I wanted to cover safety in deep snow today because skiers die needlessly every year from not being able to rescue themselves in deep snow.
Today I skied at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area right after they got 10.5 – 15.5 feet of new snow. I skied today because it’s supposed to snow this afternoon and tomorrow. I skied around 6 runs this morning in most cases with pretty heavy snow down to my knees. And just when I thought my balance was perfect, I was 10 years old? High and bulletproof, I did something strange and fell into the bottomless powder of the trees. Snow got in my mouth when I fell, and that always gives me a feeling of claustrophobia / shortness of breath.
I fell gently on the skis to my left and my body fell to the right. Suddenly I knew it would be very difficult to get up and get out of this bottomless dust. So I took a moment, took several deep breaths, and agreed to my situation. I was somewhere in the trees where someone was unlikely to find me.
I needed to rescue myself. I knew from experience that it was bottomless powder, and my posts would be of little help. Some say you have to make a “tee” with the posts and lean on them, but it would not have worked in any way. The dust was too deep, and deep dust provides unique and potentially life-threatening challenges. So we must be prepared. The larger baskets on the poles are useful for straining on powder days, but they don’t provide enough resistance to help you get up from a fall. As my body is heavier than with boots and skis, the more I struggle and move, the lower my body will sink and my feet will be above my head.
In this case, I was able to slowly move my butt over a period of about 2 minutes to be more on my skis pulling my body mass on the skis pulling my legs below the knees. The last part was difficult because I had nothing to lean against, but I knew that if I could do this last move to get my butt on the back of my skis, I could stand up. So I pulled on my legs one more time because I knew that would give me the stamina I needed.
I managed to get up, now about 5 minutes after I fell. My two skis were on and deep in the snow. I slowly pulled on the right, breaking the surface of the snow to get a foot higher. Then I did the same with the left ski. Well, I was finally able to slide back to the prepared part of the race and complete the self-rescue from the bottomless dust.
In another blog post, I’ve detailed how to find a bottomless powder ski, which can be challenging. Search this blog’s search window for “Lost Ski” or “Find Lost Ski” and it should appear. My method has always been able to quickly find the lost ski, so you don’t have to worry about that anymore.
But I still want to cover what happened to me on June Mt. as a kid. It was a week with 8 feet of new snow on June Mt. I successfully skied my face but fell off and made a big hole in the flat at the bottom. At first, I panicked and struggled to get to my feet. But the more I struggled, the more I sank into the dust, making the hole deeper. It got to the point where I was 8 feet deep in this hole, and I still couldn’t stand up.
I knew no one would face ski that day. If a ski patrolman were to ski past, he would not hear my screams or see me unless he saw the runway to my hole. I couldn’t count on that!
I was only about 11 years old and needed to be resourceful to rescue me, or I could be there all night and freeze. I decided to take a break. I pulled out the camera I had in my pocket and took a photo from the bottom of my 8 foot deep hole. I tried to push my posts to hit something solid and sank them up to my shoulder. I didn’t hit anything that could sustain me.
I thought a bit more and finally thought that I could take off a ski and use it horizontally as a form of support. I was able to take off 1 ski and hold the side of the ski and dig it to grab it, stand up like this. Then I lifted my upper body and climbed sideways up the side of the hole. I kept doing this until I got to where I was alone up to my knees again.
I put my ski back on and was able to make my way back to the chairlift. Remember this technique if you get stuck in a deep powder hole. This same self-rescue strategy could work to get out of a tree hole, which can be fatal if you don’t know what to do. More information on what to do if you get stuck in a tree well can be found at: http://www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com. There are some really good security tips on that site that I haven’t covered here.
I can tell you from experience that it is easier to learn these proven self-rescue techniques from someone else than to have to come up with a rescue technique when you get stuck. People die from being trapped in deep dust. I gave you 2 self rescue techniques here. I also recommend that you always carry a whistle when skiing in the trees. It could give you the ability to ask for help where you cannot be seen. I also recommend that you carry a fully charged cell phone with the Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol phone number programmed into your phone. This way, when you are injured, you can ask for help and tell them where you are. You must schedule under ICE for In Case of Emergency, your person will be contacted in case of injury or emergency. Emergency personnel know to look for this on your cell phone, so you should program your emergency contact phone number there so they can find you if they need it.
Other emergency things that I carry because I ski in the trees are:
1) Small Knife: You can cut it from a tree or fillet a fish or squirrel if necessary.
2) I told you about the whistle – it can help the ski patrol hear you when they are doing their last sweep of the mountain at closing.
3) Lighter: If you were to stay overnight, making a fire could save you from freezing to death.
4) Your cell phone programmed as recommended above.
5) Cliff Bar – These have a lower freezing point so you don’t have to chew on a rock solid snack bar.
6) Fleece Balaclava: It can really increase heat retention in winds and if you get stuck overnight.
7) Ski helmet: wear a helmet every time you ski. You cannot predict when a dangerous situation will present itself. 80% of fatal ski injuries could have been prevented simply by wearing a helmet.
I photocopy my driver’s license and medical card so that if I am knocked unconscious, they will know who I am by my driver’s license. And they know that my “ICE” in case of emergency must call because it is programmed in my cell phone that I have all day.
Being prepared and informed can save your life or prevent you from being stranded in the woods for hours or overnight. If you only ski the groomed slopes, you only need about half of these things. But I like to hide in my tree dust hiding places so I keep this in my ski jacket at all times to have it if I ever need it. Teach these deep snow self-rescue techniques to your family, friends, and loved ones so they know what to do in this life-threatening situation. Be safe on the slopes!