Clawless Self Rescue
While you ALWAYS should have your ice claws with you if you break through the ice without them you still have a good chance of getting out (especially if you read the following). Most of the people who fall in don’t drown.
- When you go in, if you have any control of the situation, make your entry slow and try to keep your head out of the water. Keep your mouth closed and try to put your hand over your mouth and nose to reduce the chance you will gasp in water. A life jacket or other flotation helps with this.
- Once in the water, get your breathing under control (may take a a minute).
- Don't panic but act promptly: you will lose strength in your hands and arms a few minutes.
- Shout for help. If you have a whistle, now is the time to use it.
- Get to the edge of the ice you fell in from (unless there is good reason to go elsewhere)
- If you have spiky shoes, poles, or anything else that can substitute for claws, use them.
- If you have skis on, lose them if you can.
- With your arms on the ice sheet swim you body to a horizontal position behind you
- Lift your upper body straight up on your elbows. Don’t try to pull yourself out with your arms unless you have some meaningful traction on rough spring ice or snow covered ice. You are trying to get your upper body high enough that it does not drag on the edge.
- Use strong frog kicks to ooch yourself onto the ice. It usually takes several frog kicks to get you far enough out to roll away from the edge. Double leg kicks also work. You are trying to get a strong foreward impulse from each kick.
- Just to make things a bit more challenging, if the ice is thin it will usually slope down from your weight, making this a bit of an uphill battle.
- If the ice breaks or you slip back repeat the above. Often you will end up pushing bigger pieces underneath you to get them out of the way.
- Once you are on the ice, roll or belly crawl away from the edge until you are reasonably sure the ice will support you crawling or standing up.
- The next day, make or buy claws for everyone you know and read the Cold Water Clothing page.
Consider practicing this ahead of time with a good wet suit or dry suit and a belay. Trying it in warm water is worthwhile.
If it is cold enough and nothing else works and you don't have a life jacket on you can place your arms on the ice and after a time (I am not sure how long) your sleeves may freeze to the ice enough to get yourself out. This is more likely to work on thicker ice and colder conditions. Thin cold ice and warm ice do not have enough 'cold' in them to freeze wet sleves. The material on your sleves is also important: smoother synthetics to not adhear well. Cotton sticks well when frozen although it is less than great as insulation in cold weather clothing. Fleece, wool and other fuzzy surfaced fabrics may also stick reasonably well.
Even if you can’t get out, it will help you keep your head out of the water longer, giving rescue personnel more time to get to you. Even if your sleeves don't fully freeze, pressing your elbows and forearms into wet ice for 10 or 15 seconds will usually provide a little grip. That grip is lost as soon as your elbow moves even a small amount. That little bit of grip may be enough to let you swim out, just try to be smooth and with minimal jerking your elbows and forearms.
I find it is easy to get out when I am in my dry suit: there is lots of flotation and there is little sense of urgency.
I have talked to a couple of people who have gotten out, with considerable difficulty, by swinging their leg onto the edge of the ice. The water slows your leg down during the swing making it difficult to get the leg over the edge enough that it does not slip back off. In one case on Lake Dunmore (VT) it took the victim many trys and almost all his reserve of warmth/energy to be successful.
Don’t be clawless: ALWAYS HAVE ICE CLAWS!