Cold Comfort
On the face of it, ice-diving could appear to be a painful and pointless pursuit, but in fact its curiously addictive, says John Liddiard. He cant wait to cut his next hole above an Austrian lake

I TURN MY CYLINDER ON and get the expected result. The regulator second stage is frozen shut. I hit it a couple of times and it free-flows. I turn the cylinder off again. Up to a couple of days ago, my trusty old Conshelf 14 had never frozen or failed in any other way, despite years of hard use, plenty of coldwater diving and the occasional winter ice dive.
     Over the past two days, frozen second stages had become a regular thing.
     My first dive in the Attersee lake had been without hitch, as had everyone elses. Watching others kit up for their second dive, the first freeze occurred and I made a mental note of the regulator involved. I thought it might be interesting to start a little list.
     By the end of our first day, it was predictable. With snow falling and an air temperature well below zero, any regulator was freezing well before it got as far as the water.
     Quite simply, any damp in a second stage was turning to ice. It didnt matter if the air was turned on or if it was being breathed from, just water and a cold enough day did the trick.
     On the positive side, despite all the freezing before dives, regulators of all makes were performing flawlessly with no freezing while actually under water. Thats what counts.
     Keeping a regulator bone-dry inside before a dive was fine in theory but, despite leaving them in the drying room of the pension overnight, it was not achievable in practice. Just setting up in the snow could be enough to cause a problem. By the second dive of the day, nothing stood a chance.
     Anyway, back to my frozen regulator. Its a cold and clear blue Austrian day on an iced-over lake called Regauer. I continue to kit up, get my safety rope tied on, and slither across the ice to the hole. Well-wrapped, I hardly feel the water.
     I just float for a few minutes, allowing the ice in my regulator second stage to thaw in the fresh water, which by definition must be above zero, at least 5 warmer than the morning air. Air on and regulator operational, I dip below the ice. I can see the muddy bed of the lake a few metres away, but there is little point descending. The point about ice-diving is the underside of the ice.
     There is something about the stark and clean simplicity of diving beneath a flat sheet of ice. A few fin strokes and, despite good visibility, the hole is out of sight. There is just me, my safety line, and my bubbles chasing each other across the underside of the ice. I relax in the same sort of calm I imagine exists in a sensory-deprivation bath, but without the warmth, so its hardly a back-to-the-womb thing.
     Further out, I cross beneath a brighter strip in the ice, part of a pattern brushed in the snow as a navigation aid. When we had arrived on site, ice-diving instructor Jan had stood where he wanted the hole, holding a rope while one of the divers circled him with a broom, a human compass on the ice, marking a circle in the snow.
     The rope was then extended to make a second circle further out, and a cross marked with the four points of the compass. Then came the fun part, when dive centre manager Werner sliced out a triangular hole with a chainsaw.
     Looking for pictures, I follow my safety line back to the hole, then wait for Jan and his students to return. Having ice-dived before, I am diving the way I was taught in a BSAC club, as a solo roped diver. Jan is teaching a PADI Ice-diving speciality course, so his dive is to PADI standards in a group with two students. Standby divers are roped and ready to go above.
     The students dive as a buddy pair, with the diver closest to their surface tender leading the dive and passing rope signals. The second diver is further out on the rope, then Jan is at the end, using slack in his part of the line to hover back and watch the students through the dive. All three are tied on and could be hauled in as a group should an emergency demand it.
     I say students here, but none of the group from Wittering Divers could be considered a beginner. All are regular UK divers, most with several hundred dives to their credit. Quite a few are instructors and divemasters.
     Before coming to Austria they had been practising diving on ropes through a simulated hole at Horsea Island. Then followed, over the past couple of days, more practice on lines diving in the much larger, deeper and unfrozen Attersee, combined with some general diving to see the sights and make sure everyone is thoroughly dived in.
     Attersee is a very popular summer destination among Austrian and German divers. The Nautilus Dive Centre stays busy running boat-dives, filling cylinders and managing a waterside campsite full of divers.
     In the middle of winter, the boats are hauled out and buried in a snow drift. With knee-deep snow on the ground, and air temperatures below freezing, we are the only divers here.
     Even without ice, one of the warm-up dives in Attersee is something special. The Unterwasser Wald is an area of the lake where the side of the mountain slipped 50 or so years ago.
     Now, at 6m, there is the old road bed, then, below that, the bare trunks of fallen trees, like a giant game of pick-straws some metre or more across.
     The bark and smaller branches have decayed to leave a scene like a petrified forest. The fascination is almost abstract; the simplicity of the big scene has the same stark fascination as the ice dive, yet closer up is the intricate complexity of the knots and grain on the wood.
     On the way back to the beach, an unexpected bonus is a small fish, a perch, I think. There are big pike in the summer, but they are sleeping at this time of year.
     Attersee is big and deep. It contains sufficient water that it rarely freezes in the winter, which is why we have driven to the smaller, shallower Regauer lake, with a good covering of ice.
