Montana’s ski season began with the promise of deep powder and plenty of snowstorms after a solid snow accumulation early in the winter. However, the snowy season has also been riddled with accidents thus far, with two skier deaths and two skiers lucky to have escaped an avalanche.
On Jan. 2, 16-year-old Niclas Waeschle died after spending several days in the hospital in critical condition. He was discovered unresponsive in a tree well at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 29, according to Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry.
An exchange student from Ulm, Germany, Waeschle’s family flew to Kalispell and eventually decided to discontinue life support.
The cause of death is still under investigation, Curry said, but suffocation is a preliminary guess.
In mid-December, a Philipsburg man in his early 20s died after hitting a tree while making one of the first runs of the day at Discovery Ski Area. On Dec. 27, two Missoula-area skiers, ages 32 and 42, avoided major injury in an avalanche outside the boundaries of the Snowbowl ski area.
On Dec. 29, skiers found Waeschle stuck in a tree well and pulled him out. According to Whitefish Mountain Resort spokesman Donnie Clapp, a licensed nurse was skiing in the area and performed CPR until ski patrol arrived and took over treatment.
Clapp said it is unknown how long the skier was stuck in the tree well or whether he was skiing alone or with friends. A tree well is a potentially deep pocket of loose snow that forms beneath the overhanging branches of evergreen trees as snow levels rise in the area surrounding the tree, Clapp said.
Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol brought the skier to a clinic operated by North Valley Hospital in the mountain’s base area for further evaluation, where medical personnel identified a pulse. He was taken to Kalispell Regional Medical Center afterward.
Conditions during the incident included 20 mph winds, blowing snow, and a temperature of 19 degrees. Wind-blown snowdrifts of more than 18 inches were reported throughout the mountain, Clapp said.
Tree wells can trap skiers and snowboarders as they struggle to get out, according to information from a website put together in collaboration with the Northwest Avalanche Institute, Mount Baker Ski Area, Crystal Mountain and Dr. Robert Cadman, and can lead to suffocation.
If a person is trapped in a tree well, there is little hope of getting out without the help of someone else. The odds of surviving these situations alone are often low, the research states.
Hazardous trees are generally found in un-groomed areas, the website warns, and particularly dangerous trees are fir trees that have their lower branches touching the snow surface.
To prevent tree well accidents, the website advises skiers and riders to avoid deep snow and trees, but recognizes that many are attracted to these areas.
If a partner falls into a tree well, do not go for help because it will not arrive in time, the website states. Instead, dig the person out of the well and yell for help.
Skiing or boarding with a partner can help prevent accidents from happening, but it is critical that partners keep one another in sight. Experts also advise skiers and snowboarders to choose areas with widely spaced trees and to remove ski pole straps before descending an un-groomed area.
If skiers or snowboarders find themselves sliding into a tree well, experts say to do everything possible to avoid going inverted into the snow, like grabbing branches, hugging a tree or rolling their body to get their feet below their head.
However, if a person ends up in a tree well, they should resist the urge to struggle violently, then make a breathing space around their face and remain calm. Skiers and snowboarders should carry a transmitter, whistle, shovel and probe.
For this information and more, visit www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com.
Skiers and snowboarders should also stay updated on avalanche conditions before heading up the hill. Those in the Flathead can access this information and more at the Glacier Country Avalanche Center’s website, www.glacieravalanche.org.
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