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Last Runs

Features
posted: 12/15/2000

It's not something that happens every day. But each season, a few skiers buckle up their boots, click into their bindings, and don't come back alive. That's one of the grim realities of this sport we love. But before you tag your skis for your next garage sale, understand that the risk of dying while skiing is vanishingly small¿you're far more likely to die while driving to a mountain than while skiing on one. Fatal skiing accidents make news for the same reason lightning strikes and serial killers do: because they're so rare.

Some of the stories below carry with them life lessons, ways in which we can honor the dead by avoiding their fate. Others are simply the freakiest of freak accidents. The best, perhaps, that we can take from them is a reminder that, as Shakespeare said, all true stories end in death. What follow are true stories.




> Cavalese, Italy: TRAM DISASTER
The Weekly World Newscouldn't have concocted anything weirder. The place was Cavalese, Italy, a ski resort in the Dolomites, and the vehicle in question was a low-flying U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler jet on a training exercise. The bizarre twist on this clear February 1998 afternoon was that the jet flew under the tram cable, clipping it with its tail, before flying back to base nearly unscathed¿the aviation equivalent of a hit and run. The tram car, however, plummeted 300 feet and, according to an Italian police official, "opened up like a cardboard box," killing all 20 people on board. The other tram car on the cable was left dangling above the mountainside, but its sole occupant was rescued. Two of the jet's crew members, pilot Captain Richard Ashby and navigator Captain Joseph Schweitzer, faced court martial on 20 counts each of involuntary manslaughter and possible life sentences if convicted. Both were exonerated of those charges, though Ashby did serve a five-month sentence for tampering with a cockpit videotape of the accident.

Local officials had long complained about low-flying jets buzzing the cable, and with good reason. Strange as it seems, this isn't the first such tragedy. In August 1961, a French Air Force Thunderstreak clipped the cable at Vallée Blanche, sending six occupants of three cars to their deaths 500 feet below.

Take-Home Lesson: While there's not much you can do about them, you can take comfort in the fact that lift disasters of any kind are exceedingly rare. In the U.S., you are 10 times more likely to be killed while flying on a commercial aircraft than while riding a ski lift.




> Vail, Colorado: ROYAL END
"The very rich, they're different than you and me," said F. Scott Fitzgerald. And on February 1, 1989, Prince Alfonso de Bourbon was living large. At the dimming of a bluebird day just before the beginning of the World Championships in Vail, this FIS member, cousin of Spain's King Juan Carlos and pretender to the defunct throne of France, milked every minute of his privilege. Before the downhill course would be turned over to Pirmin Zurbriggen & Co., he'd squeeze in one last high-speed run with his friend, former Olympic champion Toni Sailer. Unbeknownst to the prince, however, workers putting the finishing touches on the finish area had moved a cable 100 yards uphill and lowered it to change the sponsor banners. Sailer, who was skiing ahead of de Bourbon, stopped 100 feet before the work area. He shouted to the prince, but the man who carried the title of the Duke of Anjou didn't hear him. In the flat light, de Bourbon skied into the nearly invisible wire at full speed and was nearly beheaded.

The gruesome accident rocked the Alpine circus, but not everyone piled on the sympathy. "Here it was three or four days before the race, and all the people from FIS make easy runs for pleasure," said world-champion downhiller Peter Mueller. "The downhill course is not something to play on."

Take-Home Lesson: As an FIS member, t Duke was allowed to be on the course, but that doesn't change the fact that it was a closed trail. Ski resorts close trails for good reasons.




> Near Kirkwood, California: FATAL LEAP
It probably wasn't going to get him into the Guinness Book of World Records, or even into a Mountain Dew commercial. But on March 29, 1993, Paul Ruff, a.k.a. Captain Kirkwood, former holder of skiing's unofficial cliff-jumping record, would go where no man had gone before: He would launch himself off a 160-foot cliff on Thimble Peak outside of Kirkwood. He had spent the previous year rehabbing from knee surgery and had seen fellow extreme skier John Tremann jump 140 feet at Donner Summit to break his old record by 30 feet. The sponsorship money Ruff would make from what he promised would be his last big jump¿a cool half million, he told his fiancée¿would pay off his substantial medical bills and set him up in business.

