Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On thin ice: Donner Lake

The recent subzero temperatures and cool days have frozen the surface of Donner Lake. In fact, the freezing has brought the surface ice to a thickness that can be walked and skated on. The clear ice and water enable you to see the lake bottom 30 feet down.

Walking on the frozen surface is fascinating to me. The ice appears to be 2 to 3 inches thick with long visible cracks just under the surface. Occasional eerie cracking sounds can be heard as you walk about on the ice. I would never have walked out on that lake if I didn’t see others out doing the same.
There were dogs, ice skaters, and people walking directly across the lake at the east end. It made me wonder who tested the ice for safety. Who was the adventuresome person to make the first crossing? Just because one person made it across, does that mean the ice is safe? How do shifting currents and sunlight effect ice safety?
I spoke with Alene Aldrich who was out walking on the ice. Alene told me about a high school classmate that lost his life on Donner Lake. George Sommerdorf Jr. was an avid skater. He was skating on Donner Lake and having the time of his life.  He had called a family member minutes before his death to tell them about his skating adventures. It was the morning of January 26, 2007 when George fell through a patch of thin ice. His body was recovered 2 days later.
Click to enlarge
I asked one of the ice skaters if the ice was safe. He said the ice was safe without question because the thickness was “obviously” more than 3 inches. “As long as you have 3 inches you’re safe”, he said.
His comment did little to calm my queasiness about walking on the lake. When I got back in Truckee, I did a little ice research.
·         There is no such thing as “safe” ice. Conditions and unseen factors can cause ice to turn dangerous.

·         Safety can be somewhat judged by color, texture, depth of water, size of the body of water, climate fluctuations, and temperatures during the day.

·         Test thickness with an ice axe and measuring tape.

·         General thickness rules: 3 inches keep off. 4 inches OK up to 200lbs.

·         Have an emergency plan when on the ice: Life jacket, rope, ladder in the car.
My neighbor, Jonathan King, said that as a boy in Michigan, they would always carry a 10 foot pole while testing a lake for ice safety. The pole could be used for staying afloat and for helping others if they broke the ice.
Tread lightly when walking out on any frozen lake. Surface ice is fascinating, but potentially lethal.

Update: 1/22/2013. The Truckee PD announced today that the ice is unsafe. They recommend staying off the ice, but are not bound to make you get off.



  1. Skating on ice looks beautiful and graceful with the skaters gliding over the ice with the perfect combination of balance and poise. This balance and poise don't come easily through a shortcut.

  2. Staying warm and keeping you out of hypothermia's grasp is your first concern. survival hatchet