'Winter quicksand': Alpine Rescue Team member explains the dangers of tree wells, how to escape

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LOVELAND PASS, Colo. -- They’ve been referred to as “winter quicksand,” but many people don’t know how dangerous tree wells are until they’re stuck in one.

“Once you’re down inside one of these tree wells and knocking snow on top of you, you end up burying yourself,” said Dale Atkins with Alpine Rescue Team. "And from that point, there’s really no escape unless your friends are nearby."

Colorado is the No. 1 ski and snowboard destination in the country. But it’s also the No. 2 deadliest state for tree well and deep snow immersion.

“Some of it is the gear has become so advanced — just in the last 10-15 years — that even intermediate skiers nowadays can access parts of a mountain or ski area that they weren’t previously able to do,” said Dave Byrd, who is the director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association.

FOX31 ventured out into the Loveland Pass area in late January to check out conditions with Atkins, who has been with the Alpine Rescue Team for more than 45 years.

Atkins says tree wells are most dangerous during and after big storms, when the branches and brush keep the snow from falling at the base of the trunk, and compacting — creating a sort of “winter quicksand” for anyone who falls into one.

“The snow is loose and sugar-like. And when you sink into this, there’s really no way to get support to be able to push yourself up. You just keep sinking down into it,” said Atkins.

Currently, snowpack isn’t very deep. Atkins says that’s likely to drastically change in the next couple of months.

“When we get into late winter and early spring, our snowpack is going to be twice as deep — in some places, three times as deep. So our tree wells, that today are just beginning, they’re going to become cavernous," Atkins said.

“You can suffocate within a minute or three minutes,” said Byrd, when asked how long someone could survive upside down in a tree well.

Byrd says since 2001, there have been 13 tree well and deep snow immersion deaths in Colorado. It's a relatively low figure compared to other outdoor-related fatalities in Colorado.

Byrd pointed out there were more whitewater rafting deaths in Colorado in 2019 alone than there were tree well deaths in a 20-year span.

“Fatalities at ski areas are rare. But when they do happen — particularly in something at the base of a tree or in 3 feet of uncompacted snow — it’s still pretty shocking to people that that could lead to a fatality. But it does happen and it’s increasingly happening at ski areas across the West and in Colorado," he said.

“It hits us every single day,” said Austin Salviano, whose brother, 25-year-old Logan Salviano, died in a tree well on Vail Mountain in 2016.

He wasn’t found until the following day.

“He wasn’t missing in an area that no one knew. There were people that were going by that area. But those tree wells are so deep and so hidden, that you could ski right by it and not even know,” said Salviano.

Salviano says his brother had accidentally gotten on a run that he deemed was too difficult. He took off his snowboard and was walking along the tree line, looking for easier terrain, when he fell in.

The odds are against you if you don’t have someone nearby to help.

Statistics show that nine out of 10 experienced skiers who go into a tree well, head-first, can’t get out on their own.

“Being directly in the line of sight of your buddies is absolutely critical. We stress it over and over and over again,” said Byrd.

“To be found, it actually takes friends close by. And by close by -- when you’re skiing in the trees -- you need to be literally be just a few turns away. Otherwise, you’re functionally alone,” said Atkins.

Atkins recommends skiing with a whistle that attaches to your collar and can be used hands-free.

“So when you’re upside down, you can just push it up into your mouth and whistle. It’s the easiest way to alert your friends to your location,” Atkins explained, putting the whistle to his mouth.

He recommends skiers always travel with an avalanche transceiver, shovel, and a tracker device called the RECCO Rescue System.

Once you go head-first into a tree well, it’s the decisions you make in literally a matter of seconds that could help save your life.

“It’s probably the hardest thing to do — but you need to relax and be patient. You need to get the snow away from your face. Push it away from your face, and then gently start packing the snow around you to give it some strength,” Atkins said.

Even with more breathing room, the rescue effort needs to happen almost immediately — and methodically.

“We don’t want to dig straight down on top of them. We want to start digging from the side and work our way in. But we’ve got to do this quickly,” Atkins told FOX31.

“The best thing to do is to educate people. And unfortunately, we learned too late,” Salviano told FOX31 in a FaceTime interview.

“People from all across the country came to say good-bye to him. And that’s a true testament to who he was — people are still having a toast to him," he said.

Since his brother’s death, Salviano now works to spread awareness about tree wells, hoping it helps skiers prepare even more before hitting the slopes.

“To help anyone prevent this type of tragedy is really what it’s all about. If you could save 13 lives, if you could save just one life — isn’t it worth it? I think so,” Salviano said.

Some additional resources:

NSAA tree well safety tips

Equipment that could help if stuck in a tree well

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