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 their languages and cultures and mixed their way to create. The result? A land of peaceful mountains where the organisation is smooth and gastronomy is valued. In wintertime, beyond ski, cheese and chocolate, scuba divers can explore the Swiss Alps in an unexpected way by going ice diving in Switzerland. This is why I took the opportunity to get my ice diver certification, one of the best diving specialty courses, while visiting friends in Geneva and Bern. Time to pack your snow boots and your drysuit!
Visiting Switzerland as a scuba diver
I had already been to Switzerland to visit friends. I started in the German-speaking region around Zürich, then I went to the French-speaking area around Geneva. This time, I would include scuba diving for the very first time. On this trip, I visited Geneva, Les Mosses, Biel and the federal capital of Bern.
Beyond diving, tasting delicious local specialities was unexpectedly part of the trip too. On the way to Les Mosses and Lioson Lake (located just above), I discovered that Switzerland had vineyards between Lausanne and Montreux. In the altitude chalet where we were staying, I tasted Swiss wines while eating cheese fondue and had a delicious surprise. Later in Bern, I had a hearty lunch with a “rösti” (grated potatoes with cheese and a fried egg) and vermicelli, a dessert made of chestnut spread and whipped cream.
Hopefully, I burnt a lot of calories while becoming a certified ice diver in Switzerland!
Regarding the logistics of scuba diving in Switzerland, you can’t expect to show up at a dive shop and go diving right away. Although its cold deep lakes, such as the Leman Lake, are famous training spots for technical divers, the most interesting places are in altitude. Therefore, going ice diving in an altitude lake requires the proper organisation to reach these remote locations. 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 me to a fantastic scuba diving club in Geneva. They organise every year, at the beginning of February, an altitude ice diving weekend in one of the most famous places in Switzerland: Lioson Lake. I took the opportunity to pass my ice diving certification. It involved a lecture on how to make ice diving safe and a minimum of 2 dives.
How to go ice diving in Switzeland?
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 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. Indeed, we spent more time preparing the dive than ice diving. Here is a summary of the main steps we have been through during our ice diving weekend in Switzerland.
1 – Approach with the proper snow equipment
First of all, think that to go on this dive trip you will need to pack enough clothes to cover up in a snowy mountain region. If you are a ski addict or you live in Canada or Scandinavia, this should be obvious to you but if not, here is a list of the basic equipment you need 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 also be used for drysuit diving, but it will be more adapted if you use neoprene (warmer) than a tri-laminate drysuit which requires a thicker undergarment. Thanks to the fleece being light and compressible, I could put all of this in a medium-size trolley suitcase with 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 were not only one but three holes in the ice. Linked by ropes, they are the minimum safety 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 drysuit.
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 your scuba gear indoors
In such cold conditions, your #1 enemy is a regulator free-flow. We all have been taught about it during our open water course but most divers won’t experience it at all in their warm water diving trips. 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 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 before going underwater (1°C water is still warmer than the outdoor air!).
It is a serious issue to consider, especially when you have an ice ceiling above you. Even by following every procedure like preparing and testing your equipment indoors and not breathing at all from your second stage once outdoor until being underwater, you can get this issue. Not all regulators are equally performing in such icy conditions.
Most manufacturers offer special models of regulators 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. (Update 2015: I’m now the happy owner of a Glacia regulator specially made for ice diving and the cold water version of the Core regulator which is incredibly lighter).
To anticipate any problem underwater caused by first stage freezing, you need to mount your main regulator and your octopus 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 freezing your first stage is once you get in the water, lie on your back to have your first stage immersed in the water before the descent. Wait a couple of minutes as the temperature of the water is usually warmer than the air.
4 – Try not to fall and have fun
Once you are all set, with your drysuit on, with the proper warm undergarment, dry gloves, about 10 kg of weights, your two torch lights, warm thick hood and your tank… you wear about 20-30 kg of equipment on you. As you prepared indoors you still have to walk down to the lake. It’s then 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. Walking to the lake was so intense that 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 waiting for you.
The magic of ice diving in crystal clear water
I was warned about it: because of the light reflection on the snow all around the lake, I could 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. 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 that 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 and black spots (bubbles of air imprisoned in the ice) 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 underwater with a temperature between 1 and 3°C, comfortably floating in your warm undergarment, drysuit 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 is not so easy to keep neutral buoyancy at 2/3m deep with a neoprene drysuit filled with thick undergarments. Besides, altitude changes dramatically the gradient of pressure.
Being a fishing base in the summertime, Lioson Lakes offers some aquatic action thanks to the beautiful rainbow trouts and red belly chars. 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. But when you think about it, there is no better excuse than ice diving to enjoy a delicious Swiss cheese fondue without remorse!
Two weeks after ice diving in Switzerland, I received by post my ice diving certification card and I think this will remain the scuba diving certification I’m the proudest!
If you enjoyed this post, subscribe to WAD Newsletter to receive the latest posts directly into your inbox.
PIN IT FOR LATER