"Higher! Higher!" his friends shouted from far below as he tried to dial in his takeoff point on the blind jump. But as he raced to the edge, Ruff saw something¿no one knows what¿and adjusted his trajectory to the right. In the process, he checked his speed a little, and it soon became horrifyingly clear to friends and photographers waiting near the landing that Ruff didn't have enough speed to clear the 30 feet of rocks at the base of the jump. During the first part of his free fall, Ruff seemed in control, but as he plummeted¿so fast the photographers lost sight of him¿he flapped his arms and began to fall backward. He landed flat on his back, slamming into a rocky outcropping and bouncing 30 feet through the air before coming to rest below.

For a moment, it seemed like Ruff may have dodged a bullet. When his friends reached him, he was unconscious but still breathing, and then he awoke abruptly and tried to spring up. "Let me get up, I'm okay," he said. Moments later, the color drained from his face¿Ruff's aorta had ruptured, and he was suffering massive internal bleeding¿and he lost consciousness for the last time.

Part of Ruff's legacy was a clip in the 1990 Warren Miller film Extreme Winter: "Whether it's 20 feet, 30, 60, or 110 feet, everything is calculated to perfection¿the takeoff, the air time, the landing, the run off¿so we can go off with a calculated confidence that there's no way we'll get hurt," he said. "'Cuz dyin's not much of a livin', boy."

Take-Home Lesson: If you're into pulling risky stunts, prepare all you can, but never assume you're infallible. Ruff had scoped out the jump for months before attempting it, but despite his careful planning, he made a last-second miscalculation that his razor-thin margin for error wouldn't allow.




> Aspen, Colorado: KENNEDY TRAGEDY
It was a Kennedy family tradition: a New Year's Eve family ski vacation at Aspen. And a game of snow football at the end of the day. The rules were simple: You tossed the ball back and forth across the slope, but you had to get rid of it within five seconds. You earned points by moving the ball across the next yard marker¿a tree, a post, or a lift tower. It was technically noncontact, but that didn't stop the Aspen ski patrol from warning the participants in years past. And it didn't mean there was no disabled list: Robert Kennedy, Jr. had hurt his back playing the year before and stayed on the sidelines this year, and his brother Max Kennedy had injured his knee two years before.

Michael Kennedy, the once-promising political star whose future had been clouded by an affair with a teenage babysitter, was both the Paul Tagliabue and the Randy Moss of snow football. With a Kennedy's appetite for competition, he organized the game every year. An expert skier and accomplished athlete, he was usually the star of the day. And on December 31, 1997, he was playing and filming at the same time, holding a video camera in one hand while he played Drew Bledsoe with the other. But midway down Copper Bowl, a blue groomer, Kennedy had a fateful lapse of attention. He had just caught the blue Nerf ball and was looking back up the hill at a receiver 15 feet away while approaching an aspen tree at high speed. Onlookers expected Kennedy to veer out of the way at the last second as he had so many times before. He didn't; he slammed into the tree head first with a sickening thud.

Kennedys gathered at the scene of the tragedy as they had so many times before. While his children cried, his sister Rory administered CPR and yelled into her brother's face, saying, "Michael, we know you can hear us. Stay with us. Help is coming. We're here. You're going to be all right." But paramedics lost his pulse as he was being transported by toboggan, and he was pronounced dead at Aspen Valley Hospital.

Take-Home Lesson: But for the Kennedy-curse overtones and the ski-football punch line, this is a classic ski death. According to research by Dr. Jasper Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology, most victims are accomplished male skiers, between the ages of 18 and 35 (Kennedy was just a tad older, at 39), skiing on an intermediate trail at a high rate of speed, suffering a lapse of control or attention, and crashing into a stationary object such as a tree, rock, or lift tower. No matter who you are, pay attention and ski in control at all times.




> Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany: TOO-SLIPPERY SLOPE
On the morning of January 30, 1994, Austrian racer Ulrike Maier was drinking coffee, talking about the simple joys of having her four-year-old daughter, Melanie, accompany her on the World Cup. Although her specialty, the super G, had been cancelled, Maier had decided to race in a downhill on the Garmisch-Partenkirchen course to pick up a few extra points in the overall World Cup standings. Maier, the only mother on the tour (she had won the 1989 super G World Championship when she was two months pregnant), was on the eve of retirement. But she never got the chance to hang up her skis.

On a fast but relatively easy section of the course, the 26-year-old caught an edge, possibly after hitting a patch of soft snow, and careened off the course at 65 miles per hour. Her helmet came off as she hit the rock-hard racecourse, then she slammed head first into a timing post protected only by hay-filled sacks and continued tumbling before sliding to a stop in the middle of the course. Medics rushed to her aid and performed an on-snow tracheotomy, but she couldn't be saved.

