A week ago, longtime snow safety expert Peter Lev was skiing at Big Mountain when he caught an edge and tumbled into a tree well. Lev very possibly could have been the sixth victim to fall into these deep-snow traps and suffocate, but he was wearing an AvaLung, which allowed him time to breathe and before finding a way to extricate himself from the hole. In response to that, he wrote this letter and launched it into the snowisphere. And for more on tree well safety, see this Adventure Journal post.
I am sending this to everyone I know who skis or boards. My hope is that it may save additional lives as it saved mine the other day.
So far this year, two people have died at the Big Mountain ski area due to tree well entrapments. I was almost another victim last Friday January 7th, 2011.
The snow has been piling up and getting deep. So as I do every year, I started to wear my AvaLung. I also had my pack with probe, shovel, etc. and had my transceiver turned on. Some people I know don’t wear their gear in-bounds and think these areas are safe since ski-area personnel control them. But you can become entrapped in a tree well In-bounds just as easily as you can skiing out-of-bounds.
My wife & I were skiing an open area on a run called Evans Heavan. It was very foggy and we had decided to make this our last run due to the poor visibility and the newly fallen deep wet snow was starting to set up. I caught an edge and flipped over into a tree well. I landed with my head upside-down and slid down into a hole underneath the tree branches.
I did not have my AvaLung in my mouth but it was poised in position directly in front of my mouth. The impact from the snow pushed the mouthpiece out of position and I could not bite onto it. My ski poles had separated from my hands but there was 2 feet of snow between my face and hands. Snow had compacted in front of my face. The impact from the fall had knocked the air out of my lungs and as my body instinctively gasped for air, I swallowed a fare amount of snow and choked as I attempted to push the snow away from my face and to locate my AvaLung mouth piece. I located it and shoved it into my mouth, inhaled and got more snow into my lungs. Fortunately when I exhaled the snow blew out through the AvaLung and I started to breath though the device.
After a minute or so my breathing started to regulate and I calmed down. I dug and pushed away the snow that was covering my goggles and looked around. There was a small air pocket in front of me underneath one of the tree branches. I wiggled and pulled my head and upper body underneath the branch. I removed more snow that was covering my 2-way radio (strapped to my backpack cross chest strap) I removed the AvaLung mouthpiece and called on the two-way radio to my wife. She was only 50 feet from me and didn’t know where I was. The thought of blowing the whistle that was in my chest pocket never came to mind, nor did using the siren feature on my radio. I guess even though you have all the gear, under stress, you may not use it properly in a panic situation.
My wife got the radio call and started to search for me. But she had not worn her transceiver that day. So she could not locate me. It was up to me to get myself out! Fortunately my skis were not too twisted up and were closer to the surface than the rest of me. I used the tree branches to pull myself toward the surface and kept punching a path upward. After a few minutes I had made a hole big enough to stick out my hand. My wife saw my waving hand and started to work her way uphill to help. The snow was deep and hard for her to step uphill. Before she made it to me I had managed to free myself. I was shaken and distraught. That night I had repeated nightmares of being trapped. It was a horrifying experience.
I am convinced that without that AvaLung II strapped on, I would not be writing this letter. Thank you to who ever invented that AvaLung and thank you Black Diamond for selling such a great piece of equipment. I soon plan on replacing the AvaLung II with one of the new AvaLung Packs.
I now ski with the AvaLung II’s mouthpiece in my mouth whenever I am skiing in the trees or gladded areas, since I now know that if it isn’t in your mouth, you might not be able locate it when you are disoriented. Here is a link to some additional tree well safety tips: http://treewelldeepsnowsafety.com/
Again…the AvaLung II saved my life. I will forever be grateful!
— Pete Lev, Whitefish, MT
Looking to buy an AvaLung? The AvaLung II that Lev was wearing costs $140. LINK