December 2017: Ice Swimming in the Lake District

 

The idea: Swim the width of five lakes in the Lake District
Location: The Lake District – Crummock Water, Buttermere, Lake Bassenthwaite, Ullswater and Blea water
Transport: 2 x cars, 8 x frantically moving limbs
Essential kit: Alpkit Silvertip wetsuits, neoprene hats, gloves and boots, goggles, custom Dryrobes, custom KitBrix bags, 1 x inflatable support SUP
Less essential kit: GoPro
Cost: Wetsuits £200 each, Alpkit extremities kit £100 each (both sponsored by Alpkit for this trip), Dryrobe £100 (sponsored by Dryrobe)

Swimming across every single lake in the Lake District had a good ring to it. Less arbitrary than some of the challenges we’ve undertaken before, it had obvious start and end points. It sounded so complete in fact, that we settled on it without stopping to think just how crazy an idea it actually was.

Ignoring that none of us are experienced swimmers, that the lakes in December would be about as cold as they get, and that trying to travel between them all in one weekend would be a logistical nightmare, we sat back on our chairs in warm offices, shut our eyes, and basked in the glory that would soon be ours.

It wasn’t until the week before the challenge that we gave it any real thought. Doubts started to slip into conversations, and at one point I nearly bailed on the plan altogether. Thankfully, however, a few last minute adaptations brought the challenge back into the realms of the achievable (i.e. less chance of death) and we all vowed to give it our best shot.

What we did

We settled on five lakes. Selecting a few highlights meant we’d still give ourselves a challenge while seeing the best scenery and cutting the risk of hypothermia by about 70 percent. We planned to swim the width of each of the five, resulting in a total distance covered of 4-5km across the weekend, which translated roughly as 2.5 hours in the water. Though unquestionably less impressive than completing all the lakes*, that’s still approximately 4-5x further than the majority of us had ever swum in a single weekend before, and about two hours longer than I’d ever spent submerged in ice cold water.

*Technically the only ‘lake’ in the Lake District is Bassenthwaite Lake (the others are ‘meres’ or ‘waters’). Bassenthwaite Lake was number three.

Driving to the Lake District from the South West takes us 7-9 hours, depending on traffic, so there and back is really pushing it in terms of how far we’re prepared to travel in one weekend. We left our homes after work on Friday and stayed until sunset on Sunday. However horrible the drive feels at the time, it’s always soon forgotten, while memories of the Lakes endure.

We stayed in Ullswater again with our now-good-friend Bex (as heavily featured in the last Lakes post) and planned to swim the lakes in this order: Crummock Water, Buttermere, Bassenthwaite Lake, Ullswater, Blea water. The first three were all about half an hour’s drive away from Bex’s house, so we decided to do them on Saturday. We saved Ullswater and Blea Water for Sunday, giving ourselves less to do on the final day to account for the time needed to make the journey home.

Walking down the bank to Crummock Water from the car, we wrapped ourselves in as many clothes as possible to stay warm in the bitterly cold, snow-filled air. At that moment, stepping into the lake was the last thing that any of us wanted to do. The scale of the challenge suddenly dawned on us while standing at the edge of the lake, looking at each other with eyes that said ‘what the hell have we done?’ Backing out wasn’t an option, but we knew it would be sensible to take the challenge one lake at a time.

After a few nervous deep breaths, we stepped into the water. Cautious steps turned into long strides, then we took the plunge – it wasn’t half as bad as we thought it would be. Though the water was clearly very cold, our Alpkit wetsuits were keeping us warmer than we’d expected. Dunking our exposed faces was unpleasant, but otherwise, our core temperatures remained well above life-threatening levels (which is always good). Halfway through the first lake, after 15 minutes of swimming like my mum (with hair and face out of the water AT ALL TIMES) we started to feel confident. Our kit was doing the job and being in the water felt incredible, mainly because it seemed like something we shouldn’t be doing. The only thing that remained to be seen was whether our lack of swimming fitness would hold us back.

