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Ice Diving In France: “Unlike Anything I’ve Ever Experienced”

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When the weather interrupts a ski trip, resorts compete to provide alternative experiences. Coach correspondent Alf Alderson samples one of them – the view from beneath a frozen lake

I’m in the French ski resort of Tignes where snow is falling heavily – too heavily for any skiing, so instead I squeeze into a dry suit and prepare to dive beneath the surface of the frozen Lac de Tignes. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of diving beneath the ice and this is the perfect chance to try it. A few French ski resorts including Val Thorens, Morzine and Tignes offer ice diving for beginners, and improbable as it seems you don’t need any diving experience to give it a go.

Ice diving is, admittedly, quite a niche activity, but for major ski resorts such as Tignes it’s no longer enough to offer only skiing and snowboarding, hence the introduction of such exotic winter experiences.

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Before sinking beneath the lake’s frigid waters I’m fully kitted out with diving gear and given basic instructions on how to use it by PADI instructor Alban Michon (who has dived in the Arctic and Greenland). Then, we make our way across the ice to a small, dark hole that has been cut into it, so I can put my newly acquired knowledge into practice.

I notice that the steel-grey water is already starting to ice over. Alban breaks up the thin surface ice with his flippers before entering the water, after which he beckons me in.

It’s not as cold as I expected – a bit worse than a wet and windy winter day back in Britain, with the dry suit doing a sound job of keeping the initial chill at bay. Alban checks my regulator once more, then slips beneath the surface, and I follow…

I have a lifeline connecting me to Alban, but even so, from within the confines of my neoprene helmet I can hear my heart thudding as a certain level of anxiety grips me – I’ve only been diving once, on a beginner’s day in the warm, aqua-blue Red Sea, and this is as far removed from that as you can get. There isn’t the sense of freedom here that I experienced on my Red Sea dive – grey, snowy skies and a snow-covered icy lid over the lake give everything an opaque light, and I feel slightly constrained, as if I’m in a huge underwater prison.

My gaze is constantly drawn towards shafts of fuzzy blue light that indicate various escape – sorry, exit – holes that have been cut into the ice. It’s not that I don’t have confidence in my guide, but I feel the need to be aware of where the exit holes are. 

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As the chill of water that’s only a couple of degrees above zero starts to make itself felt, my senses start to focus almost as much on the cold pressure of the water as the ice-blue world around me.

Not that it isn’t spectacular, mind. Alban gives me a tap on the shoulder and points first to the air bubbles leaving my mouthpiece, and then follows them upwards. As they hit the underside of the ice, the bubbles coalesce, then scatter like mini, iridescent Frisbees, racing along the frozen ceiling desperately trying to find somewhere to escape to the atmosphere above. Many make it to one of the exit holes, but many don’t and freeze to create stacks of glittering plates attached to the bottom of the ice; air still remains in some of them, and one end may be open, providing “pockets” you can grip hold of to pull yourself through the water.

My torch reveals infinite shades of blue, aquamarine and green, until we surface in a small ice cave, inside a dome in the surface ice that’s big enough for us to poke our heads above the water while remaining under the lake’s frozen surface. We dip down into the water again for a couple of minutes before Alban leads me back to the hole where we first entered the lake. By now, after 20-minutes underwater, I’m feeling an all-encompassing chill, not unlike the sensation of sitting on a slow-moving chairlift in a blizzard, and I’m happy to clamber back onto the lake’s solid, icy surface.

Even so, I’m chuffed for meeting the challenge – the silent, almost dreamlike world beneath Lac de Tignes seems a million miles away from the vast expanse of the mountains around us and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced…

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Go Ice Diving 

Ice diving costs €95 (€130 for an illuminated night dive) with Evolution 2 (opens in new tab) in Tignes.

Nearest airport: Geneva – easyJet (opens in new tab) flies direct to Geneva from London Gatwick. Prices from £40.

For more information, visit tignesnet.com/winter/guide (opens in new tab)