"She had no chance," said Dr. Guenter Hoffmann. "Her neck was broken, the main artery was ripped, and no surgery was possible."

After the race, several racers criticized the preparation of the course¿specifically, the use of PTX3, a saltlike chemical applied to the snow to harden it. "It makes the snow grabby and weird," said Picabo Street. U.S. coach Paul Major said the course was so icy it could have been "prepared by a Zamboni."

Others suggested that danger was part of the sport's allure. "In boxing they show the KO, in skiing the accidents," said Olympic downhill champion Patrick Ortlieb. "The fans want it, and the sport needs its fans. Nothing dangerous happens in ping-pong, but no one's interested in it, either."

Take-Home Lesson: Ski racing is a dangerous sport, but less so than you might imagine. Since World War II, 12 top racers have been killed during racing or training, and Maier's is the most recent World Cup fatality.




> Thredbo, Australia: LANDSLIDE
It sounded like a bomb and hit just as unexpectedly. On July 31, 1997, a landslide 50 feet wide and 650 feet deep swept through the Australian ski resort of Thredbo. "This is the last thing you would think would happen here," said a witness. "There have been only light snowfalls in the valley, and maybe two days of rain in the past month. Tng a video camera in one hand while he played Drew Bledsoe with the other. But midway down Copper Bowl, a blue groomer, Kennedy had a fateful lapse of attention. He had just caught the blue Nerf ball and was looking back up the hill at a receiver 15 feet away while approaching an aspen tree at high speed. Onlookers expected Kennedy to veer out of the way at the last second as he had so many times before. He didn't; he slammed into the tree head first with a sickening thud.

Kennedys gathered at the scene of the tragedy as they had so many times before. While his children cried, his sister Rory administered CPR and yelled into her brother's face, saying, "Michael, we know you can hear us. Stay with us. Help is coming. We're here. You're going to be all right." But paramedics lost his pulse as he was being transported by toboggan, and he was pronounced dead at Aspen Valley Hospital.

Take-Home Lesson: But for the Kennedy-curse overtones and the ski-football punch line, this is a classic ski death. According to research by Dr. Jasper Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology, most victims are accomplished male skiers, between the ages of 18 and 35 (Kennedy was just a tad older, at 39), skiing on an intermediate trail at a high rate of speed, suffering a lapse of control or attention, and crashing into a stationary object such as a tree, rock, or lift tower. No matter who you are, pay attention and ski in control at all times.




> Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany: TOO-SLIPPERY SLOPE
On the morning of January 30, 1994, Austrian racer Ulrike Maier was drinking coffee, talking about the simple joys of having her four-year-old daughter, Melanie, accompany her on the World Cup. Although her specialty, the super G, had been cancelled, Maier had decided to race in a downhill on the Garmisch-Partenkirchen course to pick up a few extra points in the overall World Cup standings. Maier, the only mother on the tour (she had won the 1989 super G World Championship when she was two months pregnant), was on the eve of retirement. But she never got the chance to hang up her skis.

On a fast but relatively easy section of the course, the 26-year-old caught an edge, possibly after hitting a patch of soft snow, and careened off the course at 65 miles per hour. Her helmet came off as she hit the rock-hard racecourse, then she slammed head first into a timing post protected only by hay-filled sacks and continued tumbling before sliding to a stop in the middle of the course. Medics rushed to her aid and performed an on-snow tracheotomy, but she couldn't be saved.

"She had no chance," said Dr. Guenter Hoffmann. "Her neck was broken, the main artery was ripped, and no surgery was possible."

After the race, several racers criticized the preparation of the course¿specifically, the use of PTX3, a saltlike chemical applied to the snow to harden it. "It makes the snow grabby and weird," said Picabo Street. U.S. coach Paul Major said the course was so icy it could have been "prepared by a Zamboni."

Others suggested that danger was part of the sport's allure. "In boxing they show the KO, in skiing the accidents," said Olympic downhill champion Patrick Ortlieb. "The fans want it, and the sport needs its fans. Nothing dangerous happens in ping-pong, but no one's interested in it, either."

Take-Home Lesson: Ski racing is a dangerous sport, but less so than you might imagine. Since World War II, 12 top racers have been killed during racing or training, and Maier's is the most recent World Cup fatality.




