The title of this post isn’t a metaphor. I literally fell through the ice pack of the Erie Canal while out snowshoeing last week. It was a thoroughly terrifying experience. Obviously, many folks have asked me questions about it (and expressed their thankfulness I’m still alive), so – here’s a recount of what happened.
I absolutely adore winter (must be the Norse/Viking heritage). Seriously. I’m one of those crazies. So with all the frigid, sub-zero temps and new snow we’ve gotten recently, I took my snowshoes out for a spin last week (Friday, 1/3/14). It was bright and sunny out, but the windchill was running at around -9°F that day. Air temp was in the low single digits. Warmer than the previous days. I dressed in layers as usual, laced up the trail shoes, lashed my snowshoes to my running pack, and ran through the Village – poles in hand – to the trail head of the Crescent Trail about a mile from our house. Was excited to get in some first tracks in the new powder and also catch as much ice pack snowshoeing as safely possible. Pretty normal route for me when the temps drop for any serious period of time.
I, like many other winter athletes around here, have been out on the Erie Canal ice pack before. The canal is drained in the winter, making it fairly shallow (typically 18″-36″ of water on average), so it freezes quickly. Being out on the ice pack in the winter is an amazing experience. It’s a different perspective. It’s a cold, barren wind tunnel. But it’s beautiful. Almost like being out on an expanse of polar terrain (from what I would imagine). And I’m not the only one who enjoys it, judging from the ice skate, cross-country ski, fat tire mountain bike and snowshoe tracks out there every winter.
Now, I realize that this may all sound crazy, but it’s not. Ice is part of life in the Great Lakes region and, once you learn to tell good conditions from bad, it’s an enjoyable way to mix up one’s outdoor routine. Ice skating on ponds, snowshoeing, ice fishing, etc. are all perfectly normal ice activities around here. And while running trail ultras (admittedly my vice of choice) certainly isn’t normal or sane, I’m not one to take unnecessary risks in the great outdoors. After all, I’m happily married with 4 children who I adore (not to mention numerous other family and friends). I want to live a long life. And I know how brutally unforgiving nature can be. The first time I climbed Mount Washington (NH) as a young teenager, a guy died. In the middle of summer. That’s been seared in my DNA ever since, and so I don’t tempt fate (at least never consciously) in the outdoors. What I do may seem reckless to some, but I can assure you that it’s all carefully calculated and well within the limits of my ability. I may have a goal in mind for each outdoor excursion, but if things aren’t right, it’s always OK to bail. I’ve DNF’d from races because things weren’t right. I’ve turned around just below summits because things weren’t right. That trail/peak/lake, etc. isn’t going anywhere. It will be there waiting for me next time. Unfortunately, last week, my “careful calculations” were put to the test.
I got to the trail head and snowshoed a section of singletrack through 18″+ of newly fallen snow. Absolutely gorgeous (pic below). I got to the Canal and tested out the ice. Solid as could be except for a few small spots where a tributary was draining in. But, in those cases, you just hug the shoreline opposite and all is well. I had been skeptical that the ice would be solid enough, but – by all indications – it certainly seemed to be strong. And the rock hard “thunk” of my metal-tipped poles on the ice gave me confidence in the conditions as I worked my way out of town.
I went about 2 miles out, stopped to take some photos, texted my wife that I was safely at the half-way point and then turned around to head back. Shortly thereafter, on a section I’d just been over, the ice cracked and gave way. In I went.
I’ve been in ice melt before. There are some marshy trails we run that freeze in the winter and then thaw each spring. So I know that ice melt will literally take your breath away. It’s excruciating. I got a frostbitten toe last spring on a sunny, 40 degree day because of wading a quarter mile through ice melt while out on a trail run. But shin-deep ice cold water is the minor leagues compared to plunging in up to your chest. In sub-zero windchills. Which is exactly what happened to me last week. So much for my calculations of the drained canal being only a foot or two deep.
