Ice Freediving in Sweden

In winter last year I was lucky enough to meet a group of divers who dive at Dorothea Quarry in North Wales. I had learnt the basics of Freediving from a course in the SETT in Gosport and had done an excellent open water course in the Red Sea. With the right kit, the right people and a bucketful of motivation even winter diving in the UK can be fun.

Up until now all of my diving holidays abroad (Free and SCUBA) have taken me south to places like the Red Sea, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean,and the Great Barrier Reef, but this year things changed. Alun George extended the kind offer he had received ,when diving in Dahab, from a group of Swedish divers: to visit them and go ice-diving in their winter months in Sweden at a place called Örebro. To give you an idea of where Örebro is in relation to the UK it is slightly further north than Scapa Flow in the Orkneys -you then head east just past Norway and stop before the Baltic Sea.

Three of us (Alun George, George Stoyle and myself) started our trip with a 6-hour car journey to Luton airport to catch our 2 pence return flight with Ryan air. It was an early morning flight so we decided to get there late evening and have a few hours sleep in the airport before we checked in. The floor was surprisingly comfy (quick tip: there are not many seats at Luton for sleeping). We got over the normal problems of trying to get a monofin on the plane (my last trip to Sardinia it got the best seat in the house – in the cockpit) and after a couple of leisurely hours flying time we landed at the tiny Vasteras airport.

The first thing I remember about Sweden was getting off the plane and taking in a nice big breath and filling my lungs with refreshing cold and crisp, clean air, none of that normal ‘recycled through traffic’ city stuff, this smelt like new.

The airport was so small that the queue from our plane meant we had to wait outside and it was then that I noticed the cold and started to think ahead a bit, wondering what it would be like changing into our wetsuits outside in this weather …Brrrrr. I zipped my coat up and walked into the terminal. Enough negative thoughts already, think warm, think warm, it can’t be that much colder than the UK, surely?!? A short scenic coach journey past frozen lakes, beautiful snow covered fields and a bit more sleep saw us in Stockholm by dinnertime.

We got off the coach in beautiful picturesque Stockholm. The city is made up of old buildings, quaint streets all founded on an impressive stretch of waterways. It was a magnificent archipelago filled with wonderful people and unpronounceable street names with far too many letters in them.

We were soon lost but our crumpled map, excessive baggage and confused looks soon got the attention of a random Swede who realised that we didn’t have a clue where we were and kindly offered his assistance,leading us to our hotel. After reaching our hotel we had a quick clean up and decided to go for a wander.

Stockholm is not too dissimilar to other cosmopolitan cities. Whilst walking around you got the feeling sometimes you had been there before, but looking in shop windows ,seeing the foreign words and listening to the passing conversation in a language very strange to the ears reminded you where you were.

We did the tourist thing and visited the National Museum and over to a few of the little islands and to an old boat yard. Whilst walking we noticed one puzzling thing. There were dozens of pushbikes, none of which were locked up, nearly all with punctures and they were just lying around. Our theory (without looking too much further into it) was that the locals must carry around bicycle pumps and just pick up any bike they choose and then leave it and then take another one next time. We did not, however, see any one pumping up a tyre to ask them so if you visit don’t just nick a bike just in case we are wrong.

After walking for a few hours just taking in the scenery we had built up an appetite so we went to the Hard Rock Café (traditional Swede-ish cuisine). The food was lovely, so was the beer but at a cost over £5 a pint I knew we wouldn’t be getting a hangover on this trip -that was for sure. We retired for a deserved good night’s sleep.

In the morning we left the hotel a little late, really, for our train so it wasn’t so much of a leisurely walk as a quick march to the station, because we suspected that as we were in foreign lands the train would leave on time and we were right. A bit more sleep on the train journey saw us in Örebro (a small town to the West of Stockholm) where we met Sverker and his freediving pals from Örebro apnea. I had no idea what our Swedish hosts would be like; they turned out to be very friendly and hospitable. After short introductions we set off for our diving destination. We piled all of our stuff into Sverker’s Volvo and off we went.

