Survival Case Studies: Falling Through Ice

Sometimes it pays to watch the instructional video

Jul 12, 2012
Outside Magazine
Fall through the ice

   Photo: Illustration by Kagan McLeod

The guys in the bait shop said the ice was solid, a good seven to eight inches—plenty to support a snowmobile—all the way out past an underwater hump called Levi’s Shoal. But when we got there, two guys were already fishing the shoal. My son Aaron and I went to another hump about a quarter-mile in the direction of the open water.

The ice felt thick. The air was crisp, and the coating of new snow sparkled. We went a few hundred yards. The snowmobile slowed. We heard a loud crack, then the sled tilted backward and disappeared beneath us.

Next thing I knew, we were in the water. The hole was about 15 feet in diameter, and I could see Aaron out of the corner of my eye. Instinct told me to help him, but there was nothing I could do from the water. I had confidence in him. He had lost 100 pounds and was now a strong, competent adult. We had both been in poor shape and three years ago decided to start working out. If we hadn’t, each and every week, no excuses, I don’t think we’d be here now. And we knew what to do: we had watched instructional YouTube videos.

When the moment came, Aaron remembered that you’re supposed to “swim” out, meaning flop up onto the surface, instead of putting all your body weight on the edge of the ice and trying to hoist yourself up out of the water. He escaped right away, but I did it wrong—just like the videos warned. The ice cracked again, and I fell back, bobbing in the water. As a piece of ice bumped my shoulder, it occurred to me, This is the real thing; this is how people die.

Then I heard Aaron yelling “Swim! Swim!” And then it was magical, it was very easy.

When I saw that we were both out, we yelled, “Yes!” and moved to firmer ice.

Expert advice from polar adventurer Eric Larsen

1. Check the ice as you go. When I’m out, I have an ax with me. If I’m uncertain of the conditions, I’ll stop periodically and give the ice a few good whacks, listening for a deep thump—a good sign it’s solid.

2. Know what to look for. Ice is usually thicker closer to shore, but each lake has its own currents and potential thin spots: springs, river inlets or outlets, outflows from power plants emitting warm water, even beaver lodges.

3. React right away. If you hear the ice cracking, immediately throw your weight backward while spreading out your arms and legs to distribute your body weight. That could prevent you from becoming fully submerged.

4. Gain traction any way you can. Some ice fishermen tie two awls around their neck, just for that reason. Skiers: use your poles as picks; just grab ’em right above the basket. But first you have to take your skis off, because it’s almost impossible to get out with them on.

5. Soak up the water. Once you’ve crawled a safe distance away from the hole, look for fresh, dry snow to rub on your clothes. Light snow is remarkably absorbent, and you want to use it to keep as warm as possible by sucking away moisture.