Everything from that point on was pretty surreal. In the back of my mind, I’d always assumed that any close call with death would be accompanied with some sort of spiritual element. But there was none. Out there totally alone, out in the ice, with no one around it was just raw nature. And pure clarity of choice. Nothing else. I remember quite clearly the thought process unfolding in my head. “Freak out and die. Or… Calm down (you do know what to do in this situation) and get out safely to be able to see your kids again. They can’t not have a father.” Obviously, I chose the latter.
So I stopped and assessed the situation…
Did I go under? No. Thankfully.
Am I going to go under? No. Have a firm grip on the ice edge immediately behind me. There’s no strong current flowing under the ice.
How cold is the water? Really freakin’ cold. But not so cold I can’t control my breathing. Warmer than the air, in fact.
Did I injure myself? No. Everything seems intact and functional. Didn’t hit my head. Thankfully.
Am I stuck on anything under water? No. Snowshoes, poles and pack still free. Cumbersome, but free.
Can I still feel/use my fingers? Yes, but probably not for much longer.
What’s my plan? Get to strong ice. Slide out onto my back or stomach, roll to stronger ice and then get up the shore bank to the trail above.
Then what? It’s sub-zero out here. Option 1.) Make it 2 miles home without going hypothermic and/or getting frostbite. I’m thoroughly soaked from the armpits down. Not happening. Option 2.) Get emergency fire starter stash out of running pack once on shore, get a fire going, strip down and warm up in emergency blanket (also in pack), then determine next steps. An ok plan, but… Option 3.) The Village Public Works Building is a quarter mile away. They’re open today. It will be warm inside. Focus on getting there and then plan next steps. Option 3 won.
I tried getting myself out 3 or 4 times before the ice stopped breaking off. It was frightening to feel those seemingly solid pieces break off. Once. Twice. Three times. And then yet again. Getting wetter each time. I finally got to a solid enough section of ice and was able to slide out onto my back (pic above of the hole I climbed out of). My snowshoes were still attached, so that made things a bit tricky. I’d ditched my poles already. Fortunately, they floated to the surface and I was able to retrieve them as I slid out. I slid backwards on my back until the ice felt solid enough to stand, at which point I high-tailed it out of there up onto the Canal Path, opposite the side of the canal I’d started on. I then got going as quickly as I could to the Public Works building a few minutes away on foot.
I didn’t even take my snowshoes off. I couldn’t. They were encased in ice. I went right into the foyer, where there was a big wall heater. Which I promptly stood against. I dug out my phone, which – thankfully – had been zipped up in my chest zip pocket and didn’t get too wet. Dialed my wife. “Um, honey? I’m ok, and I’m safe, so don’t freak out… But I fell through the Canal ice pack…”
My wife came and picked me up. Not without some considerable logistics on her end. Not without tears. But she came and got me. She is an absolute saint. I think what crushed me the most is that while she sometimes thinks I’m crazy, she does actually trust me and my skill, ability and judgement. She’s also passionate about outdoor sports, so she understands all of this. But this time it just didn’t pan out. And I felt horrible about it. Because it caused her stress and anxiety that she doesn’t need.
It could have been a lot worse. For one, I could have died. People die this way every winter. It just happens. I’m fortunate I only went in up to my chest. I’m fortunate there was no current flowing under the ice pack. I’m fortunate I didn’t hit my head on the way down. I’m fortunate there was a warm building near(ish)by. I’m fortunate I had the knowledge and presence of mind to know what to do in that situation. My body needed about 24 hours to reboot. Literally. Physiologically, plunging through ice releases all sorts of stress-induced-hormones into your blood stream. My body systems were haywire for the day or so after this happened. My knees also took a beating breaking through the ice (pic below). But, all in all, an absurdly low price to pay, all things considered. I’ll take it.
- Always tell someone where you’re headed. Whether you’re soloing or not (and ESPECIALLY when you’re soloing) ALWAYS give folks a clear itinerary of where you’ll be, for how long, when you plan to check in and if there’s a timeframe beyond which they should start panicking. Always. Always. Always do this. I did text my wife where I was heading ahead of time, so she at least had those details.
