Much is made of avalanche danger in western Montana. The latest advisories from the West Central Montana Avalanche Center place the risk of backcountry slides at "considerable," a reality hammered home last weekend when a snowmobiler was killed near the Idaho border southwest of Troy. Snow dumps like the 19-plus inches we've just had prompt many to weigh that risk against the promise of an untracked alpine playground. But it's important to note that even the seeming safety of local resorts is no guarantee.
About two weeks ago, a Canadian skier at Whitefish Mountain Resort became one of the latest victims of a menace easily overlooked by lift-riding powder hounds. The man had fallen into a tree well not far from Chair 7 on the resort's backside, and attempts to resuscitate him after he was found were unsuccessful. It was the second tree well death at Whitefish so far this season.
Surprisingly, tree wells have actually claimed more lives inside resort boundaries in the United States over the past two decades than avalanches have in the backcountry. According to data compiled by Northwest Avalanche Institute Director Paul Baugher, snow immersion suffocation—the technical term applied to tree well fatalities—caused 64 skier deaths between 1990 and 2012. Out-of-bounds avalanches have, by comparison, claimed 60 lives.
That's a sobering thought for anyone sniffing out powder in lift-accessed terrain. Trees beckon us with the promise of easily attainable yet untouched pockets of snow, when in fact they pose a slightly bigger threat than the thunderous slides that dominate our perception of winter hazards. Skill doesn't equate to increased safety either; the Northwest Avalanche Institute claims 82 percent of tree well victims were advanced to expert skiers.
Avoiding or surviving such encounters simply requires the same level of situational awareness on area that has become second nature for those off area. Ski with a partner, maintain visual contact with each other at all times, and don't shred too far ahead. Baugher's research shows recovery by ski patrol or search and rescue took an average of 15 hours, compared to the 20 to 30 minute window of extraction for those whose partners witness the crash.
With all the freshies that have fallen this week, ducking off the groomers will prove an irresistible temptation. Caution and vigilance are key. It's easy to feel safe in sight of a lift, the very presence of which can render avalanches a distant construct. But sometimes the less dramatic hazards can be the deadliest of all.