     At our hole in the ice, the next pair of divers are in the water and on the line. I follow off to one side as they head out below the ice, taking care to keep my line well clear of theirs. Film finished and starting to feel the cold, I head back and end my dive.
     Even with a full-face mask and dry gloves, I am amazed that Jan can stand the cold for dive after dive. But then, he has had plenty of practice.
     As a student, he spent a whole winter ice-diving every day as the guinea pig for a research project in coldwater exposure, alternating dives between wetsuit and drysuit.
     A couple of the other divers are also using full-face masks, and more than a few have dry gloves. Under the drysuits, Weezles predominate. Somewhat surprisingly, no one is wearing a Typhoon heated vest.
     To warm up fast, I keep my suit on and shovel snow from behind my rental car. I know the effort will be repaid when the time comes to reverse out later.
     I need somewhere warm and dry to change film in my camera. I am a bit paranoid about opening the housing while its damp and below zero. I am convinced that the worst leak I have had in the past was a result of ice crystals forming on the O-ring and preventing it from seating properly. Ideally, I would change film only in a warm, dry room.
     Earlier, we had erected a tent beside the water. With a space-heater inside it is warmer than the open air, and currently full of divers and their kit. Its too humid to risk cracking my camera housing. The same goes for the heated cabin on the back of the Nautilus truck.
     I run my cars engine and leave it to warm up. Forty-five minutes later, I am crouched in the footwell using the passenger seat as a table, carefully wiping the last traces of moisture off the O-ring and out of its groove.
     To take care of humidity in the air, I put a small bag of silica gel in a corner before sealing it up again.
     The afternoons dive is more relaxed. All the divers are familiar with what they are doing now, and settle down to enjoy their diving.
     Those with still and video cameras are comfortable enough to take them in, and those without cameras experiment with all the usual games, like walking upside-down under the ice.
     Being in Austria among mountains covered in snow, I cant resist getting a bit of skiing in. Combined with the diving trip, I had faced an even bigger potential baggage problem than usual.
     The irony is that I could have brought skis along and stuffed the ski bag full of all sorts of weight for a nominal sports equipment fee, but there is no such concession for diving gear.
     Fortunately, Jan and Mark had driven the Wittering Divers van from the UK, and I had hitched a ride for my dive kit. Without skis, a minimal ski kit and cameras just creep in under Austrians standard baggage allowance.
     I am a little surprised that everyone else is heading straight home. One of the divers explains that a long weekend ice-diving is a without the family trip, but skiing is something the keen skiers among them do as a family holiday.
     I suppose it must vary from group to group. I know of other diving clubs with enough skiing enthusiasts without family ties to have a club ski trip every winter.
     My dive gear goes home with the van, and I have an easy morning drive to Zell-am-See. The snow is perfect, there is lots of it and it is falling heavily. The skiing has a good mix between easy beginner runs and more advanced.
     Bouncing between moguls down black 13, I muse that divers could learn a lot from skiing. Skiers dont have an obsession with technical white. They dress in bright colours to be seen. Its easy to tell who the instructors are, as they all wear matching red and silver ski suits.
     There are other comparisons. Skiers can spend all day skiing; divers spend most of the day between dives, compelled by physiology rather than by choice.
     On the other hand, most divers have the sense to go easy on the alcohol if there is a big dive in the morning. If a skier finds himself on a run that is just too difficult, he can stop for a rest or even walk down. But get into a serious decompression dive or overhead environment and there is no easy way out for those who feel like giving up.
     Heading back up the mountain on a ski lift, the falling snow clears long enough for me to see a big frozen lake behind the town. There are cross-country ski tracks across the middle of it. All I can think about is cutting triangular holes with a chainsaw.
     When you add it all up, no one in their right mind would go ice-diving. Just look at the actual time under ice, wrapped up against the cold in the thickest and most cumbersome dive gear you can find. Then, once under the ice, what do you see Ice, from underneath.
     And thats where any conventional analysis breaks down. The experience is mesmerising and addictive. Sitting in the bar on our last night in Weyregg, Jan hands out ice-diving certificates to the group. The smiles and discussion leave no doubt about the enthusiasm for another trip next winter.

A waterside bench makes a convenient place to kit up alongside Lake Regauer
Broken shards of ice from the edge of the hole
Unlike divers, skiers can pursue their sport all day. In Austria you can do both.
The edges of the hole are becoming fragile by mid-afternoon


GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with Austrian Airlines via Vienna to Salzburg (0870 1242 625, A Dive Worldwide package includes transfers from the airport, but a rental car provides greater flexibility. Diving: Nautilus Dive Centre, Weyregg (
ACCOMMODATION: Weyregg: Pension Stallinger ( Zell-am-See: Hotel Grüner Baum (0043 6542 771, email:
WHEN TO GO: The ice is thick enough from January onwards. Water temperature is just above zero, so suitable equipment is vital.
MONEY: Euro.
COSTS: Dive Worldwide can provide a weeks accommodation and diving package from£443 (01794 389372, Austrian Airlines flies in five times a day for£92 return..

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