The story was national news.
Two weeks ago, a group of eight ice skaters visited Stampede Reservoir about six miles east of Truckee. It was a beautiful day, temperatures rising into the forties by the time the group reached its destination sometime after 1 p.m.
Many of these skaters had decades of “wild ice” experience.
Several members of the group had skated the Reservoir each of the previous three days.
There had been skating on the Reservoir that very morning.
And yet, six of the skaters ended up in the frigid Reservoir waters that fateful Saturday.
And only seven skaters lived to tell the tale.
One of those skaters, Laura Kottlowski, was in Mammoth last Saturday to promote ice safety awareness.
Stampede Reservoir sits at about 6,000-feet of elevation. The temperatures in the evenings had been in the teens in the days prior. Members of the group had measured the thickness of the ice at 4”.
A newcomer to the group that day, Kottlowski is a Colorado native who’s been skating on “wild ice” for fourteen years.
As Kottlowski explained, she started skating at the age of six and competed through college.
Post-college, she began hiking the 14’s (mountains of 14,000-feet in elevation) in Colorado. Then came a winter hike in snowshoes where she came upon a pristine alpine lake with beautiful ice and said to herself, “Why don’t I have my skates with me?”
It soon became an obsession. She likens skating to gliding upon endlessly original artwork
Over the years, she began partnering with photographers on high alpine excursions, developed a TikTok following @laurakottlowski and successfully laid claim to skating the “highest” lake in America near Breckenridge at 13,420 feet – on the fifth attempt. It was a three-year quest oft-thwarted by weather.
Right before the pandemic hit, she partnered with Nepal Tourism to organize the world’s highest ice skating exhibition and hockey match.
Her profession is that of a creative director (advertising) and graphic designer, which gives her the flexibility to travel. She’s been spending a lot of time in Tahoe and Mammoth over the past two years.
One thing which differentiated Kottlowski from her peers at Stampede Reservoir is that she was equipped with full safety gear: a life preserver, ice picks and a throw rope bag. The locals were not equipped.
“Some guys I skate with in Mammoth look at me funny [for carrying the safety gear]. But it’s like wearing a seatbelt to me.”
While Laura and a cohort were skating to shore at Stampede, the ice started to feel funky.
They started to skate faster.
Four of them reached safer ice.
But as they looked back, they saw the other members of their group puncturing through.
Kottlowski tossed her rope bag out to her friend Brooke, but as Brooke took hold, the weight punched Laura through the ice she was standing on. Laura, wearing her preserver and using her ice pick, cleared a path out to Brooke and then they both swam back through the cleared channel.
While Kottlowski made this rescue, the others on shore made a second rescue. This took about 10-15 minutes.
And as Laura explained, a person in such freezing temperatures starts to lose limb function within ten minutes.
There were two skaters further out. A 72-year old man named Bill Smallfield couldn’t hold on. He eventually lost consciousness, sank below the surface and drowned.
Another skater, armed with an ice pick, chipped through perhaps 200’ of ice towards shore in 15-20 minutes until she could be rescued. Without the ice pick, says Kottlowski, “she doesn’t make it.”
Three days later, two people punched through 8” of ice at Boca Reservoir near Stampede.
Over the past two weeks, Kottlowski has been heavily researching ice characteristics. And spreading the safety gospel. It’s her way of processing the event.
Her main takeaways: 1. Be prepared. She’s unsure if she wants to skate anymore with people who don’t have the proper gear. 2. Gain understanding of what rotten ice looks like (the whiter it is, the more rotten it is). When Kottlowski came to Mammoth afterwards to debrief with friends, she noticed the same ice behavior occurring at Convict Lake.
Convict has some similiarities with the two Tahoe-area reservoirs in that it has an inlet pushing current underneath.
She kept returning to what she called “puzzle piece” ice that continues to weaken with every freeze and thaw.
Finally, she doesn’t want to skate in temperatures much above freezing, or on ice that’s getting hammered by afternoon sun.
You can follow Laura on Instagram and TikTok. Her TikTok address is @laurakottlowski.