> Thredbo, Australia: LANDSLIDE
It sounded like a bomb and hit just as unexpectedly. On July 31, 1997, a landslide 50 feet wide and 650 feet deep swept through the Australian ski resort of Thredbo. "This is the last thing you would think would happen here," said a witness. "There have been only light snowfalls in the valley, and maybe two days of rain in the past month. There's no explanation for this."

"This" looked like something out of a disaster movie: crushed cars perched precariously on tons of concrete and rubble. "It looks like someone has taken a great big bulldozer and just drove over both the lodges, and they just slid down the hill," said another witness.

Rescuers worked through horrendous conditions¿their diamond-tipped chainsaws seized when the water-cooling systems froze¿looking for survivors or, more likely, bodies. But more than two full days after the slide, after local police reluctantly admitted that the chances of finding anyone alive were now "infinitesimally" small, a fireman combing the rubble shouted and heard a muffled voice respond: "I can hear you!" Buried under 30 feet of rubble was ski instructor Stuart Diver, who had been in bed in his ground-floor chalet when the slide struck.

Rescuers dug through the concrete by hand for 12 hours to free Diver, who had been keeping his spirits up by recalling the places he had traveled. When they reached him, they pumped warm air and a glucose solution to him; when he grew concerned about the howl of the cutting equipment, Fire Services Commander Rob Killham reassured him: "That noise you can hear is heaven, not hell." Miraculously, Diver suffered only frostbite on his feet, mild hypothermia, and abrasions.

Nineteen people died in the slide, including Diver's wife, Sally, who had been on the mattress next to him and drowned when she was swept from his grasp by a torrent of mud and water.

Take-Home Lesson: While landslides at ski areas are phenomenally rare, their deep-snow cousins, avalanches, are a very real threat¿especially in the backcountry. All mountain travelers should inform themselves about avalanches; you can start by reading "Information Avalanche" (in the related links above).




>Near Whistler, British Columbia: GAP LAPSE
Brett Carlson had been planning it for more than a year, in secret. Lake Tahoe was full of gap jumps¿that most spectacular of new school moves, in which a skier hucks himself across a road or train track, resulting in marketable footage¿but they were scarce here in Whistler, and Carlson wasn't going to let anyone poach the one he had scoped out. He nursed this jump by hand, clipping branches and testing the snowpack daily. On January 17, 2000, the snow and the karma finally seemed right, and during the powder morning, Carlson whooped and shouted, "This is the best day of my life." At 2:30 p.m. he assembled his friends, some with video cameras in hand, others manning shovels to help build and pack the ramp that would launch him across two-lane Nordic Drive and soften and shape the landing zone.

But when it came time to launch, something went terribly wrong. Carlson didn't have enough speed¿maybe it was the fresh pow that slowed him down¿and he crashed to the pavement a few feet short of his landing. He died instantly.

Within hours, the crash site was marked with skis crossed in the snow, bouquets of frozen flowers, and an empty beer can. Attached to the skis with duct tape was a handwritten epitaph: "There's a huge hole in everybody." After Carlson's body was cremated, a group of friends carried his ashes up Whistler mountain's Peak Chair and skied down in one last sad, symbolic run.

Take-Home Lesson: Like Ruff, Carlson spent months preparing for his jump, and again a small miscalculation, coupled with a tiny margin for error, yielded tragic results.



DEATH IN PERSPECTIVE
If you're worried about dying on the slopes, you may as well never leave your house. Statistically speaking, skiing is less likely to result in your demise than plenty of other activities that are generally thought to be both sane and worthwhile.

The chart below compares death rates of various activities both by numbers of participants and by days of participation (e.g. skier days or days in which one person hunted 'possum). According to Allan Hoskin of the National Safety Council, the latter is a more accurate comparison because it compensates ffor the discrepancy between the once-a-season "participant" and the seven-day-a-week fanatic.

To break down our data a little further, the death rate per 10 days of skiing (3 more days a year than what the average skier gets) is .000039. So strap 'em on.¿Matt Porio


Activity Deaths per
100,000
Participants
Deaths per
100,000 days of
participation
SKIING 0.26 .039
SWIMMING 1.6 .05
HUNTING 0.55 .037
SKYDIVING 8.7 .79
SNOWMOBILING 1.04 .12
SCUBA DIVING 3.5 .47
BICYCLING 0.94 .018
RIDING IN PASSENGER CAR 8.5 .023
RESIDENTIAL FIRE 0.89 .0003



THE WORST WAY TO DIE
There are no good ways to die. But maybe some are worse than others. Our nomination for the worst way to die on skis? In a tree well.