We got to the dive site early Saturday afternoon. As soon as we got there we walked over to the edge of the Cliffside and peered cautiously over to see what we had let ourselves in for. The site was not that dissimilar to our own Dorothea in North Wales. There were high- sided cliffs with trees standing tall all around and the perfect reflection glistening back at us made it doubly impressive. It was strange because it looked like there was no ice but we could see some of the freedivers in the distance walking over to the platforms. The rainfall earlier had melted the snow and left a thin layer of water over the ice so it looked like it was just a lake, but with people walking on it, it was surreal and beautiful and made me smile.

By now we were really looking forward to getting in so we hurriedly changed into our wetsuits and in our excitement we forgot about the cold. We walked down a slippery, icy slope to a set of old metal ladders attached somehow to the wall and went down to the ice.

Cutting the ice with a saw to make a hole for freediving

Cutting the ice with a saw to make a hole for freediving

The ice was 10cm thick and was really clear. This apparently made it very strong and a quick bit of maths (thickness squared multiplied by five I think) led Sverker to the quote of the day. ‘I could park my Volvo on that’ he said confidently. I wasn’t that confident about standing on it never mind parking a car on it! Now stood on the ice it was great, you could see the rocks ten metres down disappearing out of visibility. It was just like being stood on water, very strange indeed, and we stayed there a while just looking under the ice and taking in our surroundings. We walked / skated cautiously over the really slippy surface it was great fun, like being kids again.

We got over to the wooden platform without falling (just) and as I was stood there wondering how we were going to actually get under the ice I heard a chainsaw start up nearby. It was mesmerizing to watch the lads cut the holes, it all looked a bit haphazard at first but it soon became apparent the task was running like a well-oiled machine. One thing that never ceases to amaze me in my travels is the expertise people gain by doing things like this on a regular basis without even really realising they have become experts

Firstly an equilateral triangle was carefully cut in the ice with the 90-degree side pointing back towards the platform. A small hole was cut in the centre of the triangle to help pull it out and to be used later to mark the triangle with a branch or something conspicuous because apparently this is Swedish law to prevent some poor unsuspecting skier or similar from falling down the hole and having a cold bath or worse! Whilst the hole was being cut someone was always nearby to help stabilise them with a foot or hold onto their back. Then appeared a one and a half metre long saw to help finish sawing the holes. The hole was quickly cut and then came the tricky bit, pulling the ice out of the hole without falling in. There were a couple of moments where I wished I’d left my video running.

After ‘supervising’ a couple of the holes being cut (now I look back I don’t know how they will manage without us) it was getting a bit chilly so it was time for ice football and ice throwing competitions. We weren’t like three 30 -year-olds, we were like three thirteen-year-olds but it was great fun and kept us warm.

Time to dive came soon enough and we decided it was time to inspect the ice from the other side and do a few short dynamics. There were ropes which criss – crossed over and under between the five holes which had been cut and there was a lanyard system in operation which meant you could not get lost.Safety was carefully considered in these conditions.

Being under the ice and looking up was amazing. You could see the cliff sides and trees and every now and then a friendly face looked down and gave you a smile or a wave. The bubbles formed by the turbulence from the chainsaw sat on the underside of the ice pinned with nowhere to go. When you swam with your hands on the ice ceiling they seemed to magically follow your hands just like the clip at the beginning of that film we all know so well. The images I took from them short underwater excursions are burnt into my brain to be kept forever.

ice freediving

There was a one-way system in place so people did not bang their heads. This meant that when you got to the final hole you had to get back to the beginning.

Taking a fin on and off is a chore so the best thing to do was to pull yourself along the ropes on your belly and watch the divers pass under you. ‘Stranded seal’ springs to mind when I think back to when I accidentally let go of the rope a couple of times.

