I wanted to cover deep snow safety today because skiers needlessly die every year from being unable to rescue themselves in deep snow.
I skied Mammoth Mountain ski area today just after they got 10.5 – 15.5 feet of new snow. I skied today because it’s supposed to snow this afternoon and tomorrow. Skied about 6 runs this morning in pretty heavy snow, mostly knee deep. And just when I thought my balance was perfect, I was 10? tall and bulletproof, I did something weird and fell into the bottomless dust of the trees. Snow got in my mouth when I fell, and that always gives me a feeling of shortness of breath/claustrophobia.
I landed gently with my skis to my left and my body fell to the right. Suddenly, I knew it would be very difficult to get up and out of this bottomless dust. So I took a moment, took a few deep breaths, and agreed to my situation. I was somewhere in the trees where it was unlikely anyone would find me.
I needed self-rescue. I knew from experience that I was in bottomless powder, and my poles would be of little help. Some say make a “t” with your poles and lean on them, but it would have never worked. The dust was too deep, and deep dust offers unique challenges that can be life-threatening. So we have to be prepared. The larger baskets on the poles are helpful for pushing yourself on powder days, but they don’t provide enough resistance to help you get up from a fall. Since my body is heavier than boots and skis, the more I struggle and move, the lower my body will sink putting my feet above my head.
In this case, I was able to move my butt slowly over a period of about 2 minutes to be more on my skis by pulling my body mass onto the skis by pulling my legs below the knees. The last part was tough because I had nothing to lean against, but I knew if I could just do this last move to get my butt on the back of my skis, I could get to my feet. So I pulled my legs up one more time because I knew that would give me the resistance I needed.
I managed to get to my feet now about 5 minutes after I fell. Both my skis were on and sunk deep into the snow. I slowly raised the right one breaking the surface of the snow to run higher. Then I did the same with the left ski. Well, I was finally able to slide back into the prepared portion of the run and complete the bottomless dust self-rescue.
In another blog post, I 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 show up. 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 skied the face successfully but fell and put a big hole in the bottom flat. At first I panicked and struggled to my feet. But the more I struggled, the deeper I sank into the dust, making the hole deeper. I got to the point where I was 8 feet deep in this hole and I still couldn’t stand up.
I knew no one was skiing the face that day. If a ski patrolman were skiing past, he wouldn’t hear my screams or see me unless he saw the run to my hole. I couldn’t count on that!
I was only about 11 years old and I needed to be resourceful to self-rescue, or I could stand there all night and freeze. I decided to take a break. I took out the camera I had in my pocket and took a picture from the bottom of my 8 foot deep hole. I tried to push my sticks to hit something solid, and sank them up to my shoulder. I didn’t hit anything that could hold me.
I thought some more and finally figured I could take off 1 ski and use it horizontally as a form of support. I was able to take off 1 ski and hold onto the side of the ski and dig into it to grab onto, lifting myself to a standing position this way. Then I raised my upper body and climbed sideways up the side of the hole. I kept doing this until I got to where I was only up to my knees again.
I put my ski back on and was able to make my way back to the ski lift. Remember this technique if you get stuck in a deep powder hole. This same self-rescue strategy could work to get you out of a tree safely, 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 hole 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 invent 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 call for help where you can’t 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 get hurt, you can call for help and tell them where you are. You must schedule under ICE for In Case of Emergency, your person to be contacted in case of injury or emergency. Emergency personnel know to look for this on your cell phone, so program your emergency contact phone number there so they can find you if they need to.
Other emergency things I bring because I tree ski 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’re doing their last sweep of the mountain at closing.
3) Lighter: If you had to spend the night, lighting a fire could save you from freezing to death.
4) Your cell phone programmed as recommended above.
5) Cliff Bar: They have a lower freezing point, so you won’t have to chew on a rock-solid snack bar.
6) Wool Balaclava – Can really increase heat retention in windy conditions, and if you get stuck overnight.
7) Ski Helmet – Wear a helmet every time you ski. You cannot predict when a dangerous situation will arise. 80% of fatal ski injuries could have been prevented simply by wearing a helmet.
I photocopy my driver’s license and my medical card so that if I become unconscious, they will know who I am from my driver’s license. And they know my person “ICE” in case of an emergency to call because it is programmed into my cell phone that I have with me 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 groomed runs, you only need about half of these things. But I like to hide in my tree dust stashes, so I keep it in my ski jacket at all times to have 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!