Trudging across a frozen lake, the ice suddenly cracks beneath you and gives way. In an instant you fall into the bitterly cold, slushy water below. As we all know, normal body temperature of a healthy human being is 98 degrees Fahrenheit. How low can your core temperature drop before dangerous hypothermia sets in? Subtract only 3 degrees—at 95 degrees you are in trouble. At 85 degrees you’ll slip into unconsciousness, and death will follow if help doesn’t arrive. How do you survive?
First, don’t panic. Your body is going to do some things on its own that you have no control over. You are going to try to gasp for air at the same time as the cold causes the muscles around your airway to spasm uncontrollably, sealing it off. Your body will be trying to breathe and finding it impossible to breathe at the same time, and it will hurt. This is called “cold shock” and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. Just know that it exists, and don’t let it panic you. To learn what this is like, you can experience a bit of cold shock at home without danger to yourself by running a shower with no hot water at all, and jumping in all at once. Yowee! However, your body’s reaction when you unexpectedly fall through the ice is going to be much stronger. Don’t let your body’s freak out turn into a brain freak out. After a minute or so, your body’s need to breathe will overcome the cold shock and you’ll start gasping for air successfully.
In a worst case scenario you may find yourself totally under water. If this happens you need to orient yourself and look for the hole you fell through. It will be very difficult to punch your way out through the ice from underneath, so swim back to the hole. If there is snow covering the ice you fell through, the hole will look darker than the ice around it. If there is no snow, the hole will look brighter than the ice. You don’t have to memorize that, just remember to look for the contrasting color somewhere above your head and swim up to it!
With your head above water, you need to get rid of anything significantly bulky or weighing you down, such as a backpack or skis. Try to slow your breathing and avoid hyperventilating. The cold is draining your strength, but you have more time than you think. Most people in decent physical condition will have two to five minutes before they lose the strength to pull themselves out of the water. This is time for several attempts to get out, but what you want to do is one full effort, successful attempt.
Make your body as horizontal as possible in the water, as if you are going to swim your way out of the hole. Try to find the firmest area of ice next to the hole, which is usually the part you were walking or skiing on just before you went in. That’s where you are going to go! Keep both your feet together and kick as hard as you can, like a dolphin jumping out of the water. If you have any sharp objects like a pocket knife or even car keys, you can use them to dig into the ice to help get traction with your arms. Now kick and pull as hard as you can! If you don’t make it, don’t panic, gather yourself together and try again. Give it everything you’ve got, your life depends on this effort!
Once you’re up and out of the water, don’t stand up! Standing up presses all your body weight down through your feet, and the ice around the hole may have weakened when you fell through. You don’t want to fall through again; the next time, you may be too weak to make it out. Instead of standing up, roll away from the hole in the direction you came from before you fell, since that ice was strong enough to hold you before. Once you get at least a few feet from the hole, you can stand up again, but the danger is far from over.
Once you have reached a point of relative safety, you need to get naked. Yes, I mean it! At any given temperature, water draws heat away from the body 25 times faster than air does, and right now your clothes are soaked through with very cold water. Take them off quickly, because soon you won’t be able to. You are about to lose control of your body again thanks to “after drop.” Your arms and legs are much colder than your core is right now, but soon the extremely cold blood in those extremities will circulate back to the center of your body, dropping its temperature further even though you are out of the water. You will shiver and shake worse than you ever have before; forget about using buttons and zippers once “after drop” kicks in.
Hopefully there are other people around to help. You weren’t trekking across a frozen lake alone, were you? They need to wrap you in blankets, towels, or even just warm dry clothing as soon as possible, and put you in a warm environment. A vehicle with a good heater traveling to a nice warm building is the best option, but if there isn’t one nearby an open fire will need to be constructed. You need to introduce your body to the warmth gradually, if you stand right next to a blazing hot fire during after drop your blood vessels can dilate from the sudden temperature change, causing your internal organs to fail. Think of a frozen dinner thrown into a microwave set on “high.” Your body has already undergone a massive shock recently, doing an imitation of that microwaved pot pie could finish you off.
Once you’ve been placed in a warmer environment, hopefully one of your friends will bring over a hot beverage for you to sip, not gulp. Eventually your extremities will warm up, followed by your core, and you’ll stop shaking and be able to hold the mug yourself. Congratulations, you survived!
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