All our favorite dive magazines (US and UK) went all out about ice diving in their december and january issues.
Ice diving looked both spectacular and extreme to me, as a fairly “recent” diver ( with about 50 dives logged). After a bit of googling, I found out 2 weeks ago that there is actually an awesome ice diving school in Tignes (French Alps, France). On top of that we have a family time shared über-small studio in Tignes… that nobody was using… this was a sign ! So I hopped into my car and drove there to attend the 3-day training course to become a certified PADI ice-diver graduating from the Alban Michon’s Tignes Ice Diving School.
I’ve always been a warm sea diver – the coldest I did was the French rivieria in a 6mm wet suit… that was piece of cake compared to the 2ºC of the lake’s waters. I started the training on tuesday, sunny day – the only one of the week, and not only would it be my first ice dive but also my first time in a dry suit.
First time I put the dry suit on, and sat on the icy entry hole was the oddest experience ever : it’s not cold ! So dry suits do work – that’s a relief. For the first dive I was allowed a full-face mask making me look like one of those professional underwater workers (classy).
During this dive we only used the dry suit as a dry insulation layer, the suit was in auto mode (which means the left shoulder valve lets automatically the air out as pressure raises) and basically I did not have to worry about the buoyancy issues. A little swim underwater, playing with the bubbles on the icy ceiling (making a bubble tornado) and first exercise: planting an ice screw… that one was harder than it looked. Getting the ice screw to enter the ice required heavy pushes on the fins followed by frantic screwing… this led to heavy breathing for a few minutes.
Fun facts I discovered pretty fast : there are 3 very different buoyancy zones under the ice.
- Under 1m depth, you feel sucked up towards the ice. It’s actually your breathing bubbles fault. As they can’t be released in the air, they create a water flow going up and you are being sucked up towards the icy ceiling.
- The 1-3m zone is the comfort zone … you are stable and everything works out great.
- Below the 3m zone you feel sucked down at high speed and need to inflate your BCD…. while being extra careful not to reach the 3m zone too fast or you’ll hit the ceiling in no time.
The ice screw is an essential security tool. Whenever you or someone in your group is lost, there’s is only one thing to do : plant the ice screw, connect a tether line and start making circles around the ice screw, increasing the radius at each circle. If you lost your exit hole, you’re bound to find it. If you lost your buddies just remain calm and motionless under the ice, using this technique they’ll find you or at least you’ll see the tether pass at some point.
This was the objective of the second dive : plant the ice screw, connect the tether, make a mark in the ice to identify the origin point and circle around .. and repeat operations with a larger radius. On this dive I got to connect the dry suit to the air supply, and thus to inflate a bit whenever the suit became too squeezed, but I had to trade in the full-face mask for a regular mask and octopus+protective mouthpiece. Against all expectations the loss of the full-face mask did not make me feel cold at all !
Day 3, last dive before graduation, was about free exploration tethered to a line connected outside. I had to drill holes in the ice, open a hole with an ice saw, prepare the dive site by compressing the light snow (heavy snow on the last 2 days). Nothing very complicated aside from the fact that you need to pay extra attention to hold the line far away from yourself to avoid becoming entangled in it.
I took the camera to try and take a few shots, but obviously took the wrong objective (60mm/F2.8 Macro…. ) and the old eos 300D sensor was really behaving badly in low light. I still managed to snap a few shots and a video with my Kodak Play which turned out unexpectedly allright.
Bottom line: ice diving is an amazing experience, and definitely up to any CMAS 2* diver with enough buoyancy control. Can’t wait to do this again !