Winter Backpacking Survival: Frozen Lake Breakthrough, Self Rescue, and Recovery

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 18 March 2011


This incident happened about eight or nine years ago during a late-Winter snowshoe trip. I recount it now so you can avoid my stupid mistakes and learn from my errors. My experience may give you an extra option for self-rescue after breaking through the ice on a frozen lake.

It was March in the Sierras, and though still Wintertime, tempertures had been pretty high the previous week, rising into the 50s around South Lake Tahoe. I always scout out recent weather conditions and note the character of earlier snow storms and recent weather to understand the conditions I'm entering, as well as carefully review future forecasts.

Tempertures had gone back down to the low 30s during the day, and though the weather was not perfect, it was not powerfully cold or warm. The weather was mild, but daily highs were again dropping below freezing.

There would be a good surface for snowshoing, as the previous storm's snows were 10 days old, and had been well compressed by the mini-heat wave that followed the last storm. Conditions were looking optimal, so  I planned and set myself up for a quick 3 night snow camping trip over 20 miles or so.


The plan was to depart the South Upper Truckee trailhead in Meyers and spend the first night at Round Lake in the Meiss Country Roadless Area. On day two I would hike out of the Lake Tahoe Basin up to Round Top Lake, which sits to the Southwest of Carson Pass in the Carson Pass Management Area. The third day would see me backtrack on the trail I made through the snow half-way back to Round Lake, then take a different route to the lake through Meiss Meadow  for my third and final night. The next morning I would exit through the trailhead I entered. 

I started the trip as planned, and had a wonderful time finding my way through the snow covered terrain up to Round Lake. The hard snow surface had not just covered the trail, but also covered everything that would normally be an obstacle. I made excellent time to Round Lake, and had plenty of time remaining in the day, and the extra energy necessary to enjoy it.

Round Lake Campsite and Afternoon Hike

I set up camp, as it was. As the weather was mild, with 28 degree tempertures and broken clouds presenting little threat of weather or snow, but as I saw a 100% chance of an awesome star-filled cold night skies, I didn't need to set up the tent.

 In these conditions I use my tent as a pillow. When I don't put up my tent its use as a pillow puts instantly at my fingertips if somthing blows in during the evening. I always know exactly where my tent is when I'm sleeping.

After resting, drinking hot chocolate and coffee, and having a nice snack, I decided to put the snow shoes back on and make a clockwise circle around Round Lake from my camp next to the big rock on the NE side of the lake where the trail comes up from Christmas Valley and in from Big Meadow.


I planned on circling the lake on "solid ground," and not go out on the lake. But after unsuccessfully trying to climb the snow-covered big rock structure along the SE shore of Round Lake  I re-examined my options for cutting across the lake. I examined the ice-covered lake.

Circling around the backside of the rock was not within the scope of my day hike. It's not feasable to go around the backside of the big rock. Going around the backside would entail miles of extra travel to circle this small lake. Carefully examining the lake's ice cover indicated that everything was OK with the ice. The ice was thick and solid as glass. But the recent high temps deepened my caution, and prolonged my examination.

I decided it was safe on the ice, and determined that an arcing path around the rock formation's obstacle and Round Lake's frozen feeder creek would bring me safely around these hazard to a point on the far shore where I could easily complete my hike around the lake. I went out on the ice following my planned route.

My route brought me directly away from the shore towards the thick ice at the center of the lake. When I got out on the thickest part of the ice I started arcing West towards the point on the snow-covered shore past the rock and creek obstacles, where I planned on hitting the shore.

As my route came closer to the point where the frozen feeder creek joined the Round Lake past the rock obstacle, about 80 yards away from where the creek entered the lake, I could see that the flow of water under the creek's ice-covered surface had undercut the ice much more than I had seen and anticipated from the shore when I was evaluating the situation. I remember this moment well. 

The sound and feel of my snowshoes on the ice had not changed at all, nor did I pick up a different "resonance," but my visual observations instantly altered my course outward, away from the indications of undercutting near the creek's entrance to Round Lake.

About three steps later the surface of the ice broke. I instantly raised my arms out from my body, and slapped them down to my sides while entering the water. This motion prevented me from completely submerging as I entered the water up to my earlobes.


The magic timer started. A countdown automatically started in my head. It was counting down how long that I had before my body failed to respond to my commands. I had heard the magic timer before, while fording ice cold rivers.

I turned towards shore and test broke some ice. I instantly knew I would not be able to break ice and make it to shore before I lost control of my body. I turned back around to face the center of the lake, where the ice was thicker.

I gripped the edge of the ice in both hands, took a deep breath to make me boyant, and waited as my body rose up to float on my stomach, to put myself as parallel with the surface of the ice as possible, to gently slide myself up onto its surface. The ice broke during each of my three attempts. Time was running out.

I then realised that I was wearing my snow sticks, which were looped to my wrists. I removed the snow sticks and held the center of the sticks crossed in my right palm. I took a deep breath to again float on my stomach holding onto the edge of the ice with my left hand.

I then reached my Right hand, holding the crossed snow sticks, and reached as far in  from the edge of the ice as possible, using the sticks to spread the weight of my body across as wide an area as possible.

Holding as much of my weight on my Right arm and the snow sticks as I possibly could, I slid my upper body up onto the ice and carefully slid my right arm and its crossed snow poles further away from the edge of the ice, and slid myself fully onto the ice.

Carefully spreading my weight as widely as possible on the ice I slid myself towards the center of the lake. Once I was sure the ice was thick enough to support my weight I rose to my feet. Then I got cold. I knew I was cold when I was in the water, but it was not important. Now being cold was the new key issue.


My boots were full of water, and I was draining frigid water from all parts. There was no time or reason to attempt to drain my boots or wring-out my clothes on the lake. I picked the safest route off the ice and started generating body heat by walking.

After exiting the ice I was still too cold to stop walking, but after a half-hour of hard snow-shoeing I had sufficient body heat to stop and quickly wring out my upper body clothes. I had to ignore my lower body until I arrived at camp. Taking off the snowshoes to drain the boots and wring out the lower body insulation would take too much time in the field, and would have to be done in camp where I could switch out of my wet duds and retreat into my sleeping bag inside my tent.

 I made camp thinking: change clothes, build a quick fire, put up the tent, warm up a bit and then get into the sleeping bag in the tent to warm up. I would exit the mountains next morning. After changing into my dry layers and putting up my tent I was again warm. I decided that I did not need a fire.

I laid out my wet clothes to catch the last bit of the day's warmth, and afterward moved all my now damp clothes into my tent to allow my body heat to help dry them during the night.


Waking the next morning I decided that everything was cool, and that I did not need to retreat out of the mountains. I continued my trip, hiking out of the Tahoe Basin and up to Round Top Lake for the second night's campsite. I returned to Round Lake for the third night, though I did not get anywhere near the ice-covered lake. I exited the snow covered mountains the next morning at the top of the South Upper Truckee Road, where I had entered.

Now I just had to make it a few more miles to the junction between Highways 50 and 89 where I could easily catch a ride down to the Bay Area.


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