Nestled in the heart of the Alps and historically valuing neutrality, Switzerland is both in and outside Europe in its very own peaceful way. Beyond its aura of international peacemaker with the famous city of Geneva, which gathers not less than UN and Red Cross headquarters, Switzerland has its own internal challenges and business to deal with. Divided into 26 cantons, Switzerland is a Federal country with strong independence from a legal point of view. Swiss people are asked by their political leaders to express their opinion with monthly votes organised by each canton, and only sometimes at a national level.
I have been a couple of time in Switzerland starting by the German-speaking part around Zürich, then I discovered Geneva and the French-speaking part. In this trip which included for the first time scuba diving, I started from Geneva to go the bilingual canton of Bern, visiting both Biel and the Federal Capital, which gave me a better understanding of this small and intriguing country. Every time I visited Switzerland, I had the chance to stay with locals.
Influenced by their German, French and Italian neighbors, they took from them the language and culture and mixed it their way to create this relaxing land of peaceful mountains where organization is smooth and perfect, and the pleasure of gastronomy is never forgotten way even beyond their delicious cheese (makes sure to taste “tête de moine” cheese) and chocolate (are you also a fan of Toblerone?). During this trip, I saw for the first time vineyards as we approached Les Mosses. I tasted red and white Swiss wines and had a delicious surprise. In Bern, I stopped for hearty lunch made of a “rösti” (grated potatoes with cheese and an egg) and “vermicelles” which are a dessert made of chestnut spread spaghettis with whipped cream!
Unlike many scuba diving destinations, you don’t just show up in a place and go to a dive shop to pay for you dive. Famous training waters for technical divers thanks to its cold deep lakes, most interesting places are in altitude and therefore quite remote which requires the proper organisation to go diving there. Then this is not such a big surprise that diving in Switzerland is mainly a matter of local associative clubs. I’ve been very lucky to be introduced though one good friend to the fantastic people from a club of Geneva who is organising every year in the beginning of February an altitude ice diving week-end in one of the most famous places in Switzerland for this challenging activity: Lioson Lake. I took the opportunity to pass my ice diving certification with CMAS, it involved a lecture on the theory of how to make ice diving safe and a minimum of 2 dives.
When organising the dive is longer than the dive itself, remember it’s part of the fun
Any dive requires a plan to be followed to make sure it will be safe and enjoyable for everyone. In warm conditions of tropical islands, if you’re not part of the crew, you won’t even notice it except the part told in the briefing. Ice diving, besides in altitude, is somehow the extreme opposite. Everyone will have to know the plan and to follow it: “Plan you dive & dive your plan”. Does it ring a bell? With these conditions, it takes its full meaning. Listening and discipline are not to be put aside. Yes, ice diving is some serious adventure but the good news is, it is accessible to any level diver who is cautious and enjoys preparation as much as the dive itself.
Here is a summary of the main steps we have been through to organise and secure our weekend of ice diving, applying the theory of what I learnt during the lecture the first morning. You can also watch my ice diving video summarising this adventure.
1 – Approach with proper equipment
First of all, think that going on this dive trip will need some packing skills and knowledge on how to cover up in the mountain and/or snowy regions. If you are a ski addict or you live in Canada or Scandinavia, this should be very natural to you but if not, here is a list of basic equipment you need to pack to keep yourself warm before and after the dive:
- 2 light underwear t-shirts, made of special thermal fabric (ideally 1 short sleeves and 1 long sleeves
- 1 fleece jumper
- 1 pair of fleece leggings
- 1 pair of waterproof pants (ski type are perfect)
- 1 waterproof puffer jacket
- 1 pair of waterproof insulated gloves
- 1 hat or headband to cover your ears
- Sunglasses (reflection of sunlight on the snow can be really strong)
- 1 pair of snow boots
I also recommend warm ski socks, some are quite technical such like mine which have silk to protect the toes. The good thing with this snow equipment is that all the undergarment part can be used below the dry suit too, but it will be more adapted if you use neoprene (warmer) than a tri-laminate dry suit that requires special puffer undergarment. Thanks to the fleece that is especially light and compressible, I put all of this on a trolley of medium size besides my BCD, fins, mask and camera housing.
When we arrived in Lioson-d’en-Bas, everyone was perfectly equipped for the ascent from 1550m to 1850m in the snow, I did not feel over equipped. It took us between 45 minutes and 1 hour to climb there while all the tanks, gear and luggage when comfortably travelling in a specially modified snow groomer. The walk was quite physical, but I forgot it as I was looking at the amazing white landscapes of mountains surrounding me.
2 – Prepare the holes, Prepare the ropes, Have a very thorough buddy teams shift plan
Contrary to my first thought, there were not only one hole in the ice but three. Linked by ropes, they are the minimum requirement in the case of an emergency exit. At Lioson Lake, the holes are kept open during all the winter. However, with an average ambient temperature of -10/-15°C, only a couple of days without activity is enough to freeze them up again.
