Ice swimming in the Lake District
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 March 2019
© Photography by James Kirby www.jameskirby.me.uk
Lake District climber Gilly McArthur shares the joys of ice swimming – taking the plunge could transform your life.
It’s a bit squidgy under foot.’ Not quite what I imagined when I stopped swimming and floated my feet down to the tarn floor under an inch of ice up in Langdale, in the middle of January, but there you go. Having swum in icy tarns over the winter, and become familiar to its nuances, this sensation was pleasantly new to me.
I don’t swim in boots or wear gloves, or a wet suit and I swim all year round. Sometimes it’s a proper swim, sometimes just a wee dip in a waterfall. But each time, it’s wonderful.
The sensations of being fully encased by the water give me such an endorphin rush I can be buzzing for the rest of the day and that’s after just five minutes of my daily watery baptisms.
I was born in Scotland but have come to call the Lakes home after a circumnavigation of places worldwide. It’s where my soul finds peace and is the closest I’ll get to being back to the motherland with my Londoner husband Charlie.
The rise in awareness of the benefits of cold water exposure has been something of a phenomenon in recent years, and now the mainstream scientific and media communities are extolling it’s huge array of health benefits to mind and body. My own personal experience has born out these claims, in its entirety.
Like the best pill you can swallow to remedy any ails, the cold has become my friend.
My immune system has rebooted since I took up skin swimming and I haven’t had a cold or sickness for over four years. My tolerance to the cold has also increased, so for someone who used to be wrapped in wool, tweed or down for 363 days of the year (with two days off for the summer) this turn around is to my closest friends, and me, quite alarming. I am happy in all four seasons – and this is liberating.
Mentally, the cold gives me clarity, drive, calmness and joy. I think everyone can relate to depression or anxiety in some way, and I have certainly had my share of life’s tragedies and mental distress. Cold exposure is proven to help ease this. The cold is also incredible to help reduce stress levels, increase libido and boost circulation.
Sneaking out of a warm bed, tip-toeing downstairs to fill a flask of coffee, collect my swim bag and drive for 15 minutes to strip off near naked and stride into a cold watery location does, even as I write this now, seem a touch, well, bonkers. We have been conditioned into certain ways of thinking and sometimes playing with the edges can deliver huge benefits we didn’t know existed. We can achieve things greater than we think!
Ice swimming in particular gives me a sharp focus in body and mind and, much like rock climbing, it’s just me playing alone, and I like that. I am interested in mindfulness meditation and there is something very present about swimming in nature, bringing all sensations into sharp focus, just observing, without judgment or striving, the time unfolding.
As summer turns to autumn and the water gets cooler I keep swimming, so by the time winter around comes I’m acclimatised to the cold.
When I ice swim I usually go with one or two others, and we take a whole host of odd things in our rucksacks. A big axe to break a swimming channel, a safety throw rope, maybe some shoe spikes and a snow shovel, lots of flasks of tea, some cake and always more woolly hats than we need. I check the forecast, as crucially, an icy day with no wind can feel warmer than a spring day with a blowing northerly! I always ice swim where I have been swimming before, knowing the entry points and the depth of the water are key.
It’s worth mentioning that you don’t need to head to Iceland to get these benefits. Start with a few cold showers a week, look into meditation and breathing exercises and soon enough you can start to see some things change for yourself. Do your own research – it really is the best pill out there.
Open water swimming truly is for everyone, and if you are unsure where to start find a local group in your area.
With hundreds of accessible lakes, tarns and waterfalls spread across the region there really is no excuse not to give it a go.
It’s important to mention here that are so lucky to live in a part of the world where nature’s swimming facilities are right on our doorstep and there is no joining fee.
There really is nothing like starting your day down by the lake with some friends, dawn breaking over the trees and the sound of wild geese overhead.
The open water swimming community is a beautiful one. Strangers become friends instantly, and the water bond is so strong it can bind people together for life. I’m hugely grateful for what it’s given me, perhaps it’s time to give it a go yourself. Axes, rope and thick ice are optional.
Gilly set out to swim or dip in the great outdoors every day in January to support the mental health campaign “RED January 2019” and she raised more than £30,000 for that month and she was still going strong in subsequent months until the ice melted.