Trapped Alone, Under the Ice

By by Doug Spranger

In early April, thickly frozen lakes begin to thaw from the edges inward. It was on one of those crisp, sunny April days that I drove to Georgetown Lake, between Butte and Anaconda, Montana, to see if the ice had thawed sufficiently to allow a diver to squeeze under. It had.

Diving in Montana in the early '60s was rare. Those of us who dived did so alone, without pressure gauges, BCs, compasses or even J-valves. With no formal instruction available, most of us learned by reading the skimpy equipment manuals and by trail and error. So an ice dive-alone, without a compass or lifeline-didn't seem totally crazy then.

While unloading the gear from the trunk of my '58 Chevy, I considered using a lifeline but didn't think finding the shoreline could be that difficult. I sprinkled talcum powder in my rubber wetsuit, struggled in (no gloves or hood, of course) and humped down to the frozen lake. Flopping down on my belly, I was able to squeeze and crunch my way under the paper-thin ice out into a new and fantastic world. After 30 years, I can still vividly remember everything about this dive, including the dismay in not being able to share it with anyone.

My dive plan was simple: swim straight out, perpendicular to the shore; make a 90 degree turn; swim a bit more; make another right angle turn; and then come back to shore. It seemed no different than any other beach dive. It should be easy to see and to find the edge of the ice.

Despite my cold face and hands, the dive was spectacular. Diffused light filtered down through the two foot thick ice, providing a soft glow on the rather uninteresting bottom. Semi-dormant fishes were moving as if just awakened from a long nap. The illuminated ceiling of the ice was clear in areas, with mottled sections and wind-whipped-then-frozen areas that created a view far surpassing anything in any other direction. I was captivated.

I carefully adhered to my seemingly-simple dive plan. Without the sun as a landmark, however, I wasn't exactly sure whether my trip legs were being swum in a straight line or if my turns were exactly 90 degrees.The sights, however, were spectacular and, after all, how hard could it be to find the edge again?

Noticing the bottom was gently rising to meet the ice ceiling, I figured I was nearing the edge. No problem. My hands were beginning to numb and, although I had no watch, I calculated my dive time to be about 30 to 35 minutes. Time to get back to shore and warm up.

Glancing around, I noticed the bottom was coming up but the ice was not thinning out. By this time I was wedged between the ice and the bottom. I tested the thickness of the ice by pressing my tank and back against it but it didn't respond-the ice must have been one or two feet thick. In trying to wiggle back out, a black wave of horrifying panic swept over me. I'll never get out. I have no idea where the edge is. I'm going to die. I thought about my family.

Unsheathing my old, beat-up knife, I considered digging my way out. My movements were erratic and jerky. I'm dead, oh God help me, how stupid could I be? Instantly, a wave of calm came over me, just as quickly as the wave of panic had enveloped me initially. I'm going to be OK. Think this through. There is no way you're going to dig through two feet of ice. You've been ice fishing lots of times, it takes 15 minutes, even with an ax.

Putting my knife away, I crawled out from under the ice ceiling and moved into deeper water, onto the silty bottom. I retraced my route in my mind. This should be right, the edge has to be in that direction-but it wasn't. Moving out from the shallows, I found a dead tree lying on the bottom and covered with silt. Had I passed over this before? In which direction would the tree point? Toward the edge?

Swimming in the direction pointed out by the tree, I dragged my fist in the silty bottom to leave a path to return, should this direction prove incorrect. I swam 30 yards or so in what looked to be the wrong direction. Following my trail back, I repeated the same fist-dragging swim in the opposite direction. No edge there either.

Returning again to the tree, I swam in a 90 degree direction, pointed out by a branch from the trunk. Thirty yards from the tree, I noticed a gradual increase in light. Swimming faster, lifting my skinned-up fist out of the muddy, rocky bottom, I knew I would live. The feeling of euphoria and delight caused me to swim right through the thin ice and into the shallows like a boat running ashore. I crawled on my hands and knees into six inches of water and just stayed there, immobile, for several minutes. I'm here. I made it!

It took several years for the periodic nightmares to fade, but the experience did nothing to lessen my interest in diving. What I learned, beyond the obvious (buddy, lifeline, compass, etc.), was to never underestimate the complexities of navigation. Believe me, "finding the edge" (or boat, as the case may be), some 30 years after this memorable dive, has never again presented a problem. This experience is indelibly burned into my mind.

Whenever I see divers surface to find the boat, then complete their swim back to safety, I can't help but think that a near miss might also help calibrate their internal compass or, at the very least, remind them of the basics.

  • "What I learned, beyond the obvious (buddy, lifeline, compass, etc.), was to never underestimate the complexities of navigation."