What's a tree well? In inbounds glades or in backcountry areas, particularly after big snowstorms, the low-hanging branches of evergreen trees can create sheltered areas around the bases of the trees, where holes full of loose snow and air pockets can form. If you topple into one of these holes, chances are you'll end up upside down, buried in a mini avalanche of snow. You'll try to get out, but you won't be able to. A 1999 study put 10 volunteers, six skiers and four snowboarders, into tree-well situations, and not a single one could extricate him or herself without outside assistance. If you manage to release your bindings, you'll merely succeed in dropping yourself deeper into the hole.

How do tree wells kill? Kind of like a lite avalanche. Getting hit by a big slab avalanche is like getting run over by a bus¿searchers have likened recovered bodies to Hefty bags filled with Jell-O. But in a tree well, the primary cause of death is suffocation, with hypothermia as a possible contributing factor. It's a slow death that comes only after a long period of struggle.

Luckily, tree-well accidents are easily avoided. Don't ski too near evergreens on gladed runs inbounds or in the backcountry. If you do fall, do everything you can¿grabbing branches or limbs¿to keep from getting sucked into the hole. Never ski deep powder or glades alone, and employ a strict buddy system so that you can locate and rescue victims before it's too late.¿A.S.J.e's no explanation for this."

"This" looked like something out of a disaster movie: crushed cars perched precariously on tons of concrete and rubble. "It looks like someone has taken a great big bulldozer and just drove over both the lodges, and they just slid down the hill," said another witness.

Rescuers worked through horrendous conditions¿their diamond-tipped chainsaws seized when the water-cooling systems froze¿looking for survivors or, more likely, bodies. But more than two full days after the slide, after local police reluctantly admitted that the chances of finding anyone alive were now "infinitesimally" small, a fireman combing the rubble shouted and heard a muffled voice respond: "I can hear you!" Buried under 30 feet of rubble was ski instructor Stuart Diver, who had been in bed in his ground-floor chalet when the slide struck.

Rescuers dug through the concrete by hand for 12 hours to free Diver, who had been keeping his spirits up by recalling the places he had traveled. When they reached him, they pumped warm air and a glucose solution to him; when he grew concerned about the howl of the cutting equipment, Fire Services Commander Rob Killham reassured him: "That noise you can hear is heaven, not hell." Miraculously, Diver suffered only frostbite on his feet, mild hypothermia, and abrasions.

Nineteen people died in the slide, including Diver's wife, Sally, who had been on the mattress next to him and drowned when she was swept from his grasp by a torrent of mud and water.

Take-Home Lesson: While landslides at ski areas are phenomenally rare, their deep-snow cousins, avalanches, are a very real threat¿especially in the backcountry. All mountain travelers should inform themselves about avalanches; you can start by reading "Information Avalanche" (in the related links above).




>Near Whistler, British Columbia: GAP LAPSE
Brett Carlson had been planning it for more than a year, in secret. Lake Tahoe was full of gap jumps¿that most spectacular of new school moves, in which a skier hucks himself across a road or train track, resulting in marketable footage¿but they were scarce here in Whistler, and Carlson wasn't going to let anyone poach the one he had scoped out. He nursed this jump by hand, clipping branches and testing the snowpack daily. On January 17, 2000, the snow and the karma finally seemed right, and during the powder morning, Carlson whooped and shouted, "This is the best day of my life." At 2:30 p.m. he assembled his friends, some with video cameras in hand, others manning shovels to help build and pack the ramp that would launch him across two-lane Nordic Drive and soften and shape the landing zone.

But when it came time to launch, something went terribly wrong. Carlson didn't have enough speed¿maybe it was the fresh pow that slowed him down¿and he crashed to the pavement a few feet short of his landing. He died instantly.

Within hours, the crash site was marked with skis crossed in the snow, bouquets of frozen flowers, and an empty beer can. Attached to the skis with duct tape was a handwritten epitaph: "There's a huge hole in everybody." After Carlson's body was cremated, a group of friends carried his ashes up Whistler mountain's Peak Chair and skied down in one last sad, symbolic run.

Take-Home Lesson: Like Ruff, Carlson spent months preparing for his jump, and again a small miscalculation, coupled with a tiny margin for error, yielded tragic results.



DEATH IN PERSPECTIVE
If you're worried about dying on the slopes, you may as well never leave your house. Statistically speaking, skiing is less likely to result in your demise than plenty of other activities that are generally thought to be both sane and worthwhile.

