The Vital Spark: Ice Swimming in the Cairngorms
"I was inside a frozen loch at dawn."
6.30am: the alarm cut through the darkness. With a shudder of fear and excitement, I rolled out of bed, dressed and drove through the grey morning to meet a friend, as agreed, at the loch. Rain pattered on the windscreen – the first rain for months.
That whole winter was cold. Metres of snow came down, lying on the mountains in a deep soft powder that delighted the skiers and snowboarders of the Cairngorms. Then it turned even colder. An Arctic blast came in and temperatures plummeted. Braemar recorded -23°C: the lowest temperature for 25 years. In Aviemore, cars wouldn’t start and one hardy local who tried to cycle to work had to abandon that scheme when he found, to his astonishment, the chain wouldn’t move. The grease had frozen. We skied and sledged, some folk wandered out across the frozen lochs, others built snowmen and had snowball fights, adults and children alike delighted to play in the winter wonderland.
But then a warm front pushed in from the south-west and the deep freeze gave way. Steely clouds sat heavy over the strath, the snow began to melt and rivers thundered and flooded. Our enchanted winter landscape was passing: Narnia giving way to the sad scene at the end of The Snowman.
Yet when I met up with my friend Cat, a very keen local skier, she did not seem that depressed by the abrupt change. In fact, on that grey February day, when everything was dripping and melting away, she was positively buzzing.
“I was at Loch Insh this morning,” she eventually revealed.
“I went for a swim.”
“In the loch? Isn’t it frozen?”
“Yep! But someone had cut a hole in the ice.”
“Jesus. You’re nuts!”
Now, I am a keen swimmer. Give me a river, a loch or the sea and I will jump in, whatever the weather. I tend think of myself as quite hardy. But my swimming season tends to run from April to September. Outside of that window, the idea of getting in cold water sounds too unpleasant, even, frankly, unbearable.
Yet here was Cat, who had not only been into the freezing water but was talking quite enthusiastically about it all. In fact, she was positively buzzing. And that was how it all started.
“I want what she’s on.”
I pulled into the car-park beside Loch Vaa as the sky was starting to lighten, wondering whether Cat would even be here. The whole thing seemed like a crazy scheme dreamt up on the hill yesterday. But sure enough, there was another car and someone waving from the driver’s seat.
“I’ve got an ice axe!” Cat said, brightly, as she got out, waving the tool in the half-light, before placing it into her kitbag.
A fresh quake of what-the-hell-are-we-doing thoughts passed through me, which I ignored and dutifully picked up my own swimming bag and followed Cat to the water.
Through the pine trees, the loch shone milky-white: it was covered with thick ice. Footprints and tracks showed where people had walked and skied across the frozen surface. At one edge, someone armed with ice axes and sledgehammers had cut a pool free. A thin glaze of ice had formed over this dark swimming hole.
“Two days in a row, I must be mad!” Cat grimaced, laughing, as she set down her bag beneath a birch tree.
“Or you have too many mad friends!” I added looking through the ice to the crystal clear water below. It looked oddly inviting.
“Right, who’s going in first?”
We had decided to take it in turns since cold-water shock can cause panic, breathing and heart problems. If either of us had an issue, then the other person would be on hand, ready to respond to the problem from the dry land. We might be crazy, but we were approaching this winter madness with as much good sense as possible.
Eyeing up the cold water, I reached a quick decision.
“I’ll go first!”
If I didn’t get in now I never would.
Gloves, coat, jumper, boots, socks, trousers, thermals: off came all my lovely warm layers until I was standing, barefoot, on the freezing ground in just t-shirt and pants. A wetsuit seemed prudent but that, I was told, was cheating. As a concession, I kept my woolly hat on. Cat handed me the axe and I edged towards the hole in the ice.
My feet entered the loch and screamed in pain. The water was unbearably, unbelievably cold. Each step was excruciating.
And yet I kept going, walking further out, not thinking, focusing on the task at hand. Get into the water. Go for a swim. As I walked, I swirled the axe across the frozen pool, breaking through the thin surface, pushing the fragments to the side.
At the far end, I stopped: chest deep in the burning icy water, taking deep, steadying breaths. I had watched Wim Hof for inspiration and preparation. From that cold-water lunatic, I had learnt that the breath was central. No gasping, no screaming: keep the breath calm, measured and steady.
I placed the axe on the shelf beside me (the ice was a good foot thick and took the tool no problem). This was so surreal. I turned and eyed up the channel behind me. It was time. Don’t think – just do it.
Leaning in, I gave my weight to the freezing water and took a few agonizing strokes. Laughing and gasping, I rolled over, kicking and splashing. I was inside a frozen loch at dawn. I was swimming in the most improbable situation I could ever imagine. This was utterly miraculous.
And then up – out! Now swearing profusely, feet and legs in agonising pain, I raced to my towel, skin so numb I couldn’t feel the contact. But soon my warm fleecy layers were back on, with a hot water bottle tucked in too, as Cat prepared for her dip.
Walking out into the freezing water in her swimsuit, neoprene socks and gloves, there was no swearing, gasping or shouting. Cat went in like a professional. At the far end of the hole, she stopped, looking relaxed, leaning her arms on the ice shelf as though it was the edge of a regular swimming pool, watching the sunrise.
Afterwards we ran around the loch, following the snowy mossy trails, leaping and breathing heavily, sucking in lungfuls of the cold air, running the heat back into frozen bodies. I leapt over logs and branches as the rain came in heavier, my coat and leggings sodden. But I kept going, circling the milky white frozen mass feeling that vital rush of strength and energy.
That week, day after day, Cat and I returned to the frozen loch. Hooked, we were determined to make most of the ice before it went. It was so painful and yet there was something incredibly beautiful about swimming in that hole within the sea of ice. We had found the vital rush of crystal life.
Anna Fleming is a climber and writer based in Scotland. A qualified Mountain Leader, she has also worked for the Cairngorms National Park Authority and completed a PhD with the University of Leeds. Her debut book, Time on Rock: A Climber's Route into the Mountains will be published with Canongate in January 2022.
Photos courtesy of Anna Fleming.
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