Utah skier found dead in out-of-bounds area

Mar 8, 2023, 11:46 AM | Updated: Mar 9, 2023, 5:31 am

BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — A 37-year-old backcountry skier was found dead near Brighton Ski Resort on Tuesday, according to police.

Sgt. Melody Cutler with the Unified Police Department said Kyle Mortensen was skiing alone in an out-of-bounds area when police believe he struck a tree and fell into a tree well. When Mortensen failed to pick up his kids later that day, his wife called police.

Search and rescue crews were sent to Mortensen’s last-known GPS coordinates and found his body in a tree well, Cutler said. An official cause of death has not been confirmed.

According to Deep Snow Safety, “a tree well is a void or depression that forms around the base of a tree and contains a mix of low hanging branches, loose snow and air. Evergreen trees in particular (fir, hemlock, etc.) can have large, deep tree wells that form when low-hanging branches block snow from filling in and consolidating around the base of the tree.”

“These voids can be hidden from view by the tree’s low-hanging branches.”

“It’s almost like a booby trap that we can fall into and once we’re upside down then it is very difficult to get out of the situation,” Craig Gordon, Utah Avalanche Center forecaster said of the tree well. ‘You’ve got to get out of your skis or your board. This is going to be very difficult to do.”

The Utah Avalanche Center said the safest way to ski or snowboard is with a partner.

The Utah Avalanche Center has warned skiers about tree wells, which are usually not an issue in the state. However, they’ve observed these pockets with near-record amounts of snow that have fallen across Utah.

“Generally, the tree canopy is well above our heads but now those branches are reaching out to snow level and it often hides deep snow wells right around the trunks of the trees,” Gordon said.

“With avalanches, if we’re buried in the snow, there’s actually plenty of air in the snow, and we oftentimes pass away from asphyxiation whereas with all this snow in a snow immersion situation, we cannot get enough air so we pass away from suffocation,” he said. “This is super unusual for us to be talking about here in Utah.”

Update: Police originally said the victim’s name was Kyler, not Kyle. That has been corrected.

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Utah skier found dead in out-of-bounds area