Words and photos by Ann Driggers
Skating pristine wild ice deep in the mountains is one of the most beautiful, surreal and spiritual experiences one can have in nature.
The ice has to be new, just a few days old, smooth and glassy, hard and pure, translucent and gleaming in the sun, barely thick enough to hold you. It flexes, squeaks and creaks beneath your blades, every stroke sending out miniscule cracks, emitting pops, low frequency waves and generating laser sounds as you skate.
For us mountain folk, late fall to early winter sits blank on the calendar. Often cold, snowless and muddy at lower elevations, there is relatively little to do. But rather than bolt to the desert or muck around on the valley floors, I head up. The first cold snap of the late fall has me in a tizzy. I wander the high country, checking out lakes and tarns that have the best chance of ice forming, in search of my holy grail.
Wild ice is simply ice that forms naturally on a lake or a pond; the cold temperatures coupled with the insignificant precipitation of the shoulder season create prime conditions for wild ice development. But it’s also so much more. Its remoteness, at a high mountain lake or tarn, rarity, beauty and danger make backcountry wild ice the ultimate ice to skate.
The first time I contemplated backcountry ice skating was late fall, several years ago, as I hiked deep in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. I like wandering the high country in solitude when winter is drifting in and the crowds are gone. As I climbed through the forest, the only prints I saw, pressed into a skiff of fresh snow, were those of a late hibernating bear.
Arriving at a lake, otherworldly sounds stopped me in my tracks.
Eerie cracking and popping were transmitted in low-frequency waves from a sheet of ice covering the lake. I sat mesmerized on a rock on the shore for hours, listening to these synthetic, laser-like reverberations echoing off the towering granite walls as the sun moved across the shimmering surface. This was the defining moment when my love affair with ice began.
Come late fall the next year, on a whim, I borrowed a pair of ice skates and set out in search of the bewitching ice. I was in luck! At 12,000 feet, hemmed in by snowy peaks, lay a perfect round of blue glass, from which emanated the hypnotizing sounds I had heard the year before.
Nervously, not having skated since I was a child, I laced up and tentatively pushed out across the lake. I wobbled at first, but gradually I became more confident and relaxed into exploring nature in a new way. As the ice flexed and sang beneath my feet, I became spellbound. And from that moment on I was hooked, totally captivated by the exhilaration and beauty of skating on wild ice.
Now, every year by late October I impatiently check weather forecasts and calculate the number of freezing-degree days, trying to predict where new ice will have formed. I take into account elevation and aspect, size and depth of the body of water, local climatic conditions, and when it will be thick enough to skate. Skateable wild ice is rare and some years it never forms.
On some bodies of water, ice only forms once in a decade or even a lifetime. On others there is always ice, but it can be old, heaved and cracked, buried under snow, or new but formed during a wind event and too rough, or too thin.
Wild ice is incredibly magical, but it is dangerous at the same time. Despite all my forecasting efforts and assessing ice thickness, safety is not guaranteed. There is no such thing as 100% safe ice. You can break bones from a fall or fall into the frigid water and possibly drown. The ice can change while you are skating with solar radiation, temperature fluctuations and wind. Cracks and pressure ridges can appear in places where you skated just minutes before.
But when it all comes together, you treasure wild ice-skating memories forever. It’s nothing short of pure magic, an ethereal feeling of gliding through space and the ultimate sense of freedom. The euphoria of skating while exploring the stark, ephemeral world of wild ice, marveling at frost stars and flowers, cracks and bubbles, is seeing nature in a new way. Reading the ice—the ridges and plates, the color, the surface textures—as you skate over it, has led me to listen, to see and to feel nature differently. It is unforgettable.