• Jim Pfiffer

Outdoors: Cross-country close call

Updated: Feb 28

beware! Cross-country skiing can get d-icy!


I recently suffered a close-call while cross-country skiing at the Community Park in Big Flats, NY. The park offers excellent skiing on well-maintained and scenic trails that weave through woods, meadows and a small pond. I’ve skied the park many times over my more than 30 years of cross-country skiing. This was my first hazardous skiing incident.

The day was bitterly cold and windy with wind-chill temperatures in the teens. Recent flooding caused the pond to overflow, heavy rains filled drainage culverts and areas of the fields and trails with water that quickly froze into a thin sheet of ice. I never ski on ice as I can’t tell if it is thick and safe enough to support my weight.


As I was returning on one of the trails near the pond, I tried to cross a snow-covered culvert. Unbeknownst to me, a thin layer of ice was hidden beneath the snow. I heard the frightening sound of cracking of ice and my skies immediately broke through the ice and into 8-10 inches of muddy water. The ice-cold shock was immediate and it took away my breath. I couldn’t pull my skis out of the water as the ski tips and ski ends kept hitting against the underside of the ice sheet and getting tangled in the tall brown grass in the culvert. As I struggled to get free I fell, cracked through more ice and ended up laying on my side in the ice-cold water. Still unable to free my skis, I tried crawling up the side of the culvert, only to break through more ice and into more bone-chilling water. By now the initial breath-stealing shock turned to sharp pain in my feet, legs and hands. I tried to reach down into the water to hit my ski’s quick-release buttons and free my legs, but my numb fingers couldn’t locate the buttons. After a few minutes I managed to free one leg and ski, then the other and crawl and shimmy up the culvert. Out of breath and feeling pain and numbness in my legs and hands, I struggled to get upright. I fell twice, struggling to stand up, still attached to the skis. I discovered that the fall had badly bent one of my ski poles.


I tried to remove my skis but the quick-release buttons were frozen shut. My water-soaked gloves were frozen to my coat sleeves, and my fingers and hands went from numb to sharp throbbing pain. I knew I had to get back to my truck quickly. I skied, the more than 300 yards to my truck, going as fast as I could to generate body heat to try and prevent hypothermia. Because of my bent pole and numb legs and feet, I lost balance and fell several times.


It took me about 15 minutes to get to my truck. I thawed the ski release buttons with a lighter, removed my skis and gloves and sat in the truck with the heater on full blast. The pain in my fingers grew worse as I held them over the heat of the windshield defroster. It took 20 minutes before they thawed out and the pain subsided.


I was lucky. If the water had been deeper you would be reading my obituary! If my truck had been farther away, I would have suffered frost-bite and permanently damaged fingers and toes. I knew to not ever ski on ice-covered rivers, ponds or lakes. Now I know to never ski over culverts, drainage ditches or flooded fields.


About the author

Jim Pfiffer was born, raised and ran wild in the Southern Tier, which gave him a deep love of the scenic, natural beauty of the region and an appreciation for outdoor recreation. A retired humor columnist for the Elmira Star-Gazette and former Executive Director for Chemung River Friends, Jim currently lives in Elmira, NY with wife Shelley, and many pets, enjoying all that the region has to offer. Contact him at pfifman@gmail.com.

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