More than three months after he went missing at Crystal Mountain in Washington State on March 1, 2011, the body of Paul Melby was found by a ski area employee on June 15. While the discovery of the lost skier’s remains may bring closure to his family — they’d been planning to host a search party on June 25 — it also ends the most tragic year for tree well deaths in U.S. ski history.
According to Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol Director Paul Baugher, who is also the national expert on NARSID, or Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths, nine people died this season by essentially drowning in tree wells. NARSID numbers have only recently begun to be tracked with any real consistency (Baugher believes many NARSID incidents have been mis-reported as tree impact related fatalities). But Baugher estimates the previous record was probably about six or seven fatalities, and that the industry averages about 3.3 NARSIDS per year.
He said the abnormally deep snowpack across much of the country were what caused the fatality rate to spike this year. “There were 48 total U.S. ski area fatalities this year, and nine of those were NARSID, which accounts for almost of the deaths,” said Baugher. “It really put an exclamation point on the dark side of La Niña.”
Baugher, who predicted that Melby was a victim of NARSID when SNEWS® first interviewed him on March 9, said that when he got to the scene “it was pretty much a textbook tree well fatality.” Melby had apparently been skiing a steep, off-piste glade when he fell at the base of a tree.
Going forward, Baugher said he is working with the National Ski Areas Association on a video about how to avoid tree well accidents, as well as a new brochure and a national education campaign. “This is a challenge for us as an industry, especially as more areas open more backcountry and sidecountry terrain,” said Dave Byrd, the NSAA director of education and risk. “This year especially, high snow levels, higher skier visits, more areas opening more advanced terrain and advances in ski and snowboard technology all helped contribute to the rise in fatalities.”
Byrd said increasing education about the dangers of tree wells would be the focus of NSAA’s efforts in the future. “We will certainly work to increase education on extraction issues,” said Byrd. “But most importantly we are going to keep alerting people that they need to ski with a partner and maintain visual contact with them at all times.”
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