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‘Herculean effort’ rescues Whistler senior who fell through ice at Alta Lake

Firefighters had to troubleshoot to rescue man, who spent at least 30 minutes in water

A local senior is reportedly in good condition after spending half an hour in the frigid water of Alta Lake on Saturday, Jan. 9, when he fell through the ice while cross-country skiing.

“My understanding was he was out yesterday shovelling his driveway,” said Deputy Fire Chief Chris Nelson of the 78-year-old long-time local.

“It could have easily not ended this way.”

Fire crews were called to Rainbow Park early Saturday afternoon after bystanders spotted the man in the water frantically waving for help. Eye-witness and local councillor Arthur De Jong, in a letter to Pique, said “watching the flailing arms of the drowning man in the centre of the lake while firefighters sprint-crawled the Rapid Deployment Raft across the precarious ice with everything their arms could deliver was both gravely tense and inspiring.”

The rescue presented a number of challenges to firefighters, who initially struggled to reach the man while sporting their heavy, ice-water rescue suits and dragging an inflatable watercraft, known as a Rapid Deployment Craft (RDC), behind them. It was also the first time that particular watercraft had been used by local crews in a rescue. 

At one point, Nelson said a firefighter fell through what appeared to be a stable patch of ice himself. Complicating things further was just how far out in the water the man was. A 300-foot tether wasn’t long enough to reach him, so firefighters had to improvise, tying multiple ropes together.

“Typically a rope rescue doesn’t usually go that far out,” Nelson noted. “But this one, we had to be inventive.”

With the ice unable to hold the weight of the rescuers, firefighters were forced to ride the RDC over thin patches of ice and push it out to where the man was. Still unable to reach him, a firefighter jumped in the water before pulling the man back to the watercraft.

With a core temperature reportedly below 30 degrees Celsius, Nelson said the man still had the presence of mind to prop himself up on the ice using his ski, which likely helped him endure what was at least 30 minutes in the freezing water. 

In another letter to Pique, the senior who fell through the ice thanked rescue crews for saving his life, as well as the residents who called for help, and the paramedics and medical personnel at the Whistler Health Care Clinic. 

"I am a very lucky man to still be alive and to be able to live in this beautiful town—the best place on Earth!," he wrote. 

In his 32 years as a firefighter, Nelson said he had never seen an ice rescue quite like it.

“It was a Herculean effort from the firefighters,” he said. “It was one of those things where they had to dig so deep to do it, it really was an effort. It was truly remarkable.”

Canadian Red Cross advises that ice should be at least 15 centimetres thick for walking or skating alone, 20 cm for group skating or games, and 25 cm for snowmobiles. Ice colour is also a good indication of it strength, with clear blue ice typically being the strongest.

For more ice safety tips, visit redcross.ca.