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Montana ice diving

Montana ice diving

Photo by Steve Lantz

When I was reading various dive sites and dive books early in my dive training experience, one of the things that surprised me and excited me was the abundance aquatic life in the Antarctic during the warm season there. I mentioned to Grant at some point that I wanted to dive in Antarctica some day.

That promoted Grant to help organize an ice diving trip to Montana which we did a few weeks ago.

Ice diving is relatively advanced diving because it is an overhead environment, requires a lot of specialized gear, is physically somewhat challenging and requires a lot of preparation. It’s hard work and really fun and exciting, but not nearly as cold and crazy as it might seem to some people.

Grant organized the trip with his friend Steve who is a PADI Course Director and lives in Montana where ice diving in lakes is one of their main diving experiences.

We all met at the Lodge at McGregor Lake (map). When we arrived, they were getting ready for a bingo night which was the most excited I had ever seen a group of people get about bingo. The lodge itself was modest with no phones in the rooms and no cellphone coverage, but very tidy and functional. The food was all-American but was tasty and made with care.

As the group of divers trickled in over the evening and the next morning, it was fun hearing their stories and realizing that you had to be a bit hardcore to be a diver in Montana. What surprised me was how all of the divers and everyone at the lodge were super-nice and friendly. Everyone was really down-to-earth in a “real middle America” sort of way.

Montana blessed us with nice weather and although the first day was a bit drizzly, it was balmy compared to the weather a week before we arrived. The ice was 8 inches think which is just enough. The visibility in the water was excellent (this is why we chose this lake). Most importantly, Steve was COMPLETELY prepared.

We unloaded tons of specialized gear for ice diving. We had titanium ice screws, special tender line reels, a gas burner and boiling pot for heating water to warm gear and cold body parts, a huge gas heater to turn the trailer into a warm changing room, harnesses, a special chainsaw for cutting ice, rugs to make a comfy sitting bench out of cut ice, etc.

Following ice diving protocol, we first cut a hole to measure the thickness of the ice and the depth of the water. We move over to a slightly deeper area and marked our location. The divers doing the work were in drysuits and tethered so that if they fell in, they could be recovered.

We used a measuring tape to mark a triangle 10 ft on each side which would be our hole. We cleared the snow 20 ft from the hole. We then cleared circles in the snow at 50 ft and 100 ft. We cleared “spokes” from the center outward as well. The circles and the spokes allow the light to come through so that underneath the ice, they turn into a kind of “bullseye” for the diver to show where the hole is.

Chainsaw + ice = diving hole

Photo by Grant Graves

We cut a pattern in ice where the hole would be and put ice screws into each block section small enough so that they could be lifted out with rope and carbingers. With a chainsaw, we cut the blocks and pulled them out. We stacked a few of the big blocks to make a bench that we covered with rugs.

Once everything was set up and everyone was briefed, we began diving. Each dive team consisted of two divers tethered to a single line with a “tender” up top who let out the line and used line signals to make sure the divers were OK. There were always a pair of completely geared and tethered safety divers on standby up top so that if anything happened, they could enter the water immediately and provide support.

We took turns tending, being safety divers and diving.

Tending the line

Photo by Grant Graves

It was an amazing experience. After the initial “did I just eat a gallon of ice cream” brain freeze and after your face got numb, it really wasn’t that cold. It helped that I was in a drysuit with nice undergarments and an electrical active heating vest on.

The water was clear and the ice was beautiful. I didn’t see much life in the lake other than some crawfish, but I really enjoyed the glacial feel of diving in the ice. After a few dives, I started to feel comfortable on and in the ice and imagined doing this in the arctic.

While the diving itself was really awesome, I really enjoyed working with the team of experienced and committed divers and found the preparation and the packing up also really fun.

Ice divers group photo

Photo by Grant Graves

I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to visit Lake McGregor again, but I sure would like to go back again sometime.

(Flickr set with the rest of the photos)