Just before the end of the session we were invited over to their recently designed no-limits sled. It looks an excellent design and will be a good tool for equalisation practice in the cold 48-metres-deep lake. After our quick sled ride we headed back to get changed. No tiring surface swims -just a leisurely walk back.

no limits sweden

We got quickly changed and headed back to our digs for the night. It was a fire station. We were like kids again being shown round all of the different engines, rescue boats, and even a hovercraft.

I would like to mention now that our Swedish hosts were excellent. The diving was organised, and there were meals, accommodation and even evening entertainment in the form of freediving films and pictures at the fire station big screen. George just about summed our stay up by saying (with a free beer in his hand and a grin from ear to ear) ‘I see no reason to ever leave’. I thought he was going to emigrate. Oh yeah, the Swedish hospitality even included a traditional Swedish sauna, ideal for getting your core temperature back up. We had a 100 degrees Celsius temperature change in the space of a couple of hours. Our hosts gave us top tips like ‘don’t move around too quickly or it will burn your skin’ and my favourite tip was ‘drink from the beer can regularly, so it doesn’t burn your lip’.

I must have looked well cooked when I came out because someone reached out to grab me as I exited. I must have looked like I was going to collapse. What they didn’t know is that I always look like that after a few beers! Alun in ,articular, had a couple of ‘which way do I look moments’ in there but it was a great way to chill out after diving- if you’ll pardon the rather brutal pun.

A meal, a few videos and some pictures left us ready for a good night’s kip. I had such a good night’s sleep that it wasn’t until morning that I found out the station alarm had gone off. The sirens had sounded, lights had come on, a half-dozen officers had left the building in their engines- and I didn’t hear a thing. Thank God nobody was counting on me to put their chip pan out or flush their cat out of a tree!

Day Two was just as fun. The holes were quicker and easier for us to open. Overnight the perfectly-cut triangles had slightly melted, and now had smoothed edges which were all sloping towards the water below. It meant that it was a bit harder to get out and very, very, very, easy to get in, whether you meant to or not.

All my life I have been drawn to water, but this was different. Once you were a half-metre away from the hole, it started to draw you in and once you started to go it was a slow-motion, rather inevitable head-first slide in. Nowhere to grab hold of, you can’t stand up, can’t sit down- you can just look at the hole and see where you are going to end up. Every now and then you knew someone had gone: even if you didn’t actually see it you heard a burst of laughter and just knew someone else had gone for an unplanned swim.

It was a very enjoyable experience but it wouldn’t be the same without a story of at least one hairy moment, an ‘I remember when …’ moment. I remember swimming between a couple of holes and thinking that it was getting near to the time I would like to come up. I looked up and saw the triangle shape of the exit so put my hands up to come up but the exit was blocked!

Actually it wasn’t exactly blocked it just wasn’t there because the triangle I had seen wasn’t the exit, it was the lump of ice that had been cut out and placed on the top and it was masquerading as a lovely inviting exit. The exit was only half a fin stroke away but for that split second I was having what I term a ‘sphincter moment’. Maybe the whole thing lasted about two seconds but it was a loooong two seconds.

The whole second day was chilled and relaxing, it was like we had been doing this forever. We did the compulsory silly photos and videos and when our batteries had expired because of the cold we started to help put back the ice blocks so no-one fell in. And then it happened, the inevitable moment, as I adjusted the blocks I started to slide, nowhere to go, no reverse and in I went, I did it as elegantly as I could which ended up head first and feet following but I popped up with a smile but it wasn’t as big as everyone elses around the hole.

It was back to the firestation for some expresso coffee, somewhat of an Orebro apnea tradition. It helps you recover from the diving coma which I’m sure you have all experienced. We had our last night watching all of the pictures everyone had taken over the two days, some were good, some were funny, some were inspiring and all brought back good memories.

I would like to express our gratitude and thanks to Sverker and all at …who we were fortunate enough to meet for a wonderful time. It was good fun with good company and great hospitality…… Thank you!