90 per cent of people who fall down tree wells do not survive
The dangers of skiing and snowboarding out of bounds are not enough to keep riders out of the backcountry, but it was tree well survival knowledge that saved one Burnaby man's life.
Chris Johnston made it out alive after he ejected from his skis and ended up head first, three metres down a tree well after he skied off to the side of a groomed run at Whitewater Resort near Nelson, B.C.
He inadvertently recorded the entire 15 minute ordeal with a GoPro camera attached to his helmet.
"I just kind of remember waking up and having snow going into my lungs and not knowing what was going on. Then transitioning to, 'I'm in a tree well and this is what I need to do,'" he said.
A tree well is a depression around the base of a tree, covered by low branches and snow. It is usually not possible to see one coming.
Statistics show 90 per cent of people who fall in tree wells do not survive.
"There was a point that I was very, very scared. And, I was having a hard time getting air. And, it did go through my mind this was not a very good situation and it scared me a lot," Johnston said.
Footage from Johnston's GoPro camera audibly captured him gagging and battling for air.
"I just remember [being] stopped, upside down, headfirst with snow all around me," he said. "I was breathing in snow."
Johnston, an engineer from Burnaby, was on vacation with his friends and lost sight of them before crashing and becoming stuck. He said he calmed himself by mentally reviewing a video he watched years ago about tree well survival.
"I started throwing my gear out and then tried to use the tree to climb out," he said.
"I took a deep breath and reached up and released my other ski and was able to turn. A whole bunch of snow came down so I had to reclear."
He then used his ski pole to poke a hole in the metre-deep snow above his head.
Johnston said he plans to stay close to his "ski buddies" the next time he hits the slopes.
The B.C. Coroners Service said nine people have suffocated in tree wells in the last five years and this past week, 29-year-old Jonathan Unger of Whistler died after falling into a tree well riding in Pemberton's back country.
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