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‘It’s like you’re drowning in snow’: Teen saves father who fell into tree well at B.C. ski resort

By happenstance, the teen had recently watched a video explaining how to safely get out of a tree well
An example of a skier falling into a tree well at Big White Ski Resort on December 30, 2018. (Todd Ganie photo)

A Vernon man has his son to thank for getting him out of a life-threatening situation while skiing at SilverStar Mountain Resort.

John (a pseudonym as he declined to have his name published) and his 16-year-old son, referred to as Calvin, were skiing on the Silver Woods side of the mountain on Monday, Jan. 2, when John fell into a tree well head-first. A tree well is a hole or depression that forms around the base of a coniferous tree when low branches stop snow from compacting and settling around the trunk, making for a dangerous pitfall for skiers.

John’s face was buried in snow, making it hard to breathe.

“When you’re in that tree well and you’re breathing snow, it’s like you’re drowning in snow. It’s the strangest experience that you could ever try and put words to,” he said.

Fortunately, John’s son was skiing behind him and was about 30 feet away when he fell into the tree well. Calvin was able to track his father, who had managed to dig out an air pocket for himself.

Doubly fortunate was the fact that just three days prior, Calvin had watched a TikTok video that explained what to do and what not to do when falling into a tree well.

“He dug out my head and gave me a clear airway and then helped me get out of the tree well,” John said.

John can’t be sure if he would have been able to get himself out without his son’s help, but said a case study he read after the incident tested how many people out of 10 could dislodge themselves from a tree well on their own.

“Of the 10, all 10 failed, they couldn’t get out, they needed help to get out,” he said, adding that his son probably saved his life that day.

For the father and son, the incident was a lesson about the importance of not skiing alone. It will also change the way they ski in the future.

“We ski as a group always but we’ve let our kids go off into trees and we stay on the run, and I don’t think I would ever do that again just because it can happen very quickly. I mean, it wouldn’t take 10 minutes of being in that situation panicking and you’re not coming out.”

Since the incident, John and Calvin have done extensive research about what to do when falling into a tree well. They’ve learned that the first thing to do is not panic — easier said than done when buried in snow — create air spaces in the snow, and don’t try to move.

“Wait for help, because you’ll only sink further if you try and move,” John said.

Big White Ski Resort has an information webpage that explains what to do if you fall into a tree well. It says to ride or ski with a partner, yell or use a whistle to get your partner’s attention and do whatever you can to keep your head above snow including rolling and grabbing tree branches or the tree trunk. If you become immersed, make a space around your face to protect your airway and resist the urge to struggle, as it could compromise your airspace and entrap you further.

John says he’s lucky to have escaped the scary predicament, which has taught him that danger can arise even when skiing in areas that appear safe.

“You wouldn’t think that that’s possible on SilverStar, it’s a small mountain, everything’s very accessible, we’re inside the confines of being in the runs and we’re not breaking any rules, and you kind of just think that that wouldn’t happen but it just goes to show that it’s possible anywhere,” he said.

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Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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