The chart below compares death rates of various activities both by numbers of participants and by days of participation (e.g. skier days or days in which one person hunted 'possum). According to Allan Hoskin of the National Safety Council, the latter is a more accurate comparison because it compensates for the discrepancy between the once-a-season "participant" and the seven-day-a-week fanatic.

To break down our data a little further, the death rate per 10 days of skiing (3 more days a year than what the average skier gets) is .000039. So strap 'em on.¿Matt Porio


Activity Deaths per
100,000
Participants
Deaths per
100,000 days of
participation
SKIING 0.26 .039
SWIMMING 1.6 .05
HUNTING 0.55 .037
SKYDIVING 8.7 .79
SNOWMOBILING 1.04 .12
SCUBA DIVING 3.5 .47
BICYCLING 0.94 .018
RIDING IN PASSENGER CAR 8.5 .023
RESIDENTIAL FIRE 0.89 .0003



THE WORST WAY TO DIE
There are no good ways to die. But maybe some are worse than others. Our nomination for the worst way to die on skis? In a tree well.

What's a tree well? In inbounds glades or in backcountry areas, particularly after big snowstorms, the low-hanging branches of evergreen trees can create sheltered areas around the bases of the trees, where holes full of loose snow and air pockets can form. If you topple into one of these holes, chances are you'll end up upside down, buried in a mini avalanche of snow. You'll try to get out, but you won't be able to. A 1999 study put 10 volunteers, six skiers and four snowboarders, into tree-well situations, and not a single one could extricate him or herself without outside assistance. If you manage to release your bindings, you'll merely succeed in dropping yourself deeper into the hole.

How do tree wells kill? Kind of like a lite avalanche. Getting hit by a big slab avalanche is like getting run over by a bus¿searchers have likened recovered bodies to Hefty bags filled with Jell-O. But in a tree well, the primary cause of death is suffocation, with hypothermia as a possible contributing factor. It's a slow death that comes only after a long period of struggle.

Luckily, tree-well accidents are easily avoided. Don't ski too near evergreens on gladed runs inbounds or in the backcountry. If you do fall, do everything you can¿grabbing branches or limbs¿to keep from getting sucked into the hole. Never ski deep powder or glades alone, and employ a strict buddy system so that you can locate and rescue victims before it's too late.¿A.S.J.ch one person hunted 'possum). According to Allan Hoskin of the National Safety Council, the latter is a more accurate comparison because it compensates for the discrepancy between the once-a-season "participant" and the seven-day-a-week fanatic.

To break down our data a little further, the death rate per 10 days of skiing (3 more days a year than what the average skier gets) is .000039. So strap 'em on.¿Matt Porio


Activity Deaths per
100,000
Participants
Deaths per
100,000 days of
participation
SKIING 0.26 .039
SWIMMING 1.6 .05
HUNTING 0.55 .037
SKYDIVING 8.7 .79
SNOWMOBILING 1.04 .12
SCUBA DIVING 3.5 .47
BICYCLING 0.94 .018
RIDING IN PASSENGER CAR 8.5 .023
RESIDENTIAL FIRE 0.89 .0003



THE WORST WAY TO DIE
There are no good ways to die. But maybe some are worse than others. Our nomination for the worst way to die on skis? In a tree well.

What's a tree well? In inbounds glades or in backcountry areas, particularly after big snowstorms, the low-hanging branches of evergreen trees can create sheltered areas around the bases of the trees, where holes full of loose snow and air pockets can form. If you topple into one of these holes, chances are you'll end up upside down, buried in a mini avalanche of snow. You'll try to get out, but you won't be able to. A 1999 study put 10 volunteers, six skiers and four snowboarders, into tree-well situations, and not a single one could extricate him or herself without outside assistance. If you manage to release your bindings, you'll merely succeed in dropping yourself deeper into the hole.

How do tree wells kill? Kind of like a lite avalanche. Getting hit by a big slab avalanche is like getting run over by a bus¿searchers have likened recovered bodies to Hefty bags filled with Jell-O. But in a tree well, the primary cause of death is suffocation, with hypothermia as a possible contributing factor. It's a slow death that comes only after a long period of struggle.

Luckily, tree-well accidents are easily avoided. Don't ski too near evergreens on gladed runs inbounds or in the backcountry. If you do fall, do everything you can¿grabbing branches or limbs¿to keep from getting sucked into the hole. Never ski deep powder or glades alone, and employ a strict buddy system so that you can locate and rescue victims before it's too late.¿A.S.J.

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