Near the end of last February, a two-week blast of cold, wet weather brought several feet of dry, powdery snow to Mt. Bachelor Ski Area, the type of conditions that die-hard skiers and snowboarders live for.
It also ushered in the deadliest day at the ski area in living memory. In less than four hours on March 2, two people, in two different parts of Mt. Bachelor’s vast backcountry, died when they fell into tree wells — deep chasms of light, cold snow surrounding trees on the mountainside.
Ten months later, the tragedy is no longer top of mind for skiers, snowboarders and managers at the popular Central Oregon ski area, but it still resonates: There are improved procedures to track guests, black-and-orange signs that warn of the dangers of snow suffocation and a desire by Mt. Bachelor officials to improve education about tree wells. Mt. Bachelor officials believe conditions similar to those that created the deadly day in March are almost certain to return.
“We’ve had storms so far, but none of them have delivered the quantity or quality of snow,” said Drew Jackson, director of marketing and communications for the ski area, said. “We haven’t really been tested again yet.”
Around noon March 2, the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office was called to help rescue a snowboarder who was found buried in the snow on Mount Bachelor.
Alfonso Braun, 24, was found under six feet of snow near the Northwest Express chairlift, between two black-diamond runs. Lt. Bryan Husband, search and rescue coordinator for the sheriff’s office, said Braun had gotten separated from his partner after leaving the trail and ultimately fell into a tree well.
Braun was pronounced dead at the scene.
Husband said DCSO officers were still at the ski area when they were alerted to second incident. Nicole Panet-Raymond, 19, had gotten separated from her friends earlier that day, and was found in a tree well near White Bark run, off of Cloudchaser lift. She, too was pronounced dead at the scene.
They were the first deaths caused by tree wells at Mt. Bachelor since 2002, and March 2 was the first day in the ski area’s history in which multiple guests died on the same day, Jackson said.
Tree wells are a deadly, hidden trap. They form during snowstorms when the branches of a tree block snow from accumulating near its trunk, causing small amounts of fresh, unpacked snow to conceal large chasms near the bases of trees.
Husband said skiers and snowboarders may not see the chasm until it’s too late, and can fall in and become trapped.
These instances often occur in undisturbed backcountry terrain, and can be fatal, as snow collapses on top of a rider, leading to suffocation, Husband said.
While these kinds of suffocations are rare at Mt. Bachelor, they’ve happened somewhere in the country nearly every winter over the last decade. Last winter, seven skiers and snowboards across the United States died from snow immersion suffocation, more than any winter season since 2010-11, according to numbers from National Ski Area Association.
Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the ski area association, said they’ve seen a rise in backcountry skiing at member ski resorts over the past few years, as improving equipment continues to make it easier to ski in unpatrolled areas.
“We’re seeing changes to what the guests want,” Byrd said. “They chase powder; that’s just their nature.”
The series of storms that swept through Central Oregon prior to March 2, dropping nearly 75 inches of snow at the base of Mount Bachelor in less than two weeks, contributed to conditions that killed skiers at resorts in California.
Those were the majority of snow-suffocation deaths nationwide that winter.
Additionally, Jackson said the storms last year were particularly cold, keeping temperatures well below freezing and ensuring that the snow was particularly light and unlikely to collapse into tree wells.
Mt. Bachelor had made education about tree wells a point of emphasis going into the 2017-18 ski season, but many of the materials hadn’t arrived or been put to use when the accidents occurred in March, Jackson said. Before the incidents, the ski area ordered a collection of 18-by-24 inch signs warning lift-riders about the danger of snow suffocation. Jackson said 20 of the signs were installed around the ski area after the deaths, where they replaced less-common, handmade signs.
“We recognized the need to have something a little more professional-looking,” he said.
This season, the ski area installed a new ticketing system that changed the way it tracks visitors, Jackson said.
Before this year, the ski area sold day and multi-day passes anonymously, meaning that it lacked the names of about 45 percent of its visitors, Jackson said. The new system allows Mt. Bachelor to better track which visitors complete their runs.
“We didn’t have a way to connect a certain ticket with a specific guest, but this year we can,” Jackson said.
The ski area also updated its website to add more information about tree wells, and cracked down on visitors traveling uphill outside of designated routes.
Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Area Association, praised the work Mt. Bachelor has done to raise awareness, but said individual responsibility plays a big role in preventing snow suffocation. She encouraged everyone to travel with a partner or group when skiing in the backcountry, and carry a shovel to help dig out from under the snow, as well as a beacon and a whistle to alert others if they become trapped.
Thus far, the deaths last year haven’t kept visitors off the slopes. Jackson said visitation was up 30 to 35 percent compared to last year during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, typically one of the ski area’s busiest periods. He said the totals were buoyed by snow levels that are more than a foot where they stood at the same time last year.
Despite the high snow totals so far, Jackson warned that the ski area hadn’t experienced anything like the storms that hit the mountain late last February. If that happens, they will test the ski area’s new messaging. Still, Mt. Bachelor’s focus is to get people talking about ways to stay safe in unsafe conditions, he said.
“We just want people to have those conversations,” Jackson said. “That’s what the messaging is hopefully designed to inspire.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7818, firstname.lastname@example.org