Catamount Hardware

In late December the ice came in on Squam Lake. Some skaters were lucky enough to get miles of limpid black ice; the day that Sarah and I went out it snowed lightly, just a dusting on the surface, but enough to obscure the lake underneath. The day we were out five people fell through, in three completely separate, unrelated (and unknown to each other) groups. All were fine. We were one of the groups that broke through; we were prepared and everything went completely smoothly.

Evan Perkins, one of the others who broke through, wrote a great plurr report describing his experience. (Plurr is the Swedish onomatopoeia for “fall in the water” and is the standard nordic skating term to refer to going through the ice.) I wrote the following in response, to describe our experience, which had an equally positive outcome, but involved different details and choices along the way. It was a great learning experience for us — and an opportunity to test out our knowledge and gear in a fairly straightforward situation — and I think it’s worth sharing our perspective.

Summary of our skate

We got on the ice mid-morning, after Evan’s group and the light snowfall had started. (See the photo to get a sense of what the ice looked like with a thin layer of snow on it and the map with annotations about our route.) We headed east from Pipers Cove (green circle) along the southern shore, enjoyed Dog Cove, skated up and around the point into Sturtevant Bay, had lunch, then tried to head north from there but were stymied by inconsistent and thin ice. We worked our way back through the narrows south of Kimball Island, where we stopped to make coffee and ran into a couple groups of other skaters, then cut back north of Great Island. We were exploring in the direction of Bowman Island, to the west of it, when we fell in (red circle). We self-rescued, skated back the way we had come to the closest safe shoreline, then beelined back to our truck (red arrow).

The ice along the southern shore in the bays was strong and excellent; the farther north you got, the more inconsistent and generally thinner it was. We stopped and tested the thickness often, trying to stick to ice that was at least 4 pokes thick (or at least 2” when we actually measured). You can see from the way our track gets pointy north of Sturtevant that we were repeatedly blocked by thin ice (I’ve marked some of the spots with pink circles). We repeatedly experienced zipper cracking and got off that ice immediately; we were trying to be relatively cautious.

Mistake: Not re-evaluating the plan based on new information

We ran into Jamie shortly after setting out, and he told us that Evan and company had headed north, so I got it lodged in my head that a northern route was possible (even though he didn’t actually say that). We both prefer loops to out-and-backs, and returning a different way sounded fun, so we kept looking for ways to make that happen, even though all the evidence in front of us said that returning the way we came was the safest choice. This frame of mind persisted even after we ran into Evan and Heidi and they said they hadn’t made it very far north, and had actually skated around the exact same way we had. I should have reassessed our plan more carefully with that new information, but didn’t.

Mistake: Changing the plan arbitrarily

We were trying to find a way through the islands, for fun, and when we realized we couldn’t, we should have turned south to go all the way back around Great Island. But we didn’t, and cut to the north of it. We should have stopped to consider and discuss the possible implications of this, but we didn’t. Things had gone so well up until that point that we were getting sloppy. (Much as most alpine accidents happen on the way down.)

Mistake: Expecting the ice to be predictable

We followed a single skater’s track north along the west short of Bowman Island, and reduced our level of caution and frequency of ice thickness checking, as though the presence of a track was a guarantee of safety. It’s certainly a piece of interesting information, but it’s only that. We shouldn’t have relied on the fact that another skater had passed through at an unknown point in the past, and we should have been increasing our caution as we got farther away from known ice.

Mistake: Not following standard safety precautions

And then we wandered off the track. At which point we fell through. There was no visible indication of change (we had earlier seen indications of plate boundaries even despite the snow cover), there was no visible or audible cracking. The ice tilted forward under me, then gave way. Sarah was behind me and to my side, she saw me going in, then the ice under her gave way too.

We were too close together. In sketchy ice areas we tend to stay about 10m apart, or more; here we were chatting and had drifted to more like 10ft apart. Again, getting sloppy.

Successes: Self-rescuing works

We both self rescued easily and quickly. The falling in was fast and smooth. I didn’t have time to think about much, other than “oh shit here we go”. Neither one of us went in above the neck, neither one of us experienced any kind of shock reaction. I was still carrying, and drinking from, the mug of coffee I had made a few minutes before, so my first thought in the water was annoyance that it had spilled. I grabbed the floating mug, grabbed my floating pole, checked on Sarah, then used my ice claws to haul myself out onto the ice we had come from, letting my legs float behind me. Sarah forgot about her ice claws and just hauled herself out.

This was the first time I’ve fallen through with a dry suit on, and boy was it nice. I felt fine in the water, not rushed or panicked at all. Then totally comfortable once back out. I just changed my gloves and was good to go, albeit with soggy boots (my dry suit has booties, so my feet were fine). I was wearing a belay jacket over the dry suit, with thick synthetic insulation, and it didn’t absorb much water.

Sarah wasn’t in a dry suit, but had a dry bag backpack on, which presumably provided flotation, and definitely kept her extra clothes dry. She wasn’t soaked through, but she was very wet, so we skated immediately to shore. But that skate was enough to warm her up, so rather than change clothes and get cold due to exposure, we decided to just skate back to our truck, which was very close. At which point we changed and headed home, only having cut our trip short by a little bit.

Observation: Self-rescuing is dangerous

We (as a community) talk about pulling ourselves out of the water onto the ice pretty casually, but even in this very easy to manage scenario, it was clear that many people would find it hard to do. Can you climb out of a swimming pool using only your arms? Now imagine the swimming pool edge is slick ice not rough stone. Now imagine you’re covered in wet clothes and gear. Now imagine you can’t rely on the edge of the swimming pool so you have to slither forward using little ice picks to grip. Then factor in colder temperatures, wind, current, and other obstacles, and suddenly you’re dealing with a real physical and mental challenge.

Success: Plan for accidents

Practicing self rescue would be great, but in lieu of that, talking it though and pre-visualizing it can be helpful. We had talked through various emergency scenarios while skating, and had both been pre-visualizing the self-rescue steps, so when we actually fell through, we knew exactly what to do, and simply did it.

We went into this outing knowing that, in terms of risk management, there was a higher than normal likelihood of something bad happening, but relatively low, and very manageable, consequences if something did. So we packed and dressed accordingly, and tried to make choices accordingly. Obviously we left room for doing better, but we had a wonderful skate and both consider it a very successful outing.

— Christopher Boone