Depending on the thickness of the ice, two methods can be used to cut the ice: manually with what looks like a giant chisel or directly with a chainsaw by cutting small ice blocks one by one. The theoretical part of the ice diving training teaches you how to behave on the ice of a frozen lake, so of course, the person in charge of opening the hole is already wearing its dry suit.
Briefing time was all about timing: not everyone can go in the water at the same time. The idea is to make a rotation of budding teams: when one leaves the water, it becomes the surface security team until the next one is ascending.
3 – Prepare the gear indoor and how to avoid regulator freezing
Enemy #1 in such conditions is regulator free flow. We all have been taught about it in our classes of open water but most divers won’t experience it at all in their tropical diving life.
Just as a reminder, free flow is actually a technical issue that is called a fail-safe. The system of the regulator is designed that if in the case of any material problem it will remain wide open instead of definitely closed. The main reason in these conditions is the risk of freezing your first stage… because when you expand a gas you lower its temperature, imagine what happen in negative outdoor temperature on a single breath taken too early!
It is a serious issue to take care of, especially when you have ice ceiling all over you. Even by following every procedure like preparing and testing your equipment indoor and not breathing at all from your second stage once outdoor until being underwater, you can get this issue because not all regulators are equally performing in such conditions.
Most manufacturers offer special models for cold water, here this is not luxury but a requirement. My recommendation is: don’t play with the guaranteed operating range of your regulator. Mine is a special traveller model with a guaranteed range which goes down to 10°C. I actually take an extra security margin by not using it below 12/13°C, this is why I didn’t take my beloved regulator to this trip or when I was in Patagonia. Fortunately, recently manufacturers started to release cold water traveller models. I’m still benchmarking the different models.
To anticipate any problem underwater caused by first stage freezing, it is a requirement that your main regulator and your octopus are mounted on 2 different first stages which are themselves mounted on a tank with 2 separate valves. In the case of free flow, you can simply close one, and keep breathing from your octopus, with eventually an extra attempt 1 minute later to reopen the valve and try breathing again from your main regulator.
One efficient tip to avoid your first stage to freeze, is once you get in the water to relax laying on your back to have your first stage immersed in the water and to wait a couple of minutes it takes the temperature of the water which is usually warmer than the air (yes 3°C can be warm sometimes!!!).
4 – Don’t fall and have fun!
Once you all set, with your dry suit on, with proper warm undergarment, dry gloves, about 10 kg of weights, your 2 torch lights, warm thick hood and your tank… Well, you have about 20-25 kg of equipment on you and as you got prepare indoor you still have to walk down to the lake… 100m of extreme care, as if you fall or slide with all this equipment it should be easy to hurt yourself. A ski stick or asking for help from someone who’s not diving can be an excellent idea and nothing to be ashamed about. Once I got in the water it felt actually good to get some “refreshing” water on my face! From then, 20 minutes of pure magic is ahead of you…
The magic of the icy glow in crystal clear water
I’ve been warned that because of the light reflection on the snow all around the lake, I might feel disoriented on the first meters down the time my eyes would adapt to the lack of light of this ice sealed underwater new world. But finally, maybe because it was toward the end of the day when it was my turn to go diving, I didn’t feel at all such a disorientation and moreover I was completely amazed by the beauty of the ice below the surface, from pure white to deep glacier blue. Yet I wasn’t expecting that the lake would be covered in snow and as a result, the amount of light able to go through it would be dramatically reduced. I guess I will need to go back at spring just before all the ice melts. But still, the few rays of light which can make it through the ice give a fantastic and mystical atmosphere with a very soft blue glow coming from the ice.
The vast ice ceiling with shading of blue, green and black spots of accumulated bubbles of air is a playground for many divers: some play with their buoyancy skill walking upside down on the ice. Besides, the water is so pure and clear that you completely forget that you are in 3°C water, comfortably floating in your warm undergarment, dry suit and especially the dry gloves which make a big difference.
Depth is not the goal here, being 32 meters deep, Lioson Lake is mostly silty and rocky at the bottom so the most interesting part is just below the ice. Still, we made it down to 15m deep. It not so easy to keep neutral buoyancy at 2/3m deep with a neoprene dry suit filled with puffer undergarment. Besides, altitude changes dramatically the gradient of pressure.
Being a fisherman leisure base in the summertime, Lioson Lakes offers a bit of fauna action thanks to the schools of beautiful rainbow trout and red belly char. It was really nice to see them on the way back to the surface as they get attracted by the light coming from the hole in the ice.
After a sufficient dive time of 20 minutes, with an elegant exit imitating the most ungainly seal, you still have to stand on your leg and walk back in the snow to change inside! On the positive side, you can’t find a better excuse than ice diving to enjoy a delicious Swiss cheese fondue without remorse!
2 weeks later, I received by post my ice diving certification card and I think this will remain the scuba diving certification I’m the proudest of!
I absolutely loved this new experience. I am definitely looking forward to the next opportunity in the Alps for more altitude ice diving but there is also Iceland, Norway and Canada! In the mean time you can also discover this adventure in video : Snow shoes & Scuba tanks in Switzerland.
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