Surviving fall into a tree well

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Our area has once again been saddened by the loss, of another area skier, to the hazard of a snow filled “tree well.” As a survivor of such an encounter I would like to offer the following observations and suggestions.

Three years ago, while skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort, with a much younger relative, we ventured off the “Ant Hill run” into the tree area to the north. While ducking under a snow laden branch I caught a tip and fell headlong into an adjacent well, landing head down at a steep angle, skis still on and crossed above me.

Fortunately, I still had my ski poles attached and after a couple of futile attempts to push myself upward with the poles and succeeding only in burying myself further and on the verge of panic, I determined to get my skis off. By reaching up and back with one pole, I was able to connect with the heel binding release and on the third try was able to push hard enough to release one ski.

By using my now freed boot I then kicked the second binding to release the other ski. However, the deep powdery snow still provided no maneuvering resistance and after more floundering I determined to place both poles parallel to each other and by pushing with them together achieved enough resistance to draw my legs down and under me. The combination of legs and poles allowed sufficient purchase to crawl out of the well and after a considerable time spent shaking and sweating I was able to ski out to the adjacent groomed run.

My apologies for the detailed description but, we seldom consider “how do I get out of this mess” when skiing. The most important lesson to please consider is that WITHOUT MY POLES, I WOULD NEVER HAVE GOTTEN OUT! My “powder partner” did not notice my absence for over two hours before we met at the lodge! To this day I see “off run” powder skiers not using their pole straps, but those same straps saved my life!

I write this article in hope that some previously read advice, about not using pole straps is re-considered. Your poles are your lifeline and in a fall you likely will not be able to reach them. SCUBA divers live by the rule “Plan your dive and dive your plan!” Do you really plan?

If your partner is ahead of you, how far does he go before checking on you?

Will he sidestep up the trail to see where you are?

I have never been so scared or felt so helpless as in that “tree well” on my 74th birthday!

Greg Matelich, Eureka

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