- Anticipate the best, but plan for the worst. And know what you would do if the worst happened. When I’m out in any potentially life-threatening situation (which is, potentially, any long trail run any time of year) I always carry some bare survival essentials in my pack. Even when close to home. Firestarter. 20′ of paracord. Pocketknife. Extra calories, even if minimal. Emergency blanket. The great outdoors are unforgiving. Very bad things can happen very quickly. And it doesn’t take much. Break an ankle out on the trail in this ‘polar vortex’ weather? You could easily go hypothermic, pass out in a snow bank and die in under :30 minutes. It’s not far-fetched. Would you be able to get yourself out of that situation? Do you have fire starting equipment in your pack? Do you know how to use it with numb fingers? Do you have an emergency blanket and could you build a shelter out of it if your phone died from the extreme cold (or from a downpour in the summer), you couldn’t call for rescue, and you’d be out there for a few hours? Days? I could. I’m not being cocky. I’m just saying that I study this stuff, practice it, and am confident in my survival skills and abilities. It was the knowledge of “how to get out of a hole in the frozen ice” that may well have saved my life. (In fact, if you don’t know how? READ THIS. And WATCH THIS.)
- If you spend enough time in the great outdoors, bad things can and will happen. Despite the best of planning. And probably when you least expect it. Prepare accordingly. Develop a certain comfort level with the possibility of these situations. And practice self-rescue and survival techniques as much as possible ahead of time. Know how to get out of ice (or avoid it in the first place). Know how to start a fire. Know the warning signs of hypothermia. Know the warning signs of frostbite. Know what to do if you’re caught in an avalanche. This isn’t theoretical. These things happen to people. It could be you. It was me.
- Be thankful. Take nothing for granted. I could have died last week. At least, that’s what I’ve been told by a lot of people. I’m beyond thankful that I didn’t. I can’t even begin to find the words to express all the emotions tangled up in what happened last week. I’m just simply very grateful for my life. I’m surrounded by an amazing family and incredible people. Y’all know who you are. I love all of you.
In follow-up to me making this post, my good friend and fellow #TrailsROC! conspirator Eric Eagan shared some very pointed, but constructive comments on Facebook. I felt they’re worth sharing. So I’ve posted them below along with my response.
Eric Eagan: I am glad you have a plan in case something goes wrong – new idea – put it out there next time and ask what others think as well – —I love adventure as much as you but when I heard what happened it all made sense – You mention 18 inches of fresh snow which means there were 18 inches of insulation over that ice to prevent it from feeling the effects of the cold airfront following multi 40+ degree days —— If you put your plans out for others to see what they think maybe that would help? Maybe not…. but its a thought. I have gone back and forth on whether I wanted to say anything at all but in the end I believe these discussions are worth having. A lot of comments were made on your post about falling through basically highlighting it, talking about you being the man, and it being an amazing experience – I didnt agree with any of those comments and felt I should say something here this time… Last winter on a very attainable winter summit I turned back and a guy with a newborn went up and faced a seriously dangerous ice ledge decent on the way down and I always think of families in those times. I adventure in the winter as much as anyone I personally know, but the canal on less then 10 days of cold air after multi warm air days to me seems risky not adventuresome. I dont want this to sound like a lecture – or a put down to those who felt what you did was exciting, but I do want to open it up for discussion – in your own blog you even said you were skeptical that the ice would be thick enough – trust that gut next time pal.
Ben Murphy: It’s all good, Eric. Your points are well-taken and taken to heart. And the discussion is definitely worth having. I appreciate you putting it out there, especially if it helps someone else not make the same mistake. I wouldn’t put any of this out there if I wasn’t willing to have the conversation. As for those who thought this was exciting or adventuresome or somehow cool? You’ll note that I didn’t respond to any of those comments. Because it wasn’t any of those things. It sucked. It scared the living daylights out of me and I don’t wish anyone to ever have that experience. I am extremely cautious in what I do. I don’t knowingly take unnecessary risks. I do stand by that. But… there’s no upside to this. It was thoroughly terrifying. In hindsight, your observations about the conditions make sense. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the risk I was taking – despite having been out there before and on ice numerous times. Now I’m aware. And definitely sobered by the whole thing.