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ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK — The intimidating east face of Longs Peak juts toward a blue sky behind her, and the wind at nearly 12,000 feet blows so fiercely that bands of sugary snow sweep across the ice and sting her eyes.
She is tiny out here, like a miniature dancer twirling in a music box.
Laura Kottlowski skates across the frozen lake, gaining speed before leaping gracefully into a wide-legged split jump and then whipping faster and faster in a sit spin until she stops with a pose, one arm reaching for the sky. Her blond braid flies. Her pink snow pants stand out against the browns of the alpine tundra.
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Carving elegant designs in the ice against the backdrop of the rugged Rockies is what she craves.
Kottlowski, who as a girl dreamed of making it to the Olympics and then drifted away from the sport after competing in college, rediscovered skating as it first began — under an open sky, the wind propelling her forward, the creaks and groans of the ice echoing off mountain walls.
She is a wild ice rockstar on social media now, with fan-girl figure skaters and backcountry skating wannabes watching her on TikTok and Instagram, dreaming about starring in their own stellar photos on pristine lakes and in front of frozen waterfalls. Kottlowski loves that she is the unofficial ambassador of wild ice skating.
But a year ago, when the ice broke apart on a California mountain lake and one of her fellow skaters died before she could get to him, Kottlowski realized the gravity of her responsibility.
If her jaw-dropping photos and videos are going to draw people to the ice, she must teach them how to survive.
Laura Kottlowski skates inside Rocky Mountain National Park last weekend. “Ice skating for me is just pure freedom,” Kottlowski said. “Especially when you’re up in the mountains doing it outside, it’s like you’re flying. You’ve got the blue sky overhead and just like the sun shining on your face and other worldly things happening in the ice like the ice formations themselves.” (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The clouds look as if they were swirled on the sky in watercolor as the hikers begin to trudge through a snowy forest just after sunrise. It’s 18 degrees at the Longs Peak Trailhead, about 10 miles from Estes Park. Kottlowski’s backpack is the overnight kind, though this is an 8-mile day trek.
She has two coats, layers of winter clothes, a thermos of vegan soup broth, plus her skates, detachable blades and skating boot covers. Her safety gear includes a life vest, two hand-held awls, or ice picks, to pull herself from icy waters, and a rope in a throw-bag. Snowshoes dangle from the pack, just in case.
Two hours later, Kottlowski, 37, and her friend, freelance videographer Josh Berendes, plus her Colorado Sun tag-alongs, are staring at the granite face of Longs Peak, the tallest in Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,259 feet. Below it is Chasm Lake, confined by gray, granite cirque. Two waterfalls spill from Chasm Lake, frozen claws of ice that look pale blue in the morning light.
The trail, covered in a few inches of snow and, in some places, ice, hugs the mountainside. A snowfield that stretches across the path and down into a gorge stands between the hikers and Chasm Lake. Earlier the same day, a solo hiker lost his footing on the snowfield and slid 500 feet. He reported on the hiking app, AllTrails, that he crawled back up with an injured tailbone, leaving his ice ax behind in the drifted snow.
Below the trail, before the snowfield, a small lake called Peacock Pool sits in the gorge. The glacial blue surface is mostly clear, because the snow was blown off by the wind howling down the canyon.
Kottlowski wants to go there first.
Laura Kottlowski arrives to a wild ice destination with the essential gear in her pack. Ideal conditions are freezing temperatures, minimal precipitation and lots of wind to blow the snow off the lake. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The first part of the descent is steep, pebble-like scree and patches of ice. Near the lake, the snow is deep enough that every 10th step or so is a posthole to the thighs.
On her way down the mountainside, Kottlowski picks up a rock the size of two fists, as she always does. At the edge of the ice, she tosses the rock about 20 feet into the air, then listens as it thuds. It bounces, which means the ice is at least 1½ or 2 inches thick.
She steps onto the ice, picks up the rock, and throws it again.
The ice on Peacock is about 3 feet thick, Kottlowski estimates. There are layers and layers of cracks from when it expanded and contracted throughout the winter, and hundreds of air bubbles like constellations are trapped below the surface. But for protocol’s sake, she digs through her backpack for an ice climbing screw, cranking it in circles to drill down into the ice, which is far deeper than the length of the tool.
LEFT: Peacock Pond’s deep ice layers with cracks below the surface. RIGHT: Underwater plants release oxygen that’s then trapped in the ice. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun).
TOP: Peacock Pond’s deep ice layers with cracks below the surface. BOTTOM: Underwater plants release oxygen that’s then trapped in the ice. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
This lake was likely one of the first to freeze back in the fall, so it’s hardly pristine. But it’s glassy, shining almost like liquid, and smooth enough to glide and spin.
In the early season, Kottlowski hunts fresh ice, the kind that is black, without bumps or frozen ripples, and, ideally, just 1½ or 2 inches thick. Her first wild ice skate this season was Oct. 20 on another lake in Rocky Mountain National Park — she’s not interested in saying which one, to avoid enticing people on a mountaineering trek beyond their abilities.
She knows that ice 1½ inches thick can hold her body weight, though she won’t jump unless it’s closer to 3 inches thick. Her boyfriend doesn’t skate unless it’s at least 1¾ inches thick. The experience of the skater matters, too. Beginners skate slower, and can’t easily hop over a weak spot or glide away as quickly if the ice gives a warning whine or begins to crack. Also, beginners tend to use their toe pick to stop, which is not recommended on thin ice.
What Kottlowski means is that skating on fresh, black ice is not for everyone. Consider that she purposefully submerges herself in ice baths, “cold trains” in Clear Creek and plunges fully clothed, wearing skates, into frozen lakes to practice dragging herself out of the water and sliding across the ice on her belly.
The sport of wild ice skating is not always as pretty as it looks on Instagram.
Lacing up skates outdoors, for one thing, is brutal. Without her gloves, Kottlowski’s hands are so cold as she sits on the edge of Peacock Pond that she has to stop every minute or so to put them up under her hood, behind her neck. The wind blows her foam sitting pad across the frozen lake, then swipes her extra jacket.
But then, she is on the ice, smiling and laughing as she twirls and jumps, posing in front of her friend who is making her a YouTube video. After a series of power moves, she slows to catch her breath. The air is thin. Her cheeks are pink.
Kottlowski decides that when she climbs out of the gorge, she will brave the snowfield to reach Chasm Lake. She’s so close, after all.
The day that recentered her life’s purpose came last February, when Kottlowski met up with seven other wild ice skaters on a frozen lake near Truckee, California.
The ice on Stampede Reservoir was 4 inches thick, which is what’s recommended for ice fishermen and even novice ice skaters. Kottlowski was the only one wearing a life vest, her two ice picks attached to the front shoulder straps.
As the skaters twirled, cutting figures with their blades, the afternoon sun beat down. One of Kottlowski’s friends had just commented that the ice felt “funky,” its consistency changing under their feet. They picked up speed to try to get away.
Then the surface of the lake began to break apart like pieces of a puzzle.
Four people punched through simultaneously.
Kottlowski was among the four who made it to stable ice, and she tossed one of the submerged women her rope bag. But as her friend pulled the rope, Kottlowski crashed through the ice, too.
She busted through several feet of the frozen lake, which was breaking apart like “cocktail ice,” to reach her friend. Kottlowski rescued herself, taking an ice pick in each hand, jabbing them into the ice, flutter-kicking her feet and using her upper-body strength to slide out of the water into an army crawl. Then she pulled out her friend.
I think about it every day. I talk about it every day.
— Laura Kottlowski
An aerial view of the accident scene shows a path 200 feet long across the lake, where one woman attempted — over and over again — to pull herself out, only to crash through the ice.
A 72-year-old man without a life vest died before Kottlowski and another skater rescuing others could get to him. By the time a water rescue team responded to their 911 call, the seven survivors were waiting on shore and had changed into dry clothes. Some had cuts on their arms and hands as if they had punched through glass.
“If you fall through the ice, rescue is not going to get to you in time,” Kottlowski said. “You have to be able to save yourself.”
LEFT: Laura Kottlowski hikes in the high alpine inside Rocky Mountain National Park, an area known for its fierce wind. RIGHT: Kottlowski warms up her hands while putting on ice skates. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
TOP: Laura Kottlowski hikes in the high alpine inside Rocky Mountain National Park, an area known for its fierce wind. BOTTOM: Kottlowski warms up her hands while putting on ice skates. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Kottlowski was the most prepared that day, but she immediately began to wonder what she had overlooked. To heal, she began a monthslong process of delving into the science of ice and the biological response of the body when it’s shocked with cold water. She learned that the sun that afternoon might have heated up the water underneath the ice, and that even though the temperature the previous few nights had dropped into the teens, the ice molecules were no longer bonding after freezing and thawing so many times.
Before they fell in, the skaters had noted the “Rice Krispies” in the ice, a sign that it was weak.
“I think about it every day,” she said. “I talk about it every day. I am constantly researching how ice forms. How it degrades over time.”
Years ago, Kottlowski stopped geolocating her Instagram stories after a novice skater in rented, recreational skates copied Kottlowski’s 9-mile hike to Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park a day after she did it. The person wasn’t hurt, but it made Kottlowski nervous. And after what happened in California, she realized that wasn’t enough.
She spent much of 2022 creating a wild ice skating class similar to an avalanche safety course for backcountry skiers. In November and December, Kottlowski taught her first two sessions of Wild Ice Skating 101, part of a new endeavor she calls Learn to Skate Outside.
Despite bumps and occasional cracks in wild ice conditions, the blade marks show success of a figure skating spin. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
In a packed room at the Apex Center in Arvada, people explained why they signed up for Kottlowski’s class. A few introduced themselves as “fan girls.” Several dudes said they grew up playing pond hockey and they want to get back out there.
A group of teenage girls, friends who met through competitive figure skating, told Kottlowski they’ve reached the final levels of the U.S. Figure Skating tests, working toward gold medal status. They want to enjoy the sport without the stress of competition.
Kottlowski began by describing who is not cut out for wild ice skating.
“It’s not for people who have a terrible time in the cold and are risk averse,” she says. “If you love the cold and you’re OK with cold hands, cold toes, cold fingers, then this is for you.”
She talked about her five-day hike to Gokyo Lakes in Nepal, nestled at 15,000 feet in the shadow of Mount Everest. The time she skated on Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, on two-day-old ice that was as smooth as if it had been resurfaced by a Zamboni. A magical day on the Pacific Tarn, near Breckenridge, the highest lake in the United States at 13,420 feet.
After graduating from Penn State University, where she competed on the figure skating team, Kottlowski took a job in graphic design. Skating fell out of her life as she put in 60 hours work weeks. After moving to Colorado, she started climbing 14,000-foot mountains.
It was on a hike outside Nederland in 2008 that she saw pristine ice for the first time. She didn’t have her skates the day she saw frozen Lost Lake, but she glided across Emerald Lake later that season. She laughs now about how she “skated in jeans and a hoodie,” looking like “the general public” instead gearing up in her now standard leggings and safety gear.
Listen to Laura Kottlowski explain how she got into wild ice skating
Since then, she’s kept a spreadsheet of the dates when lakes freeze each year, which can fluctuate. Kottlowski gave her ice skating class an overview on how to use temperature, elevation, water depth and satellite imagery to plan a trip. The satellite images can help determine whether the ice is fresh and black, or if a frozen lake is already covered in snow.
The window of opportunity is fleeting.
Ice can grow a half-inch per night, under the right conditions, which is why three-day-old ice is her favorite, like a “glass-bottom boat.”
The most terrifying portion of Wild Ice Skating 101 is when Kottlowski describes what happens to the human body when it’s shocked with extreme cold.
Hypothermia won’t kill a person for nearly an hour, but limbs can freeze within six to 10 minutes, making it nearly impossible to get out of the water. The body immediately goes into vasoconstriction, restricting blood flow throughout the body to keep a person’s core temperature warm.
The first step is to stop gasping for breath so you don’t hyperventilate and drown. Calm the ragged breathing, for the first minute or so, then attempt to crawl out with ice picks. When all else fails, attempt to freeze your gloves, your arms, even your beard, to the ice and keep yelling for help. People have survived this way after their limbs stop working, Kottlowski said.
This is if the person doesn’t have a heart attack within the first minute.
By the end of the classroom portion of Wild Ice Skating 101, as the attendees are lacing up their skates to hit the Apex ice rink, the group of teenage figure skaters is wide-eyed and far less certain about taking their sport into the backcountry.
They would have to buy all the right gear. They would never want to end up in a situation where somebody could fall through in a remote area. They’re not big hikers, really, so they wouldn’t go as far as Kottlowski. But they’re used to taking risks skating, since every new jump is a chance to fall.
“Obviously, this is a lot more life and death,” said Carla Torres, a sophomore at University of Colorado.
“We didn’t know that much about it so we didn’t consider the possibility of danger that much,” said her friend, Anapaula Floyd, a freshman at the University of San Francisco.
This was exactly what Kottlowski was hoping to accomplish.
Laura spins on ideal safe skating conditions with the ice at least 5 inches thick. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Not every one of Kottlowski’s wild ice adventures is as intense as the climb to Chasm Lake last weekend. For her, the sport is meditative.
Behind-the-scenes of the reporting process
There is no space in the mind to think about other things when gliding across wild ice, constantly on the lookout for bumps or weak spots caused by any number of things under the surface. An underwater plant. A boulder. A spring flowing into the lake.
Some days, she focuses on practicing figures, looping and hopping to cut spirals and flower-like designs in the ice. The sport’s origins go back to the 1700s and 1800s, when skaters literally etched figures.
Kottlowski started using her skates to carve ice designs on frozen lakes in 2012 after visiting the World Figure Skating Museum in Colorado Springs, where she noticed the museum’s logo was a figure. Drawing on ice with her skates has similarities to her day job as a graphics designer. Kottlowski teaches skating lessons, too.
On her days off, though, particularly in late fall and early winter, Kottlowski is hunting Colorado mountains for elusive, black ice.
“It’s rarer than a powder day,” she said.
Reporting by Jennifer Brown. Photography by Hugh Carey.
Wild ice skating safety gear checklist
Here is Laura Kottlowski’s safety gear checklist:
☐ Life vest
☐ Rope throw bag
☐ Ice picks, or awls
☐ Ice climbing screw, to check ice depth
☐ Multiple layers of dry clothing, base layer to shell
☐ First-aid kit
☐ Ski pole or ice probe, for nordic skiers
☐ Helmet, for beginner skaters
☐Rock the size of two fists (find on the way)
“I just cherish wild ice, more so than an indoor rink and an outdoor rink,” Laura said. “I don’t feel confined out here. I just feel free and it’s all about how I relate to the lake.” (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)