Hypothermia a Tahoe killer | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Hypothermia a Tahoe killer

Gregory Crofton

The water of Lake Tahoe hovers around 60 degrees in the summer. A human body is about 98.6 degrees. Combining those temperatures can mean hypothermia and death.

Hypothermia is a fancy word for a body being too cold to function. So cold that a person loses control of their arms and legs, then drowns and sinks like a rock into deeper and colder depths of a lake.

Hypothermia can in any cold place, but Tahoe waters are colder than most because it is a very large Alpine lake fed by snow melt.

Last summer two people drowned as a result of hypothermia; one in Lake Tahoe, the other at Angora Lake, a small lake at South Shore.

On July 2, Ben Rice, a 23-year-old from Richmond, Calif., was swimming with a friend off a beach at Tahoe Meadows. Rice and his 21-year-old friend were in the water for five minutes not far from shore before Rice went under and didn’t come up.

Water conditions that Sunday were choppy because of high winds. Rice’s friend was also having trouble swimming and clung to a buoy. Then he swam to shore for help.

Rice was found in about 5 feet of water. CPR revived him but he was pronounced dead the next day at Washoe Medical Center.

Less than a month later, a healthy 47-year-old man from Sebastopol, Calif., died in Upper Angora. Rescue workers found the body of Stephen Whittle under 25 feet of water on top of a downed tree.

Whittle, an avid bicyclist and owner of an art studio, and was in good shape when he tried to swim across the lake. He left his wife and children watched his swim from the beach.

Whittle was about 15 feet from shore when began yelling for help. Witnesses said he came up twice gulping for air and yelling for help before he went down a third and final time.

Upper Angora Lake sits at 7,200 feet above sea level and was 60-to-65 degrees at the surface when Whittle drowned. Divers said the water was 42 degrees at the depth his body was found.

Coast Guard Station Lake Tahoe Chief Jim Devane has also had to deal with death because of hypothermia. Although this year his crew has not found anyone hypothermic on the lake, he does remember when in February 2000 a 38-year-old drowned because of hypothermia about a-quarter mile from the Coast Guard Station.

The Tahoe City man was fishing when he fell out of a canoe and was not wearing a life jacket. His arms got so cold he couldn’t hang on to the canoe and he drowned and sank 70 feet to the bottom of the lake.

“We were on scene within 10 minutes,” Devane said. “If he had life jacket he’d probably be alive today.”

Two years ago, Devane said a man on a jet ski nearly died because he got so cold he passed out. He had been dumped off his machine and was not able to get back on it because wind kept blowing it away from him.

The Coast Guard found the man in a life jacket, unconscious but alive. He survived because doctors were able to warm his body.

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