getting out of such snow traps is extremely hard.

How to avoid going down a tree well?

It’s hardly a secret for anyone that riding down the maintained areas away from trees is the safest way to enjoy a great day out on the slopes. If however you venture into an unmaintained terrain, being aware of the relief or avoiding pronounced changes in heights is a great plan. When riding in the forest, keep a safe distance of at least 1.5 meters from the trees. Be particularly cautious when riding after heavy snowfall.

What should you do if you fall in a tree well?

First and foremost, keep calm. Desperately hectic movements, struggle and panic will make the situation worse, as you will get exhausted very quickly with more snow falling on top of you and you’ll just sink further into the hole.

First, make sure you can breathe freely. Since it is almost impossible to breathe in loose snow, try to create some breathing space. With snowflakes entering the lungs and melting, you can end up in a vicious cycle of gulping for more air and then coughing as a reflex, which will make you take another deep breath. To avoid this, hold your breath and try to create an air pocket around your mouth and nose. Pull your ski mask or hat down and cover your face with your hands. It will buy you some precious time. If you are trapped for a while, make sure no ice crust forms on the walls of the snow chamber. This can be formed with your breath and body heat, and it will ultimately block the access of oxygen. If you see a crust forming, do whatever you can to break it.

Once you have got your breathing under control, try to get out of the snow trap. In order to do this, remove your skis or snowboard and try to turn your head up as slowly as possible. To get out of loose snow, you may need something to hold on to. Ideally, grab the tree or branches as you slide into the hole. Branches or the trunk will be an excellent support that will help you turn around and get out of the snow trap. If it isn’t possible to reach the tree immediately, slowly move towards it, because you will be able to pull yourself up with the help of the branches. Make sure all your movements are gentle and slow.

Branches or the trunk will be an excellent support that will help you turn around and get out of the snow trap

If possible, shout or whistle to get attention. Use a walkie-talkie as it’s much more accessible and convenient than a phone. If you are trapped, hands-free mode or a push-to-talk button will be of great help.

The best way to reduce risks is riding in an organized group, where visual contact is essential and each rider is ready to come to your aid if it is required.

How can I help a fellow rider?

If you are riding in a group and have lost contact with a fellow rider, assume that they may have fallen into a tree well. Don’t lose precious time waiting for them at the bottom of the slope, try to re-establish contact and make sure everything is fine.

If your partner falls into a tree well, don’t leave in search for help, as they may suffocate whilst you’re away. In larger groups, one of you can call ski patrol, while others should join forces to begin the rescue effort immediately. The main challenge is to make sure the person can actually get some oxygen to breathe. Do not slide down the tree well yourself, instead keep expanding the passage from the side following the shortest route. Do not try to pull your partner out tugging their leg or skis; tunnel in from the side towards their head.

So, let’s recap on some basic safety rules:

  • maintain visual contact with your partner at all times;
  • avoid skiing on the rocks and steer clear of large trees, especially after heavy snowfall at the beginning of the season;
  • make sure your phone and walkie-talkie are charged, use the external microphone in order to call for help immediately;
  • use hi-vis clothing to remain visible to the rest of your group;
  • should you ski in the forest with a rocky terrain, avoid straps on your ski poles.


Text: team

Illustration: Valerya Milovanova, an illustrator with a degree from the British Higher School of Art an Design (BHSAD) of Universal University

Cover photo: Holy-Mandarich / Unsplash

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