How to Survive a Fall Through Ice

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by: Dr. Craig A. Maxwell

Wintertime sports are a great way to enjoy the colder weather and avoid being cooped up inside. While snowboarding, ice skating, ice fishing, and cross-country skiing are fun ways to beat the winter blues, they can quickly turn dangerous if you fall through thin ice.

Falling through ice can be a terrifying experience. One moment you’re on what you believe is firmly-packed ice, the next you’re in cold water fighting for your life. If you ever go through this, you’ll want to know exactly what to do ahead of time so you can back out of the water safely.

What to Do if You Fall Through Ice

  • Breathe

As soon as you fall through the ice, you’ll experience something call ‘cold shock phenomenon’. Your body will respond to the shock of hitting the cold water with instinctive gasping. Your limbs may also attempt to lock up. This phenomenon can last anywhere from 1-3 minutes. Now is not the time to panic. Force yourself to breathe as normally as possible and gently move your limbs to keep them from flexible.

  • Swim

Swim to the ledge where you fell through the ice. Focus on the scenery around you and imagine yourself completely safe and out of the ice. This will keep you calm and focused as you maneuver out of the water.

  • Anchor

Anchor both of your arms to the ice, as far out of the water as possible. This will give you leverage to be able to kick your way out of the water.

  • Kick and Pull

Though it can be very tempting to just try to pull yourself out of the water like you’re coming up out of a pool, this rarely works and can worsen your situation. Your freezing-cold muscles will not be able to give you the support and strength you need to pull out. Also, the ice surrounding the opening you’re in may be too thin to support your weight. Instead, position your legs as horizontally as possible and kick your legs hard while you pull yourself onto the ice with your arms.

  • Roll

When you’ve gotten your body completely out of the water, resist the temptation to stand up right away and walk. The ice could be too thin to support you and you may fall in again. Instead, roll several times onto more firmly-packed ice.

  • Crawl

Once you are absolutely sure you’re on firm enough ice, start crawling toward land. This will help test your weight on the ice.

  • Walk

When you’re certain you’ll be able to, walk on the ice and get back to dry land.

What to Do If You are Unable to Pull Yourself Out

  • Avoid Thrashing

If, for whatever reason, you are unable to successfully extricate yourself from the ice, avoid panicked thrashing. This will tire you and make it that much more difficult to keep yourself above water. Remember to breathe as slowly and calmly as possible.

  • Anchor Your Arms

Once you have reached the ledge of the ice, anchor your arms and keep them there. If you are unable to kick and pull your way out, keeping your arms in the same place will allow them to freeze to the ice, should you lose consciousness. This will help prevent drowning until rescue workers can come and get you.

How to Help Someone Who Has Fallen Through Ice

When you hear someone screaming for help, your first instinct may be to run and get to them. This could cause you to fall into the ice and worsen the situation. Instead, call 911 on your cell phone or shout for those nearby to do the same. If you are within speaking distance of the victim, talk them through the ‘kick, pull’ procedure and try to find a long branch or rope to throw to them. If there is a rope, tell the person to wrap the rope around his or her middle and elbow so it’s easier to pull them out.

Falling through the ice or seeing it happen to someone else can be frightening, but if you keep your wits about you, you can get through the situation fairly easily with a story to tell.

 Image © Kate Mallatratt 

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