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Thomas Podivinsky

Thomas Podivinsky died Sunday while skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

WHITEFISH – A tree well at Whitefish Mountain Resort has claimed the life of another skier, the second person to die in a tree well at the resort in the past five weeks, and the fourth since 2010.

Flathead County authorities identified the latest victim as Thomas Podivinsky, 48, of Calgary, Alberta. Podivinsky was the older brother of Canadian Olympic alpine ski medalist Edward “Edi” Podivinsky.

Thomas Podivinsky died early Sunday afternoon. Officials said he was skiing with a friend when the two became separated at approximately 12:30 p.m.

When Podivinsky didn’t meet up with a group of people as planned, they reported him missing at 1 p.m.

Members of the Whitefish Mountain Ski Patrol located him upside-down and buried in snow in a tree well, and were unable to resuscitate him. Whitefish Mountain spokeswoman Riley Polumbus said Podivinsky was skiing in an ungroomed treed area between the Hollywood and Silvertip runs on the mountain’s north side.

On Jan. 11, a California man, 54-year-old Douglas Spring, was killed when he fell into a tree well on the north side between the Big Horn and Grey Wolf runs.

Two other people died in tree wells within 10 days of each other at Whitefish Mountain in the winter of 2010-11. The family of one of those victims, a foreign exchange student from Germany, has filed a lawsuit against the resort.

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Tree wells are hidden holes in the snow. They form around pine and fir trees whose branches collect falling snow and keep it from reaching the ground underneath the tree.

As snow accumulates outside the area protected by the branches, it eventually reaches the snow-covered branches and hides the holes.

“The voids are completely hidden,” Polumbus explained Monday. “You can’t even tell how tall a tree is. It’s like only seeing the tip of an iceberg, and having no idea how big the iceberg is underneath. A person can fall all the way to the ground in a tree well, and not be able to get up because when they go in, the snowpack around them follows them.”

Controlled studies using volunteers have shown that 90 percent of people who fall into tree wells are unable to rescue themselves, according to the website deepsnowsafety.org.

While it’s possible to be injured while going into a tree well, most victims suffocate after being buried in the snow.

An autopsy on Podivinsky will be conducted Tuesday. An autopsy on Spring last month listed his cause of death as asphyxiation, according to Polumbus.

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Podivinsky was the chief geophysicist for the Athabasca Oil Corp. of Calgary. Until Sunday, when Jan Hudec of Calgary won a bronze in the super-G, Podivinsky’s younger brother Edi had been the last Canadian to win an Olympic alpine skiing medal.

Edi Podivinsky won a bronze in the downhill in 1994. He also competed in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, and made the 1992 Canadian Olympic team as well, although an injury in his last training run in ’92 kept him from competing that year.

Thomas Podivinsky’s death Sunday reinforced the dangers of leaving groomed runs in pursuit of powder in treed areas.

“We are deeply saddened by this tragedy,” Whitefish Mountain Resort said in a statement released Monday. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends as they cope during this difficult time.

“This accident is another unfortunate reminder that tree wells are an inherent risk of the sport. We encourage our guests to take extra caution when skiing in the trees, ski with a partner, and call ski patrol immediately if someone is missing.”

Sixteen-year-old Niclas Waschle, the foreign exchange student, died in a tree well near the T-Bar 2 trail at Whitefish Mountain on Dec. 29, 2010, while skiing alone. Ten days later, Kalispell snowboarder Scott Meyer, 29, was killed when he fell into a tree well in the same area.

A lawsuit filed by Waschle’s family last Christmas Eve accuses Whitefish Mountain Resort of failing to adequately warn skiers of the danger tree wells represent, and alleges there were no warning signs in the T-Bar 2 area at the time.

Whitefish Mountain issued a statement after the lawsuit was filed saying Waschle’s death was “tragic,” “heart-breaking” and “unforgettable,” but called the lawsuit groundless.

“It is not reasonable to identify a particular tree among the tens of thousands within the resort boundary that has a dangerous tree well by sight,” the statement said, adding that tree wells are one of the known risks inherent in the sport of skiing.

The resort has signs posted at the summit and the T-Bar 2 area warning of the dangers of tree wells, Polumbus said after Spring’s death last month, and also added a section to its snow report about tree wells “once we realized how much snow we were getting this winter.”

The mountain’s website, skiwhitefish.com, also has a link to five pages explaining and detailing the risks associated with tree wells, and what to do if you or a partner skier or snowboarder fall into one, from the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.

It says the risk of falling into a tree well is “completely avoidable.”

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Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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