That fresh powder can end in deadly ‘snow immersion.’ Here’s what you need to know

It’s the heady prospect of fresh powder that entices skiers and snowboarders off the groomed trails of a ski resort and into the backcountry wilderness.

But deep snow can be deadly, even within the boundaries of a fully staffed and well-maintained ski area.

Whether it’s getting caught in an avalanche or plunging into a tree well, survivors said it’s like drowning.

“I did a drop off a spine feature and it had this big pillow on top,” said Matt Chapman of Bellingham, describing one of his two close calls in 2012 near Chair 2 at the Mt. Baker Ski Area.

“Right as I came off, that pillow fractured. I landed 20 feet below, feet first, and sat down. It was at the bottom of a chute. I was pretty much up to my waist when I landed and all that snow came down on me. I was completely covered.”

Experts: Keep your partner in sight

That same day, Chapman took a jump and landed with only his feet and board above the surface.

“It was simply headfirst into deep, unconsolidated snow,” Chapman said. “But I had two friends right behind me.”

Those friends on the slope above were quick to assist, a “buddy” technique that snow sports experts emphasize.

“You are the lifeguard and you have to stay close to your partner,” said Gwyn Howat, executive vice president of the Mt. Baker Ski Area.

“If something happens and you have to take off your gear and hike up, that’s incredibly difficult,” she said. “Powder snow is one of the desirable parts of the sport, but if you make that choice, your partner is your best help. Stop any time you lose visual contact with your partner.”

Snow emergencies can be fatal

On average, 27 people die every year in avalanches, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Another three or four people are killed annually in other types of snow immersion situations, according to data collected by Paul Baugher, a leading advocate for avalanche safety who is ski patrol director at Crystal Mountain and director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute in Enumclaw.

“Tree Well Danger an ‘Underappreciated Risk,’ ” wrote Mychaela Nickoloff in the Jan. 27, 2016, issue of Powder magazine.

“About 65 percent of the people that die from snow immersion, it’s in a tree well,” Baugher said in a video at the Mt. Baker Ski Area’s website.

Three snowboarders missing

It’s a set of statistics that hit home for Bellingham-area outdoors enthusiasts as three snowboarders vanished on the slopes around Mount Baker within a two-month span from November 2017 to January 2018.

Despite extensive searching, none of the three men have been found – and what happened to Drew Lenz, Jake Amancio and Vitaliy Datskiy might never be known.

“It could be an avalanche, it could have been a tree well,” said Dennis D’Amico, a meteorologist at the Northwest Avalanche Center in Bellevue. NWAC monitors avalanche conditions and collects data, including accident reports.

“One of them was in a ski area, but the other two entered ... backcountry terrain where there’s no avalanche control. That’s becoming more and more of an issue every year,” D’Amico said.

Families of all three men who vanished said they were experienced in the outdoors.

Friends and family members said Lenz and Amancio usually carried avalanche gear, including beacons or transceivers to help rescuers find them. One of their phones pinged briefly a few hours after they were last seen, but no beacon or transceivers were activated.

“If you’re skiing in the resort, 99.9 percent of the time, you don’t need that gear – a beacon or transceiver, shovel and a probe,” D’Amico said. “But people are doing that without proper gear. Make sure your partner has that gear, too.”

D’Amico said that people who venture into the backcountry put more than themselves in danger. Search and rescue teams, volunteers, family and friends often risk their lives to locate a person lost in the wilderness.

“It puts the rescuers in danger and it’s difficult on the families,” D’Amico said. “We’re very lucky that we haven’t had a rescuer accident in a while.”

Horrific immersion on video

Possibly no one knows the dangers of snow immersion more than Winston Goss of Boise, Idaho.

Goss told the Idaho Statesman that he was skiing with his son Ethan, 15, at Brundage Mountain Resort when the boy vanished into a deep tree well in February 2016. The harrowing incident captured on Winston Goss’s helmet camera illustrates not only the danger of snow immersion, but also how taking the proper precautions averted tragedy.

In the footage, Goss watches from above as his son skis out of sight. He’s quickly able to ski downhill and pull the gasping teen to safety.

“I’m so glad I was above you,” Goss tells his son.

Carry a phone on the slopes

Two of the men who vanished, Lenz and Amancio, were in the Mount Baker backcountry, and their exact location was unknown – making for a wide search area. Datskiy was in-bounds at the Mt. Baker Ski Area, but had ducked under a warning rope and was skiing alone with plans only to meet his friends at the bottom of his run.

None of them carried beacons or transceivers, officials said.

“You can avoid tree hazards and deep wells by staying on the groomed runs,” Howat said.

She urged skiers and snowboarders to stick together and know their partner’s location, and have a way to communicate.

“Have a designated plan for how you’re going to do your run,” Howat said. “Carry a cell phone – kids, especially. I highly recommend that parents and kids have a way to communicate with each other.”

Near-fatal lesson

Chapman said he knows that his two snow immersions in one day – both in bounds at the ski area – were nearly fatal lessons.

“That incident was enough to get me on my toes for this season,” Chapman said.

“If someone, somehow, can learn something from this, I’d be happy. You can lose people so fast. All too often, this is how it works. It was a strong reminder to ride in visual connection with a partner. Deep snow is no joke.”

Paragraph 20 of this story was changed at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 1, 2018, to clarify that family members said Lenz and Amancio usually carried safety gear in the backcountry.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

Snow safety

For information about snow immersion, check these links:

▪  Tree well immersion hazards, http://deepsnowsafety.org/

<bullet> General snow-safety information, http://www.mtbaker.us/safety-education/mtn-safety

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