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UPDATED: Visiting skier escapes from tree well at Nelson's Whitewater

An epic ski week with the guys ended dramatically as one man survived falling into a tree well at Whitewater Ski Resort.

Chris Johnston is a consulting engineer from Burnaby who was in Nelson last week skiing with a group of friends. On the last day at the hill, last Friday, at the bottom of Motherload, his group headed into the trees.

“We skied in and about three or four turns down, I turned upslope of a tree,” he told the Star. “I lost a ski and I fell head first down a fairly large tree well.”

First he hoped he was just semi buried and could get out but more and more snow kept coming down on top of him.

“I started breathing in those little snow particles and then I realized I was in danger,” he said. “I was a little bit panicked… But somewhere along the line, it did click that I was in a tree well upside down.”

The 48-year-old experienced skier stayed still and started to clear the snow from around his mouth. Keeping the snow from his lungs was his primary goal.

“And then I was able to think,” he said. “I took a deep breath and reached up and managed to get my other ski off. Some snow came down and I recreated the space in front of my mouth. And then at least I was standing up.”

He broke through the snow and could see there was about a metre above him.

“It seemed reasonable and I just knocked down the snow and eventually had a hole to get out of.”

He radioed his friend, said that he was safe and managed to climb the tree to get out as his friends showed up.

“They were looking at the hole and looking at me going, ‘Wow!’” said Johnston.

Johnston captured the entire incident on his " target="_blank">GoPro camera.

According to www.deepsnowsafety.org, the odds of surviving falling into a tree well are low. A tree well is the area around the base of a tree where branches block snow from settling around the base of the tree. Often people fall into a tree well headfirst.

Statistics say that 90 per cent of people who fall into a tree well don’t survive because they become suffocated by loose snow that fills in around them. While this statistic is arguably skewed, as many surviving tree well accidents don’t report the incident, it paints a serious picture of why the hazard is worth careful attention.

Whitewater’s Kirk Jensen, general manager of outside operations said this is the first tree well incident at the local hill this year — that they’re aware of.

“We don’t really know how often if happens unless people report it,” he said encouraging people to do so.

Jensen said keeping visual contact with a ski buddy and skiing with a whistle are two ways to stay safe. Whitewater does its best to educate people about this deep snow safety issue on the hill and reaching out in local schools.

“It’s something that can’t really be avoided because it’s a natural effect in the forest,” he said. “It’s a common risk of the sport.”

“Obviously, we’re happy this turned out positive and we’re thankful he was educated on what to do,” said Jensen.

Johnston had informed himself about what to do in a tree-well accident and he credits his knowledge with helping him safely get out of the well. The videos he’d watched and information he’d gathered stuck with him through this emergency.

“We love this tree skiing and we got scared a few years ago when we heard a story. So, one of my friends mandated we wear radios, stay together and look at the site and understand it,” he said. “I am in better shape today because I did know what to do.”

Still, there were more lessons to learn through experience.

He says he would no longer “turn upslope of a tree,” he wouldn’t strap his hands into his poles and he says there is lots of air in the snow once particles are cleared from a person’s mouth, something he is now very familiar with.

On February 23, a 29-year-old backcountry skier from Burnaby died near Pemberton after falling into a tree well. It was the second death by such an accident in 2014.

 

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