Student-Led Research at College of the Rockies Helps Improve Safety Protocols In Backcountry

College of the Rockies Mountain Adventure Skills Training (MAST) program and CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures (CMH) have released the results of a research project they conducted in 2018.

“This research has resulted in best-practices guidelines for tree well incidents which will help to make the backcountry a safer place for all to enjoy,” said College of the Rockies MAST program coordinator, Brian Bell.

Tree wells are areas of loose snow around the trunk of a tree that create risks for serious injury or even death when a skier or snowboarder falls into one. Trapped by the snow, the immobilized skier or boarder runs the risk of suffocating. According to the Canadian Ski Patrol, 90 per cent of people trapped in tree well hazards are unable to rescue themselves.

Through a unique partnership, MAST and CMH, who share a common goal of advancing snow sport safety research, teamed up to explore best practices for safely extracting skiers and snowboarders who have fallen into tree wells. Eight MAST students, under the guidance of Bell and CMH Assistant Area Manager, CMH Kootenay, Rob Whelan, conducted much of the research in late 2017 and early 2018.

“This project required the perfect mix of skills from MAST students and focused on solving a real-world problem that is a concern for our students and for anyone who frequents the backcountry,” Bell said.

In addition to determining tree well extraction best practices, the project team aimed to help develop safety instruction protocols for CMH staff and guests.

“The hard work and excellent preparation of the MAST students allowed us to collect a robust and unique dataset regarding tree well phenomena and to formalize a new tree well rescue technique that we can implement as part of our safety training,” said Whelan.

The project was divided into two components. The first consisted of classroom-based research where students recorded statistics from online videos of tree well incidents to better understand typical accident scenarios. Students then took part in a four-day field exercise in Nakusp on CMH tenure where they executed 22 mock rescues, and closely surveyed tree wells to determine well depth, shape, and orientation around the tree trunk.

In the end, under Whelan’s direction, a “T” Rescue system evolved, indicating the most effective rescue actions were a combination of: digging, platform preparation, and pulling.

Specific guidelines for each are included in the full report, which was shared at Canadian Avalanche Association’s annual meetings in Kelowna in May 2018, and at the Elk Valley Snow Avalanche Workshop in November, while a summary of the project and findings was published in The Avalanche Journal (vol 118). Bell also presented the report at staff training for Retallack Catskiing in early December.

The full report can be found at: