The long and short of it is this: evergreens, especially those with low hanging branches, can prohibit snow from filling in and consolidating at the base of the tree. Skiers and snowboarders can catch an edge, not seeing the hole, and catapult head first into these wells, being swallowed in the snow and then buried by snow from the overhead branches. There is little hope for survival, even if you have been responsible enough to partner up and watch as each of you takes the run. It’s a fast and furious death; like drowning.
Your best hope is to ski without your pole straps so that you can potentially have free hands to dig breathing space around your mouth and nose. And then you’re supposed to gently rock, creating more space. And you’re not supposed to panic or struggle, a lot like being caught in a rip tide. Except you’re stuck. Nothing is flowing but hope that your partner is not down at the lift line wondering where you are and remembering, oh yeah, he/she was supposed to be watching you, and oh yeah, skiing and snowboarding, as fun as they are, are sports that can kill.
I wonder about this, after seventeen years of living in a ski town. I wonder about this as a mother of two kids who live to ski and their friends do too. I wonder about this as someone who loves adventure and risk-taking and the abandon found in that adrenaline high. And I also I wonder about this in the field of fear and then in the field of education and then ultimately in the loveliest field I know: surrender.
This morning at the breakfast table, I asked my children how they felt about these recent deaths which have shaken our community in not just grief, but the fresh Bandaid-ripped sting of “this could happen to you.” For these are the sorts of tragedies which happen in my children’s back yard. Not that they should get used to them—as if it would even be possible. But they need to both know how to process them and to know how to prevent them.
It’s part of the our local vernacular. That kind of heart throbbing, lung burning, stomach-butterflied rush is what keeps many of us living here, whether we’re sliding down the mountain, or hiking up a ridge, or galloping through a field on a horse. We are “getting after it,” as the local saying goes. But as a mother, I needed to check in, even if it made me unpopular. They don’t need to know about city streets for now as much as the power of snow. The snow they’ve known best makes snowmen and snow cones and sledding hills.
So this morning I asked my children what the “it” was in “getting after it.” They both said, “What you love.” I could see the snowflakes dancing in their eyes. Every winter morning they run to the computer to check the ski report. Oh for the love of fresh powder. You’d think they’d been given free lifetime passes to Disneyland on those days.
My question begat a sudden discussion about how much “vertical” each of them had gotten this winter, bemoaning the insult that it was raining in mid-January on a Saturday.
Sticking to my mother guns, I gingerly asked them if they were upset about the recent tree well deaths. They both nodded. “Everyone’s talking about it at school.” Then I asked them if they understood just what happens in a tree well and how to avoid it and what to do if they were ever, God forbid, in that brutal situation.
I assumed they knew it by rote; that with all the ski lessons they’ve had and all the lectures my husband and I have given them, they’d recite it like they did the National Anthem. But it turned out: they kind of knew. But they didn’t really know. They had been seeing snowflakes during the “scary” conversations and warnings, turns out. I was horrified.
My kids ski in the trees every weekend from Thanksgiving to Easter. And here is the crux of what every mother knows well– that daring walk on the tightrope between scaring your children out of their gourd, and empowering them with knowledge. And what every child knows better: the line between being cocky pre-teen/teens, and notably shaken. Upside down suffocation? That hadn’t landed on their snowflaky radar.
I felt a rant coming. I tried to take pause. To no avail. I began with: “There’s an expression: All the avalanche experts are dead.” I paused for them to chew on it. Suddenly they weren’t so keen on chewing on their eggs and toast.
I wanted to full-on lecture them then, out of motherly fear. How was it possible that they hadn’t learned all about the full array of dangers on our ski mountain…maybe I had left something out in the long list of things to teach my children…had I remembered Hospital Corners, and not tree wells??? But I tried not to get dramatic—tried to keep it direct.
In so many words I explained that when you make decisions in the back country based on ego, you get into trouble. And then I wanted to twist the knife a bit in their hearts. Because maybe it’s the hurt that makes the mind listen and remember and maybe two deaths are not enough in the minds of children.
“Being in nature is a privilege and one that should never be taken lightly.” I explained that sometimes we forget that privilege when a machine like a chair lift zooms us up to a place that normally would take all day to ascend, and that for people who hike up the mountain rather than take the lift…for just that one…run…down, there is the grace of gratitude. We need to remember gratitude.
They looked unimpressed. Hiking up? All that work and only one run?
So I started twisting that knife harder and I knew not to but I couldn’t stop. Call it fear. Call it shock value. This was my motherhood talking now. “You need to respect the mountain. It’s not a ride at Six Flags. People who hike up the mountain for that one glide down…they know all about gratitude, but they also know about respect. They leave their egos down in the parking lot, along with their credit cards and the heat button. Their power is in paying attention, and knowing the real power, and that’s Mother Nature. They are as vulnerable as can be, save for their fiberglass skies and their Gortex. And that’s the way they want it. They have checked the avalanche report, the snow conditions. They have their partners and their plan.”
Now my kids looked like they wanted to cry. But I couldn‘t stop. Maybe you know this feeling. It’s called Running Scared.
“But when technology makes it so that you can cram in 15 of those runs in a day, tuning out the ascent with your iPod-bedecked helmet, telling jokes about the skiers below…then I just wonder about that descent and where the ego is.”
I had them with iPod.
“I’m not saying that it’s ego that had those people end up in tree wells. It happens to back country skiers too. I just wonder about intention and humility and lessons learned in a second flat, and then lost to suffocation.”
And then I lost them. Too many big words. It was probably better that way. They went back to breakfast. “So what time are we leaving for the mountain,” one of them asked their father, who had been staying out of this. Probably wisely so. Probably because he could have covered this ground in a four minute speech in the car on the way up the ski hill. Mothers.
The local papers haven’t reported whether or not those snow boarders were riding alone when they fell into those tree wells, and frankly it’s none of my business. I just think that for all the young people who go up to “shred” in the fresh “pow pow” after a few days of “dumpage and puking and pissing” snow…who smoke a few bowls and blare agro head banging hard driving music in their helmets, getting after “it”…or even the blithe skiers and snowboarders who are just in it for the innocent fun it is and the french fry breaks and the chance to play in the snow with friends and family and slide down a hill and gain some speed and take in some views…maybe there can be a moment of pause this January in Montana in our little town. Maybe those deaths can be a reminder that Mother Nature is more powerful than human nature will ever be.
For an expansive education about skiing and snowboarding near tree wells, go to this site which was created by a collaboration of the NW Avalanche Institute, Mt. Baker Ski Area, Crystal Mountain and Dr. Robert Cadman.