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Experts warn of tree well dangers after skier dies

By Paige Sedgewick, Reporter, psedgewick@kcfw.com
Published On: Jan 13 2014 05:54:06 PM MST
Updated On: Jan 13 2014 06:08:39 PM MST
WHITEFISH, Mont. -

The Flathead County Sheriff's Office says 54-year-old Douglas Spring's son found him upside down in a tree well. He couldn't be resuscitated.

The two had been skiing in near-whiteout conditions in an ungroomed, forested area, between the Grey Wolf and Bighorn runs, on the Whitefish Mountain's north side.

Tree wells can hide under any tree, on any ski slope.

“I think tree wells are just dangerous,” said one local skier.

A tree well is basically a ditch caused when snow around a tree melts. It's clearly marked by the tree.

When a skier ends up in one, they are usually upside-down. Loose snow packs in around you.  Without immediate help, people can suffocate.

One expert from National Ski Areas Association in Colorado lists safety material people should bring with them if they decide to ski on slopes that aren’t groomed.

"Avalanche beacons, a probe, an Avalung, a shovel," said Dave Byrd.  

We dug into statistics gathered by avalanche and ski experts.They report Montana has the fourth highest number of tree well deaths in the West.

Byrd explains one culprit -- "People are skiing trees more often because the equipment has gotten better; the skiing equipment, the snowboarding equipment," he said. 

Managers at Whitefish Mountain didn't want to talk to us about the recent death. We found the resort's website has five pages explaining and detailing the risks associated with tree wells and there is advice on what to do if you or a partner skier or snowboarder fall into one.

One good website with helpful hints is http://www.deepsnowsafety.org/index.php/.

Byrd says that the skill level of people who get into tree wells is overwhelmingly advanced or expert levels, and it’s only rarely a beginner skier.