British Ice Diving
Sensible people wash their kit and store it away when winter arrives at our shores – or so goes the theory. Personally, I dive through the winter: the water is as balmy as ever, and you’ll get all the central heating you need in the pub afterwards. One specialist pursuit, however, is exclusive to the harshest of cold snaps – ice diving.
Ice diving comes with a lot of baggage. People associate it with Arctic snowscapes and speak of it in hushed tones. The truth is that, with a little training, venturing under ice can be within most UK divers’ capabilities. And this year, I wanted to prove that you could go ice diving in the UK and have a great time into the bargain.
Theoretically, ice diving can be carried out anywhere in the UK that gets cold enough for the surface of a lake to freeze over. Consider what the site has to offer under the surface and its historical reliability of freezing, and then be patient and keep an eye on the lake. Planning an ice-diving trip long in advance is a game of chance, so be ready to go when the ice is thick enough.
I, on the other hand, had only two days off between festive obligations on my brief time home from Africa [the author is, among other things, an international security consultant – Ed.]. As my luck would have it, those days did not coincide with the Arctic weather that swept across the UK in early January. So would it be worth the overnight drive from my home in Bristol to Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands, the UK’s coldest spot this winter? I packed my Thermos flask and hoped for the best.
My hesitant mood at the beginning of the trek north became more upbeat as I watched the car’s external thermometer flick down to 8°C by the time I arrived in Aviemore. Things were looking up. The team rendezvoused in the Mountain Café in Aviemore for an early breakfast before setting off into the darkness in search of ice. Soon, we reached Loch Morlich, just a few miles away. In the darkness, the surface looked liquid black and eerily still, cast in the foggy glow of my headlamps. Before we set off across the loch, I pierced the ice with my trusty hammer to check its thickness, and established that it was strong enough to hold our weight in full diving equipment.
We put on our thermals and attempted to get our drysuits on without removing our woolly hats. We’d brought a handsaw and the ubiquitous hammer (an indispensable tool) in order to penetrate the surface.
First, we had to pick our entry point. We had to glide to the centre of the loch before the bottom finally disappeared from view. It was clear that this dive was not going to require decompression. In ice diving, you normally cut a large triangle as an entry hole (which conveniently doubles as an exit). The shape is more convenient for levering oneself out of the water than a square; more importantly, it requires less sawing.
Suitably warmed up after our DIY antics, we returned to the cars for the kit. The hole needed some attention on our return, as ice was beginning to form around it again. So, with our tools back on shore, I went to work with my old Army knife. Now, I know it was just a loch in Scotland, but still I nurtured dreams that I might have discovered an inland classic, perhaps boasting the iridescent blues and endless visibility one sees in photographs from the Arctic. However, on this occasion the visibility could, in fact, be measured in centimetres.
We slipped beneath the ice and progressed out to the extent of our 50m safety lines, our means of communication back to the surface and the only way we would ever be able to find our way out of the loch. There are other, more advanced means of locating your exit, but a safety line is the simplest and safest method under normal circumstances. There’s only one, very small, route back to the surface: you cannot afford to be uncertain of its location.
The thick, tarnished red of the loch bed contrasted with the opaque blue of our ceiling and, although there wasn’t a huge amount to see, it’s an extraordinary experience to glide beneath the surface while your friend above waves down at you.
After three dives exploring the Mars-scape, and after I’d ploughed some impressive grooves across my camera dome (an emotional moment – the less said, the better) we called it a day. As we skated back across the loch bedecked in twin-sets and coils of rope, the afternoon sun beat down from a crisp, cloudless sky, warming the ice and causing cracks to appear ominously beneath our boots.
As we stripped down our kit, it gave us a chance to really take in our surroundings: the Highlands in winter present a magnificent backdrop to a dive. So, you can squirrel your kit away for a third of the year, or you can have days like this. The way I see it, dive equipment doesn’t come cheap, so you might as well get a full 12 months’ use out of it.
Ice diving requires appropriate training. To find a BSAC course, go to www.bsac.com/sdc