I was about 50 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, in the dead of winter. The temperature was wavering around -30F as we stood on a river, its surface frozen in twenty inches of ice. As I headed back to shore, the snow-covered ice dropped away beneath my feet. Luckily I was only a couple yards from the alders growing along the bank, so I lunged forward, grabbed a branch and yanked myself onto firmer ice and quickly scurried to the riverbank.
What if I hadn’t been so lucky? Here are step-by-step procedures one can use to rescue yourself after falling through the ice:
1. Brace yourself, literally! You must consciously contain your reflex to gasp for air, and thereby breathing in water if your head is submerged. This demands great control since your body naturally wants to suck in air. It’s called the “torso reflex.” It also causes your heart to accelerate as your body tries to hyperventilate. It can take 1-3 minutes for your body to “calm down” and acclimatize to the frigid water.
2. Focus energy on getting out. Don’t waste time just treading water; shed any overly heavy or weighty gear but leave your bulky clothes on – trapped air can help keep you more buoyant. You must focus on getting back to the edge of the ice where you fell in. You know the condition of the ice you traveled on to the point where it failed, so that’s the side where you want to get back out.
The average person has 3-5 minutes before their muscles are incapacitated, and they start to lose coordination. The bigger concern than hypothermia at this stage is what’s called “swim failure” (neuromuscular cooling).
It’s also important to control your breathing, concentrate on getting out of the water – you haven’t much time. Keep your head and as much of your body out of the water as possible. It can sometimes take up to 45 minutes for hypothermia to kick in so use whatever time you have before you pass out.
3. Get Horizontal – Get horizontal and kick your legs as you swim to the edge of the ice. Get as much of your body out of the water, propping your forearms and elbows up and propel yourself up and out of the water. If you have ice awls, this is the time to use them to grab onto the ice and heave yourself forward.
4. Let clothing drain – Once you’ve climbed onto the firm ice, let your clothes drain a few seconds before proceeding to the next step. Wait too long, and you might freeze on the spot. Roll away from the edge of the ice. Do not attempt to get up right away.
5. Crawl back to safety – Once you have safely rolled away beyond the weakened edge of the ice, continue to crawl back along the route you were on when you fell in. Don’t try to stand and walk until you are a safe distance from the open water.
In a worst-case scenario where you cannot climb back out and are close to losing consciousness, getting your arms out onto the surface of the ice might freeze your sleeves to the ice thereby securing you to the surface instead of slipping back under water – and easier for eventual rescue (or recovery).
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