Staying safe on the mountain in the Sierra |

Staying safe on the mountain in the Sierra

With snow continuing to pile up in the Sierra, ski accidents, such as the fatal one reported at Heavenly Resort last weekend, serve as a reminder of the danger involved in the sport, especially in deep snow.

The higher the snow levels, the higher the possibility of getting stuck, and potentially buried in a tree well, according to a safety guide from Ski California, an association of ski resorts across California and Nevada.

“In deep snow, however, there are certainly risks, including avalanches snow immersion,” said Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California.

“It’s important to stay away from tree wells because falling into them could mean an inability to get out and being completely buried in snow and not visible,” he said.

Tree wells are depressions of snow that form around the base of trees and are often hidden by low branches. If skiing too close to trees there is a risk of getting buried and suffocating.

According to the National Ski Areas Association there were 37 reported fatal incidents during the 2017 to 2018 season across resorts nationwide, with two ski-related deaths reported at Tahoe resorts this season. The majority of fatal incidents resulted from collisions with other skiers, trees or man-made objects, according to NSAA.

Resorts encourage riders to always ski with a partner and maintain visual contact at all times in case one partner gets stuck and needs to be dug out. Squaw Valley’s safety guide states that “in many cases deaths due to tree well or deep snow immersion incidents could have been avoided if the victim had been with a partner who had visual contact.”

“It is extremely important in any deep snow situation, whether or near trees or otherwise, to ski with a buddy,” said Reitzell adding that wearing a beacon or wearing bright clothing also helps.

Ski California’s safety guide also suggests having the mountain’s number for ski patrol saved in your phone.

While avalanches in bound a ski resort are uncommon, most ski resorts have avalanche prone terrain. According to the Utah Avalanche Center avalanches are most common on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees. A typical black diamond run sits between low 30 to mid 30s with double black diamond ranging into the low 40s.

“While avalanche hazard mitigation is excellent at all resorts, it does not eliminate the possibility that a slide can occur after the resort opens the area to the public,” said Reitzell.

Ski California’s guide advises riders to never enter closed territory where avalanche control could be taking place stating that it is not only illegal to ski or ride in a closed area, but dangerous.

Last week’s series of storms brought more than 100 inches of snow to local mountains, and broke February snowfall records at Northstar California Resort and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.

Currently avalanche danger in the Tahoe Basin is moderate while in or above the treeline due to potential for wind slabs according to the Sierra Avalanche Center.

The National Avalanche Center advises skier and riders to always carry a beacon, shovel and a probe when touring in the backcountry.

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at 530-550-2652 or

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