Some years back, I took my Girl Scout troop up to Mount Hood to enjoy dog sled rides in the snow. But this post is not about Girl Scouting, not about mountains, and not about dog sled rides. It's about a girl disappearing into a tree well.
Here's how it happened:
There were 15 girls in my charge, and the sled driver asked if her daughter could stay with the rest of the troop, while she took a few girls at a time for the sled ride. Well, certainly. How much trouble could one more girl be?
Those of us left behind, girls and moms waiting for our turns, did the usual snowy things: we built forts and had snowball fights, and we fell down. A lot. The snow was so deep that we were post-holing with nearly every step we took. So when one of the girls shouted "She fell down!" I wondered at the note of urgency in her voice. We were all falling down.
But one of the volunteer moms started running toward two girls--and because she was running, I started running too. The mom later told me that she had glanced over toward three girls, and when the shout came, she looked again and saw only two.
I didn't know why I was running until we reached the two shouting girls and I saw the hole beside a tree--and the third girl embedded in it. When the snow had given way, the sled driver's daughter had fallen in feet first, with her arms upraised. She was looking up at us from about four feet below the surface, wedged into a tube. I assured her we'd get her out and ordered the other girls away. The volunteer mom and I laid on our stomachs to reach the kid, grabbing hold to pull and pull, and grab and pull again, gradually heaving her out. One of the other mothers later said it was one of the oddest sights she'd ever seen--our strange struggle to haul that child out of the depths of the snow.
But the sledder's daughter was a hardy kid; once she was out she didn't seem too concerned about the experience...even though she hadn't been touching bottom...even though there was no way she could have freed herself...even though if she'd been any deeper our arms would not have reached her. No, I was the rattled one, yelling, "Stay away from the trees, girls!" (Not the words a Girl Scout leader typically says to the youth in her charge, by the way.)
Here's how tree wells are formed: branches, especially conifer branches, deflect the snow, creating a pocket of air or loose snow against the trunk. You usually can't tell whether a specific tree has a well--the branches hide it.
And while the dog sledder's daughter was not in any immediate danger, snowboarders and skiers have died in tree wells, unable to free themselves.
This typically happens on un-groomed, power snow, and can easily be prevented by avoiding trees.
So if you're the type who likes the freedom and excitement of off-trail skiing, please remember: STAY AWAY FROM THE TREES, GIRLS!