Nestled in the heart of the Alps and historically valuing neutrality, Switzerland is both in and outside Europe in its very own peaceful way. Influenced by their German, French and Italian neighbours, they took from them the language and culture and mixed it their way to create this relaxing land of peaceful mountains where the organisation is smooth and perfect, and the pleasure of gastronomy is never forgotten way even beyond their delicious cheese and chocolate. I had been a couple of times to Switzerland, staying with friends, starting by the German-speaking region around Zürich, then Geneva and the French-speaking part. It was my first trip to Switzerland to include scuba diving. This time I visited Geneva, Les Mosses, Biel and the federal capital of Bern. During this trip, I saw for the first time that Switzerland had vineyards between Lausanne and Montreux. In the altitude chalet at the Lioson Lake, I tasted Swiss wines while eating a cheese fondue and had a delicious surprise. In Bern, I had a hearty lunch with a “rösti” (grated potatoes with cheese and a fried egg) and “vermicelles” a dessert made of chestnut spread and whipped cream. I think I needed all these calories to become a certified ice diver in Switzerland!
In Switzerland, you can’t expect to show up at a dive shop and go diving right away. Its cold deep lakes are famous training spots for technical divers. But the most interesting places are in altitude, 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 was lucky to have a friend introducing to a fantastic scuba diving club in Geneva. They organise every year, beginning of February, an altitude ice diving week-end in one of the most famous places in Switzerland: Lioson Lake. I took the opportunity to pass my ice diving certification which involved a lecture on how to make ice diving safe and a minimum of 2 dives.
When organising the dive is longer than the dive itself
Any dive requires a plan to be followed to make sure it will be safe and enjoyable for everyone. In warm conditions on tropical islands, if you’re not part of the crew, you won’t even notice it except the part in the dive briefing. Ice diving, besides in altitude, is somehow the extreme opposite. Everyone will have to know the plan and follow it: “Plan the dive & dive the 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 a 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 our ice diving weekend.
1 – Approach with the 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-sleeve and 1 long-sleeve)
- 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 (the 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 and have silk to protect the toes. The good thing with this snow equipment is that all the undergarment parts can be used below the dry suit too, but it will be more adapted if you use neoprene (warmer) than a tri-laminate drysuit which requires thicker undergarment. Thanks to the fleece that is especially light and compressible, I could put all of this in a trolley of medium size including my BCD, fins, mask and camera housing.
When we arrived in Lioson-d’en-Bas, everyone was perfectly equipped for the ascent from 1,550 m to 1,850 m in the snow, I did not feel overequipped. It took us between 45 minutes and 1 hour to climb to the top while all the tanks, gear and luggage were comfortably travelling on 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 around us.
2 – Prepare the holes and the ropes
Contrary to my first thought, there was not only one hole in the ice but three. Linked by ropes, they are the minimum requirement in the case of an emergency. 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 their dry suit.
The dive 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 buddy teams: when one leaves the water, they become the surface security team until the next one is ascending.
3 – Prepare the gear indoor and how to avoid regulator freezing
In such cold conditions, enemy #1 is a 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 career.
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 happens in minus outdoor temperature on a single breath taken too early!
It is a serious issue to take care of, especially when you have an ice ceiling above 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. 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 went to Patagonia. Fortunately, recently manufacturers started to release light models for cold waters.
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 case of a 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 to freeze your first stage is once you get in the water, lie on your back so you have your first stage immersed in the water. Wait a couple of minutes as the temperature of the water is usually warmer than the air (yes 3°C can be warm sometimes!).
4 – Don’t fall and have fun
Once you are all set, with your dry suit on, with the proper warm undergarment, dry gloves, about 10 kg of weights, your 2 torch lights, warm thick hood and your tank… you have about 20-25 kg of equipment on you and as you prepared indoor you still have to walk down to the lake… It’s 100 m of extreme care, as if you fall or slide with all this equipment it would be easy to hurt yourself. A ski stick or asking for someone’s help who’s not diving can be an excellent idea and nothing to be ashamed about. Once I got in the water it actually felt 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 have been warned, because of the light reflection on the snow all around the lake, I might feel disoriented on the first meters down, because my eyes would have to adapt to the lack of light in this ice sealed underwater 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 disorientated 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 return in Spring just before all the ice melts. But still, the few rays of light which 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 shades 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 15 m deep. It not so easy to keep neutral buoyancy at 2/3m deep with a neoprene dry suit filled with think 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 surprising 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!
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