Lake Tahoe's Cold Water

By Kevin Kirkpatrick

I gasped with shock as ice cold water crept into my wetsuit. While my fellow classmates and I acclimated to the 42F water, I looked at the snow-covered mountain peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe. The scenery was astoundingly beautiful and the clear water promised excellent visibility for our advanced open water diving course.

Nestled 6,300 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevadas, the lake that straddles the California/Nevada border was an ideal site for our five elected dives: altitude, deep, night, navigation and search and recovery. But, unknown to our group, the conditions would test not only our endurance but our equipment.

Our instructor, Ted, planned on our group making a 60 foot dive. We would make one safety stop at 12 feet for three minutes during ascent. Our divemaster and dive shop co-owner, Dave, set up the diving buoy with 60 feet of line to an anchor and secured a spare tank with three regulators at the 12 foot safety stop. My dive buddy, Jeff, and I set out with the group on the 100 yard surface swim.

After what seemed like forever, we stopped and Dave dropped anchor. The lake was still not deep enough at this point and we had to swim farther out until the anchorline became taut.

Given the OK by Ted, the two other students, Ken and Mike, started their descent, with Jeff and me not far behind. All my thoughts were on being able to stop at 60 feet and achieve neutral buoyancy, but deflating my BC, equalizing pressure and trying to watch my depth gauge while keeping eye contact with Jeff ;all at the same time;proved a little difficult. Being inexperienced, I became apprehensive about being able to stop.

As I approached the 60 foot mark and my companions, I was stunned by the realization there was no bottom in sight. We had drifted into water that was perhaps several hundred feet deep and I felt a bit like an astronaut suspended in space. Only I wasn't suspended, I was sinking.

I immediately inflated my BC, started kicking and moved closer to the hanging anchor. My breathing had accelerated and I was fighting panic. As I neared the other divers I was suddenly aware of a mass of bubbles at my side; the exact location of my extra second stage. I pulled the octopus loose and held it before my eyes, watching a torrent of bubbles spew forth.

I turned toward Dave and pulled on his drysuit enclosed arm, handing him my octopus. I watched him poke his gloved finger in the mouthpiece and bang on the regulator but did not think to look at my pressure gauge.

Suddenly it was very difficult to breathe and I realized I was almost out of air. I forgot Dave and the octopus and moved toward Ted, signaling 'out of air/share air.' I looked down, spotted his octopus and lunged for it, ripping it free and fumbling it to my mouth. Holding it with both hands, I gasped in great lungfulls and fought the rising panic.

Tied to my instructor with a lifeline, I watched him give a thumbs up and we began our emergency octopus assisted ascent. As we ascended in a cloud of bubbles, I kept my eyes on Ted, focusing only on him. When we reached 12 feet and the spare tank, neither of us realized we had become tangled in the anchorline. Ted's octopus was ripped from my mouth and I found myself once again without air.

I remember thinking, 'This is it; I'm dead,' when a regulator from the spare tank floated in front of my mask. I lunged once again for a breath of life, wrapping both hands around the regulator.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Ted yanking his octopus free from the tangle. Successful, he handed it back to me and we finished our ascent. As we broke the surface, I couldn't believe I had made it. The cold mountain air tasted so sweet.

When I hit the inflate button on my BC, nothing happened. I looked at my pressure gauge and found my tank was completely empty. I had to manually inflate my BC to stay afloat.

Back on shore, I asked Ted how many of his students he had had to rescue. I was the first.

After my regulator was checked out, it was determined the 40F water caused the malfunction. My equipment was only rated for use above 45F.

I do not regret the incident; it taught me I can handle an underwater emergency without panicking and brought to life the safety procedures I had learned. I also learned never to dive in extreme conditions without the proper equipment and to go over emergency procedures with my buddies.

I finished my certification and enjoyed myself the rest of the weekend, but now I'll carry an alternate air source and I never forget to check my SPG.