Last week’s tragedy at the Mt. Shasta Ski Park has raised awareness of the dangers skiers and snowboarders face in deep snow situations, and leaves people asking what they’d do if they found themselves in a similar situation.

Last week’s tragedy at the Mt. Shasta Ski Park has raised awareness of the dangers skiers and snowboarders face in deep snow situations, and leaves people asking what they’d do if they found themselves in a similar situation.

Statistically speaking, skiing and snowboarding are relatively safe activities. According to the National Ski Areas Association, During the 2009/2010 season, 38 fatalities occurred out of the 59.8 million skier/snowboarder days reported for the season. Comparatively speaking, 39,000 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents and 900 died while bicycle riding in 2008, according to the National Safety Council.
The death of 23 year old Mount Shasta resident Alexander Gautreaux is the second at the Mt. Shasta Ski Park in its 25 years. The last fatality occurred in March 2006, when snowboard instructor Javier Salas died in a similar accident.

Salas was found off a run headfirst in powder snow in a tree well, and attempts with CPR to revive him were unsuccessful. The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department reported Salas died of asphyxiation.

Accidents like these are known as  Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths, according to Paul Baugher, the risk manager at Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington, who compiles detailed information on the subject.

Sixty-five percent of NARSID deaths occur when a skier or snowboarder falls into a tree well – a hole or a depression that forms around a tree when low hanging branches prohibit snow from filling in and consolidating around its base. The others happen when a person finds themselves immersed in deep powdery snow and become trapped.

When skiing or snowboarding in areas of deep powdery snow which are off the well packed, groomed trail, dangerous tree wells are generally undetectable, Baugher said. If a person falls in, they can become immobilized, and the more they struggle, the more entrapped in the snow they become.

Many NARSID accidents happen during or just after big snowfalls. This was the case on Thursday, when more than two feet of fresh snow fell at the Mt. Shasta Ski Park. This is a time when many advanced skiers and snowboarders venture off the groomed trails in search of powder snow.

Gautreaux’s death is the seventh reported NARSID death to occur in the US this season, said Baugher. On average, 3.5 people die each year in NARSID related accidents in the US. An average of 38 people die annually at US ski areas from collisions, avalanches and trauma from hitting trees, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

In two recent studies in the US and Canada, volunteers were temporarily placed headfirst in a tree well. Ninety percent of the volunteers were not able to rescue themselves, Baugher said. Therefore, skiing or snowboarding with a partner is one of the most important safety measures a person can take.

“It’s very important to have a partner that keeps you in sight,” Baugher said. “It’s not enough to have a buddy... most of the (NARSID) fatalities did have buddies with them, but they were not in sight” when they fell into the tree well.

“If you lose sight of your partner, you may lose your friend,” Baugher said.

Safety tips
Experts have compiled a list of safety measures which can dramatically decrease accident rates and increase chances of survival if an accident occurs.

The most important way to prevent such an accident is to remain on groomed runs, resisting the urge to ski or snowboard through the trees during deep powder conditions.

If you choose to ski or snowboard in the ungroomed, deep snow areas, remember the following:

• Ski with a partner who remains in visual contact with you at all times and stays close enough to either dig or pull you out. If you do see your partner go down, immediately try to dig out their face so they can get air. If they are completely upside down, do not uncover the feet first. Instead, decide where their head is create an air tunnel, Baugher said. Never leave your partner to get help. It will most likely come too late.

• Carry rescue gear – the same personal rescue gear as backcountry skiers or snowboarders, including a transceiver, shovel, probe and whistle.

• Remove pole straps. Trapped skiers have difficulty removing the pole straps, which can hamper efforts to escape or clear air space to breathe.

If you do find yourself in an emergency situation, the following tips may save your life:

• If you are sliding toward a tree well or a deep snow bank, do everything you can to avoid going down such as grabbing branches, hugging the tree, or anything to stay above the surface.

• If you must fall in a tree well, try to fall feet first as opposed to head first, Baugher said. In studies, it was discovered that the more inverted the trapped person was, the more difficult it was for them to get out.

• If you do fall in a tree well, resist the urge to struggle. The more you wiggle, the more snow will fall and compact around you, a bit like quicksand.

• Instead of panicking, try first to make a breathing space around your mouth and nose. Then move your body carefully in a rocking manner to hollow out the snow, which will give you space and air.

• Stay calm while waiting for assistance. Survival chances are improved if you maintain your air space.
Over time, heat generated by your body combined with your rocking motions will compact the snow, and you may be able to work your way out. Use your cell phone to try to call for help if you can safely reach it.

For more information about NARSID and how to protect yourself from dangerous tree wells, visit the website www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com.