By Clark Fair
Professor Popsicle, dressed warmly in a bright yellow Sierra Designs insulated jacket, black gloves, a black wool hat and trim black snowpants, cross-country skied his way out of the edge of the mixed deciduous timber toward the lake. He maintained a steady pace, his breath puffing visibly around his face, until suddenly his arms flew up and back and he began to rapidly sink out of sight.
The professor had gone through the lake ice and was now flailing in a small open area churning with slush and small blocks of ice. His breathing, which had had a machinelike evenness while skiing, now became gasping in water that was a bone-chilling 34 degrees Fahrenheit. He fought to regulate his breaths while churning in the water in order to keep his head from submerging.
Fortunately for Professor Popsicle — also known as Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, considered the world’s leading authority on freezing to death and a professor of thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba — this is a carefully controlled scientific test. Rescue personnel are standing by, although Giesbrecht won’t accept any help until the cameras on scene have recorded his struggles and his explanations concerning those struggles.
For Giesbrecht, who helped rewrite the state of Alaska Guidelines for the Treatment of Cold Injuries in 2002, this is a teachable moment. So he stays in the water for nearly 15 minutes, demonstrating and discussing, before allowing himself to be rescued.
Nikiski Fire Department battalion chief, Greg Hyatt, attended the Sitka-based conference in which the state guidelines were revised, and he has tremendous respect for Giesbrecht’s work, particularly because Hyatt believes education is the key to avoiding cold-water disaster.
Giesbrecht, who in his tests of human endurance has become hypothermic more than 30 times, puts his own health in jeopardy in his attempt to teach others how to keep themselves alive. According to Hyatt, such “controlled danger” lends real authority to Giesbrecht’s recommendations.
In Alaska in November, when skiers, snowmachine riders and other winter outdoor enthusiasts are venturing out onto thin ice, Hyatt said this is a good time to begin considering safety.
According to Hyatt, who runs NFD’s dive-rescue and ice-rescue teams, there are four basic notions to consider: how to avoid going into cold water, how to survive if you do go in, how to get out and how to survive once you’re out.
Avoiding going in is crucial. There are common-sense ways to improve your odds: stay off thin ice; avoid open water whenever possible, even on snowmachines that glide over water if proper speed and angle are maintained; and especially avoid stream inlets and outlets, where a submerged person can be carried away under the ice away from the point of entry.
According to Hyatt, it’s best not to snowmachine alone, or to do any recreational activity in winter alone if traveling over ice will be involved. Ice thicknesses can vary widely, he said, depending upon the water’s current, freeze-and-thaw, springs beneath the ice and other factors.
People who do go in need to know the facts. To begin with, cold water robs heat from the human body at least 25 times faster than air does, and a person who goes into cold water experiences an initial cold shock that can kill quickly.
Cold shock can last three to five minutes, but the worst part comes right away. The cold can be so intense that it causes you to gasp, involuntarily drawing in a large breath, which can mean inhaling water if you fully submerge at first. Those who inhale water greatly reduce their chances of survival.
Otherwise, if you can keep your head above water and calm yourself enough to work through the initial hyperventilation, you will find that your breathing begins to normalize and you can think more clearly.
“If you can get your breathing under control, that shock subsides, as long as you keep your wits about you,” Hyatt said.
At that point you can think of self-rescue.
Time is still of the essence. The longer you spend in cold water — when the body shunts its main blood supply to the core for protection — the less able you are to use your arms and legs effectively.
“Dexterity goes away in the first few minutes,” Hyatt said.
Giesbrecht and Hyatt recommend attempting a self-extraction at the point of entry, where the ice is likely to be more stable. In one of his instruction videos for Discovery Canada, Giesbrecht, unable to simply pull himself up onto the ice shelf, places his elbows on the ice and then kicks with his legs as if swimming to propel himself forward. Doing so, he is able to pull himself out, at which point he rolls away from the hole and then crawls, careful to spread his weight across as wide an area as possible.
Without extraction, as Giesbrecht demonstrates later, hypothermia begins to set in, and then most people no longer have the capacity for self-rescue. At this point, he said, it is best to pull as much of yourself out of the water as possible, hoping to freeze to the ice and avoid drowning even in the case of a loss of consciousness.
If you do get out, your main concern — barring immediate rescue — should be restoring warmth to your body. Hyatt said you need to strip off as many of your wet items of clothing as possible, wring them out and then put them back on. You also need to build a fire and, if you believe that rescue is not imminent, you need to erect some sort of shelter.
Ultimately, Hyatt said the best fire and shelter should work in unison. If you can build a shelter that captures and reflects the heat of the fire while keeping you off the cold ground, you can not only survive but also begin to dry out and recapture any loss in your core temperature.
Hyatt also stressed a few important rules for would-be rescuers of cold-water immersion: First, don’t become a victim yourself. Try to maintain personal safety while extracting the victim. Second, once you have the victim out of the water, keep him or her horizontal, if possible, and allow him or her to warm up slowly. Hyatt suggested body-to-body contact as one of the safest ways to restore normal body functions.
Thin ice equals hot water if not prepared
Preparation can be the key to survival if you fall into cold water, especially in wintertime. If you are planning to travel over potential danger spots, here are some things to take with you that could mean the difference between life and death:
- If possible, travel with a GPS (or at least a compass). A GPS can allow you to establish waypoints as you travel, thereby giving you markers to find your way out, even in the densest fog. It may be expensive, but buying a satellite messenger or leasing a satellite phone might save your life in case of emergency. Satellite messengers are about the size of a cigarette pack and weigh less than half a pound, and they are capable of sending a 911 alert with your precise GPS location. Avoid relying on cell phones, which usually cannot receive service in wilderness areas and can be notorious for drained batteries, especially in cold weather. A VHF radio, on the other hand, can be much more reliable and get you in touch with rescue personnel.
- Dress for success. For just a little more money than conventional snowmobiling gear, you can buy a buoyant suit that can save your life. Those who wish to avoid bulky gear while skiing or snowshoeing can purchase buoyant jackets or even thin, inflatable personal flotation devices.
- Avoid cotton or any clothing that readily absorbs water. In one of Giesbrecht’s videos, he and another snowmachiner sink in open water on an otherwise frozen lake; Giesbrecht’s partner is wearing water-shedding buoyant gear, while Giesbrecht is wearing a basic snowsuit. Soon, the professor is trying to stay afloat with 60 to 80 additional pounds of water clinging to him, while his friend is weighted down less than 30 pounds.
- Have extra gear — socks, hat, gloves or mittens — in a waterproof bag in your daypack or fanny pack.
- Improve your chances for self-extraction. Many companies now sell ice claws, sometimes known as ice picks or even bear claws. These hand-held picks are typically worn around the neck in sheaths and can easily be pulled out and driven into the ice in the way an ice climber would use ice axes.
- Invest in or build an emergency fire-starter kit. Possibilities for kindling the blaze include waterproof and/or storm-proof matches, a magnesium striking tool, or a flint-and-steel combination. As for tinder, consider such options as Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, or even balls of sawdust or dryer lint, kept ready in a film canister or a similar watertight container.
- Other essentials in an emergency include a signal mirror or flares, an LED headlamp, hand warmers, extra food and drink, medical supplies, space blankets for insulation, a 50-foot nylon cord for rescue or to help build shelter, and a knife and collapsible wood saw.