Paul Melby, a Crystal Mountain local and good friend, was last seen at the top of the High Campbell lift on Tuesday afternoon. A few hours later, when he didn’t make it in after last chair, his friends alerted the patrol. Seven teams searched Tuesday night. With little information to his possible whereabouts, patrol director, Paul Baugher was quoted as saying it’s “like searching for a needle in a stack of needles.”
We fear he fell into a tree well. An expert skier often skiing alone, Melby could have fallen into the soft, unconsolidated snow that surrounds tree trunks. Dense limbs prevent the snow from becoming cohesive.making it difficult to get out.
I, myself, have fallen into a tree well in the Left Angle Trees area. (Note to my Mom: I know you are reading this, and it wasn’t that bad. I’m just giving an example here about the dangers of tree wells and my experience, don’t worry. I know that you, too have had close calls in tree wells! Okay thanks to all my non-relative readers for that disclaimer.) I was alone and caught an edge. As I glided, slow-motion-like towards the dark limbs, I thought nothing of it. I could just grab a limb and pull myself out. But it wasn’t that easy. The snow was loose and the more I moved, the further my body slipped down into the powder. Luckily, I could reach my bindings to release them, allowing me to get my feet beneath me and climb the tree limbs. Getting caught in a tree well is much like hanging from the tree several feet off the ground, but unable to breathe.
Recently we practiced searching for a victim in a tree well. I was the victim. My step-daughter, Evelyn, was shadowing me that day and she acted as the witness, while I shimmied down into a tree well, keeping my skis in what I thought was a visible location. I made a call as a victim might–from my cell phone alerting the patrollers, who came to search for me. I could hear their voices and resisted the urge to call on the radio to bring them in. I wanted to tell them, I’m right over here, just keep going around the next tree. Don’t miss me, don’t get too low and ski right past me. I’m right here! Even though the snow was dense and work-hardened around the base of the tree, it was still uncomfortable and I dared not move too much.
I was relieved when after twenty minutes, the other patrollers found me and extricated their “victim”. It was yet another reminder to stay away from tree wells and always ski with a partner. Had Evelyn not been there, the patrollers wouldn’t have found me so quickly, if at all.
This morning the search for Melby continues. His family has asked for volunteers to help in the search. If you are an advanced skier and want to help out, meet at 8:30 at the patrol room near the base of the gondola.
My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and everyone in the Crystal community.