Walking on thin ice
In retrospect, Reid Fisher knows it was a stupid mistake.
There he was, skiing alone at night across frozen Echo Lake, en route to a cabin several miles in.
An experienced backcountry skier, Fisher had skied across that frozen lake many times before. He tested the ice – generally known to be solid that time of year – before skiing out onto it with several days’ worth of supplies on his back. It was plenty strong.
He knew to stick close to shore, but he wasn’t prepared for a small spring more than a mile in that had weakened a spot in the ice.
“I heard this crunchy sound and all of a sudden I was dropping straight down,” he said.
Fisher was close enough to shore that his skis hit bottom – he found himself up to his armpits in icy water.
He struggled to free his hands from his ski poles before wrestling with the waist band to his heavy pack. Next, he reached under the black water to release each ski binding.
Surprisingly, Fisher was able to haul himself out, change into dry clothes from his pack and ski the remaining mile and a half to a warm cabin.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is so stupid,'” he said. “I don’t know how I would have gotten out if I’d gone in over my head.”
Barney Howard is also an experienced Echo Lake skier. However, in early January he found himself hugging a small iceberg – bobbing on his stomach – while friends and family watched with horror from shore.
“My skis were hooked on smaller blocks of ice behind me,” Howard said. “I yelled at my wife, ‘Back off, I think this is it – I don’t know if I’m going to make it.'”
Miraculously, a friend, who fell in up to her waist, crawled out and gave Howard a ski pole, enabling him to hoist himself out.
According to firefighter and paramedic Jim Antti, Fisher and Howard were two incredibly lucky – and foolish – people.
This week, 45 firefighters from the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District are falling through the ice on purpose. However, as part of an annual ice-rescue training drill, each participant is well-equipped with a life jacket, helmet, dry suit and scuba gloves.
As part of the exercise, rescuers jump into the water, fasten a rope around the mock victim before hauling him out.
“If someone falls through, never try to rescue him yourself – too often you’ll end up with multiple victims,” Antti said. “People tend to overestimate their abilities to save someone else. Depending on the location, there’s usually a big lag time between the time it’s reported and the time we arrive on the scene.”
Even throwing the victim a rope may not always help, Antti said, as 38-degree water can sap a person of energy within minutes.
“Even if you throw them a rope, they might be too weak to hold on – they’ll probably only have one to two big bursts of strength – that’s it,” he said. “If you go in, don’t thrash – it drains the body temperature faster. You probably have about 15 minutes – if you have something to hold on to.”
Howard estimates being in the water roughly 15 minutes.
“Standing up afterward was one of the hardest things I’d ever done – I was shivering uncontrollably,” he said. “It took me about five hours to get warm again.”
Antti urges anyone who has fallen in to seek medical care immediately, as hypothermia can be deceiving, and often too much heat too fast can be harmful.
Dog owners are also cautioned against allowing their pets to roam out on to questionable ice, as animal lovers have also been known to quickly become victims.
“It was the wrong moment – conditions can change in a matter of hours,” Howard said. “I also broke the rule of not carrying a rope. That ski pole saved my life. I’m embarrassed – I knew better.”
“It was stupid,” echoed Fisher. “Ice thickness can vary from spot to spot. If you’re not absolutely sure of the ice condition, stay off it.”
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