By the third lake of the day, poor technique meant our backs and shoulders were aching, but we carried on clumsily swimming our way triumphantly towards the finish line. Bassenthwaite was the furthest swim and the most unpleasant due to the visibility killing concoction of darkness + fogged-up goggles, but the thought of a warm shower was enough to keep us motivated. We finished the third lake for the day and celebrated by eating a huge Christmas dinner with the whole gang.

With the majority of the distance covered, Sunday was more about savouring the moment. Ullswater looked majestic at sunrise and we took our time on the crossing, stopping to jump into the water from a jetty and to get some photos in the perfect light. After breakfast and a shower, we drove towards Blea Water with our soaking gear packed into our trusty Kitbrix bags. We carried them up through the nearby gorge and put them on by the lake, which was by far the most spectacular of the trip; its black water piercing the white mountainscape like an eye’s pupil. There was no way we were going to pass up on the opportunity to swim in this one, despite having to endure the unpleasantness of pulling on frozen wetsuits.

Physically, the challenge was less demanding than we’d expected. Finding the mental strength to overcome the winter hibernation instinct was the hardest part – tougher than all of the swims combined – but it’s always easier to be more enthusiastic as a group. Five lakes proved to be the perfect amount – enough to provide a challenge, but not too much to fit into the weekend. All in all, it was the perfect balance of endurance/beautiful scenery and a great way to conquer the winter blues.

How we did it

Kit

The saying ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’ is the mantra we live by on most of our adventures. The same also applies to swimming in freezing cold water. Without proper equipment, we’d have struggled to make it across one lake, let alone five. By teaming up with Alpkit and Dryrobe for this challenge, we were well-prepared and stayed comfortable throughout.

In the build-up to this challenge, we looked everywhere for wetsuits that would keep us warm enough, yet still be flexible enough for swimming. Alpkit Silvertip wetsuits solved all of our problems. We stayed warm even after half an hour in the 6-degree water, and extra buoyancy on the legs made swimming so much easier.

Only Joe struggled with the temperature, but he’s not a normal human. To illustrate, we once took a picture of our hands using a thermal camera; everyone glowed orange apart from Joe, whose hand was entirely black. He has the body temperature of a vampire sleeping in a coffin made of ice.

As warm as the wetsuits were, we also needed something to help when we were on dry land. Dryrobes were the obvious choice, and we were so chuffed when they offered to send us some branded with our logo for this trip. We actually were a little dubious at first. The robes looked great but took up a huge amount of space and we found ourselves wondering just how much better they could possibly be than a normal towel. With that in mind I can honestly say; Dryrobes are the single best piece of kit we’ve ever tested. They are not only fit for purpose, they massively exceeded our expectations, providing an instant antidote to the cold and a toasty environment in which to change out of tight wetsuits –  infinitely better than awkwardly holding a towel while balancing precariously on an icy rock. Stepping out at the frozen edges of the lakes would have been considerably more daunting if we didn’t have our Dryrobes waiting for us!

Support team

We couldn’t have done this without our support team of Faye, Alice and Bex. While we were submerged, they ferried our kit from one edge of each lake to the other, meaning that we didn’t have to swim or walk back to the starting point. Knowing they’d be there on the other side was a huge relief and also provided more motivation for getting the challenge done.

Why we did it

Adventures are always more rewarding in winter. It’s so much harder to get motivated to do pretty much anything when it’s cold, and almost impossible to do anything that will actually make you significantly colder. From past experience though, we knew that we’d feel a huge sense of accomplishment if we were able to push ourselves and get it done.

We hadn’t planned for snow, but were so happy when it came. The Lakes are beautiful in any weather, but black lakes against white mountains look particularly spectacular. Even when pulling frozen wetsuits onto shivering bare legs, the views were enough to convince us we’d made a good decision. Nobody ever regrets an adventure, and this one was perhaps the best yet.▲