Important survival tips in the event falling through the ice

By Madeleine Jackman

(KevPBur/ Flickr)
(KevPBur/ Flickr)

As winter progresses and Amherst transforms into a winter wonderland, some students choose to bundle up and stay inside with hot cocoa while others brave the cold to go exploring the snowy terrain. Unlike hiking and adventuring during the warm spring and summer months, winter travel has its own specific safety precautions that you need to take while enjoying the powdery outdoors.

Although frozen lakes and ponds are tempting places to walk or skate, a rise in temperature can send you through thin ice for a spontaneous polar plunge. These basic tips can mean the difference between a self-rescue and a potentially dangerous ice bath.

If you unexpectedly fall through ice, the most important first step is to stay as calm as possible. The surprise of the shattered ice along with the extremely cold water temperatures can send your body into shock and cause you to gasp and hyperventilate. Regaining control of your movements and breathing is crucial at this point.

Professor Gordon Giesbrecht, who researches the physiological effects of extreme environments, recommends the 1-10-1 principle. Essentially, this means the first minute should be taken to calm yourself, collect your breathing and analyze the situation.

Look for where the ice is thickest; this is your escape path. Normally, it can be assumed that the direction you came from is a safe route. If you turn to leave the way you came, you at least know that the ice had been strong and thick enough to hold you until the point where you fell.

The second part of the principle, the 10, is for 10 minutes of important movement. On average, people only have about 10 minutes in icy water before facing muscle exhaustion and hypothermia. Of course this varies based on specific water temperature, body size, age, air temperature, etc. Regardless, make those 10 minutes count.

Facing the thickest area of ice, begin to kick your feet like a swimmer in order to make your body position more horizontal and place your arms out on the ice. Continue kicking and pulling yourself up in an attempt to get your entire body on the ice.

If you’re able to successfully kick and pull yourself out of the water, remain laying down. It is key not to stand up until you are completely off the ice. By laying down, the weight of your body is dispersed across a greater surface area of ice, making another fall into the water much less likely than walking off.

If you’re unable to get out of the water after a few solid attempts, the situation calls for an alternative plan. The average person has between 30 minutes to an hour – the final 1 in Giesbrecht’s principle – before losing consciousness. Place as much of your arms and body onto the ice as you can and remain still. The goal of this is for your jacket to freeze to the ice, preventing you from drowning in case you do pass out.

Of course, once you are rescued, change into warm, dry clothes and seek medical attention. Hypothermia officially begins when your body temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, which happens rapidly when submerged in winter water.

The biggest safety tip for winter adventuring is to take precautions before a dangerous situation happens. The only way to know for sure whether ice is okay to walk on is to measure its thickness. Fresh ice is normally stronger than ice that has been covering the lake for a while, and it’s recommended to avoid ice that is less than three inches thick. The number of geese being held up by the frozen campus pond is not a good indicator of whether it is safe for a student. Have fun and stay safe this winter, UMass.

Madeleine Jackman can be reached at [email protected]