Questions remain in tree-well death
REVELSTOKE, B.C. – Exceptional snow poses an exceptional snowriding danger: falling headfirst into a tree well or, for that matter, into a deep pile of snow.

Both happened last winter as nine people died in the United States and at least two more in British Columbia, among them Evan Donald.
In a lengthy article, the Revelstoke Times Review explains that Donald, who was 27 when he died, had grown up in New Brunswick and dreamed of moving to British Columbia and enjoying the backcountry. He succeeded, and worked at an inn that provided lodging for helicopter skiers. When a spare seat on a helicopter opened up, he jumped.

What exactly happened has never been publicly divulged. Canadian Mountain Holidays many years ago adopted a buddy system because of the danger of tree-well inversions. For some reason, the system failed that day. Customers didn’t all have radios, either, although they do now. When his body was finally found, Donald was still alive but unconscious. He later died at a hospital.

The Times Review spoke with the victim’s brother, Trevor Donald, who points to a largely self-regulated heli-skiing industry needing government regulation. He also shared frustrations with trying to find out what went wrong.

Police have been of little or no help. The Revelstoke RCMP didn’t respond to a request for an interview, and because the investigation is still ongoing after almost a year, no coroner’s report has been issued.

The Times Review spoke with Rob Rohn, director of mountain operations for CMH and also president of an industry association called Helicat Canada. Rohn sees no need for government oversight. Although risk is inherent, prevention is  the first order of business.
“In addition to a buddy system, all customers get education about the dangers of tree-well immersions,” he said.

Paul Baugher, ski patrol director at Washington’s Crystal Mountain, has become a chief advocate for education. He says he thought it a fluke when the first tree-well death happened at Crystal Mountain in the early 1990s, but when a second occurred a decade later, he set out to collect statistics, sketchy from 1970 but strong since 1990.

In most cases, the individual gets hung up in a tree well. It can be virtually impossible to get out, and the person most commonly suffocates in very short order, perhaps 20 minutes. Statistics show that snowboarders are no more vulnerable than skiers, despite the absence of releasable bindings.

“It’s really not about what’s on their feet,” Baugher told Mountain Town News. “It’s that their feet are up in the air and they can’t get to them. They’re compromised no matter what they have on.”

About 70 percent of non-avalanche related snow-immersion deaths occur from people falling headfirst into tree wells. But about 30 percent of the time – such as occurred last year at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs – people simply auger into deep snow.

In most cases, victims were skiing with partners but became seperated. “That is the key to anybody skiing in powder in a ski area, in the trees especially,” says Baugher.
Last year, five people died in California, two in Montana, and one each in Colorado and Washington.

Bag saves rider in questionable outing
DILLON – After virtually no snow, Colorado last week got dumped on. Naturally, the backcountry beckoned.
The Summit County News reports the case of a snowboarder who skirted death. The rider, a professional snowboarder, was caught in an avalanche on a slope near Loveland Pass. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center rated the avalanche a 2 on a scale of 5, with level 5 meaning almost certain death. But even these smaller-intensity avalanches produce many fatalities.

Despite avalanche warnings in the considerable range that day, the snowboarder set down the slope. What may have saved her was an air bag manufactured by Backcountry Access that inflated.

“It felt like riding a mattress down the stairs,” said the rider, Meesh Hytner. She also managed to keep her feet headed downhill and swam in the snow.

Monitoring Facebook commentary on the incident, the Daily News reports mixed reactions. “Wow, not a smart place to be,” remarked one. “You all need a life,” responded another. “We all do sketchy things at times.”

Slivka said the late snowpack has produced avalanches in areas that normally don’t slide. One example is a slope on Quandary Peak, near Breckenridge, that hasn’t run in at least 20 years.

“It won’t get better until some of the areas rip to the ground and the snowpack starts all over again,” says the Daily News.
While gizmos like transceivers and inflatable bags help, the best tool is not getting caught.

Winter Teva games take new tack
VAIL – The X Games has its somersaulting snowmobiles and trickster snowboarders – and the 20,000 people who show up in Aspen to watch.

Now comes Vail with a new event this weekend, the Teva Winter Games. It has big air, too – including the prospect of 60-foot jumps by telemark skiers. But it’s a lot different than the X Games.\

The biggest difference is that while there are two key events geared for gawking at the pros, most of the events are participatory – and involve sweat. Also, while the X Games are geared for television consumption and draw a decidedly young and single audience, Vail’s event is being pitched as more a family thing, with something for just about everyone, including a boot run (in ski boots).

The biggest event is expected to be a run up the mountain, some 2,200 feet, whether in snowshoes, touring skis or whatnot. In addition, there are on-snow biking and climbing events.

And similar to both Aspen and Whistler’s Telus Festival, there are free concerts, films and corporate names all over the place such as Teva, Eddie Bauer and Bud Light, to name a few.

Burns’ ‘Dust Bowl’ to debut at Telluride
TELLURIDE – Again this year, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns will be premiering his new film at Mountain Film Festival, Memorial Day weekend in Telluride.
In 2009, Burns first showed his films about the national parks, what he called “America’s greatest idea.” Now, his attention is on the Dust Bowl, the time in the 1930s when climatic variability combined with ill-advised farming practices on the Great Plains created billowing walls of dust. The dust killed hundreds of people by what is called dust pneumonia, similar to black lung suffered by coal miners.
Burns likes the festival a great deal. “It reminds us of the force of filmmaking, about things that matter, worlds worth exploring, and conversations worth sustaining,” he said.

Wolverine takes high road in Canada
LAKE LOUSIE, Alberta – The TransCanada Highway through Banff National Park now has six overpasses created specifically to allow safe passage of wildlife. But until last November, no wolverine had ever used one. They had used the smaller, more narrow underpasses.
How do they know, and why does it matter?

Both overpasses and underpasses are monitored by cameras. It matters because, according to conservation biologists, wildlife species – like humans – fare best when they can roam a bit. Too much isolation weakens the genetic pool and makes those isolated populations more vulnerable to disease. Think of an inter-related family in a small town.

But the overpasses have been around for more than a decade. Why did it take so long for the wolverines to use it?

“We don’t know a lot about wolverines, but we do know there’s a learning curve, which we’ve seen for grizzly bears and black bears as well,” explains Tony Clevenger, a wildlife research biologist with the Western Transportation Institute.

By whatever means, these crossings are good news, Clevenger told the Rocky Mountain Outlook. “Highways are fragmenters of habitat, and any time you can get across is good for the species.”

– Allen Best


In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows