‘It felt like I was the first person to step on Mars’: Anchorage free divers plunge into icy Rabbit Lake

An idea that popped up over beers one fall night among a group of friends in Anchorage grew into an all-out expedition in the Chugach front range this month: Hike out to Rabbit Lake, cut a hole into the ice by hand and free dive into its near-freezing waters.

But why? For starters, because it’s there — a reason that has called many outdoor adventurers into the backcountry.

“In general ... it is the whole unexplored territory,” Jordan Flesner said, describing the allure of free diving in lakes in Alaska. Free diving is a form of underwater diving that relies on breath-holding rather than the use of a breathing apparatus. Flesner was one of the trip’s original planners.

After spending the summer free diving in lakes across the region, Alex Fancher, another group member, wondered why it had to stop in winter.

“People don’t come to Alaska for the easy road,” Fancher said. “Diving’s no different. Life that you see (in the mountains) continues down there.”

The group loaded more than 500 pounds of gear, divided among the seven of them, in backpacks and sleds on Jan. 2 and made the roughly 4.5-mile trek to Rabbit Lake. The alpine lake is nestled near the base of North and South Suicide Peaks, at the end of a popular trail in Chugach State Park above the Anchorage Hillside.

They set up camp and began shoveling snow from the lake’s frozen surface to create ambient light for divers underwater. They used the snow as windbreaks and protection for their tents, which stood anchored in the notoriously gusty valley.

The next morning, they took turns using hand saws to carve out a triangle — each side measuring about 5 feet — in ice 4 feet thick.

[Previously: Video captures jaw-dropping scenery of backcountry ice skating in Alaska]

One of the hardest challenges came afterward: stripping off warm layers of clothing and getting into neoprene free-diving wetsuits while the windchill hovered around minus 20 degrees.

Usually, a mix of warm water and hair conditioner makes it easy to slide into the stiff fabric. But outside in January at Rabbit Lake, the water and conditioner inside the suits froze almost immediately, something the group joked about Jan. 10 as they recounted their trip.

Divided into teams for safety, certified free divers Fancher, Flesner, JD Stimson, Jarod Powell and Melissa Flores each took a turn diving into the 33-degree dark abyss, illuminated by a single 15,000-lumen underwater light. Frank Marley, the trip safety coordinator, even had his scuba gear hauled out to the site and went diving in the lake.

“It felt like I was the first person to step on Mars,” Stimson said.

Fancher said it is extremely likely they were the first to free dive in Rabbit Lake in winter.

That day, they hovered 20 to 25 feet deep.

“When I go underwater, I don’t have fear, insecurities ... it’s just purely unfiltered bliss,” Stimson said. “Last weekend was just ... such a feat to pull over and do correctly.”

Each member of the group has their own reasons for getting into free diving.

Jarod Powell, who met Stimson through Instagram, said he has been enamored with diving since he was a young child growing up in Hawaii. He watched “The Big Blue,” a late-1980s French film about free diving.

“I like the extremes,” Powell said. “It takes a certain curiosity.”

This trip marked only the second time Powell has ever slept in a tent on ice — the other time being a trip to Antarctica, he said with a chuckle.

Powell said free diving has allowed him to face his fears and quite literally dive into the unknown.

Flesner’s love of mountaineering and climbing led him to Alaska’s backcountry after he moved here. He recalled taking a dip in a lake to cool down after a hike and wanted to see if anyone in Anchorage was free diving, something he’d been doing recreationally since 2014.

He stopped at an Anchorage dive shop, Dive Alaska, to purchase better equipment. It was there he met Fancher, the Dive Alaska training director.

They started free diving in Sand Lake in 2018, gathering and hauling out trash from the lake’s floor to practice and spend time in the water.

In 2019, Dive Alaska held an apnea class in which participants learned basic breath-holding techniques. From there, the free-diving community took off, Fancher said.

It wasn’t until March 2020 that the community saw exponential growth. Fancher draws a direct correlation between that growth, the pandemic and people’s newfound “free time.”

People were “looking for something to do that they didn’t have to spend their last dollar on,” he said. “COVID transmissions are pretty low underwater.”

They spent their summer exploring lakes and found out that Rabbit Lake’s depth didn’t even top out at 100 feet, Fancher said. The idea to free dive in Rabbit Lake in winter sprang up in late September.

By Jan. 10, the group was back at the dive shop conducting interviews with one another to use in a video about their trip. They hope the video will open a window into Anchorage’s free-diving community and educate people about the sport. At the very least, it offers Alaskans who may have hiked, biked or skied to Rabbit Lake a new vantage point out of a familiar place, and a new perspective to appreciate.

The group hopes to reach the bottom of Rabbit Lake this summer or in coming years.

“We are children,” Fancher said. “Every new idea that comes up, we get giddy and excited. We want to pursue it.”