Ultimate Ice Water Challenge

One of the most notable pop culture phenomenons of 2014 has been the Ice Water Challenge. The Ice Water Challenge involves a challenge from a friend or family member to dump a bucket of ice water over your head or donate to the ALS Association. The goal was to raise awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). From the number of people who are doing the challenge, I would say that it has been pretty successful.

The ALS Ice Water challenge reminded me of Lewis Gordon Pugh who has done the ultimate Ice Water challenge to bring awareness to the impact of climate change on places like the North Pole and Antarctica. Lewis is a maritime lawyer, former SAS Reservist, and long distance swimmer. He was born in Britain but grew up in South Africa. He and his father shared a love for swimming. Though they had a pool, Lewis preferred the freedom of swimming in the open water. Living near the ocean around South Africa, he cut his teeth swimming in some of the roughest, most predator populated seas in the world.

Lewis has an impressive list of open water swimming accomplishments, including swimming 7 kilometers from Robben Island to Cape Town when he was only 17 years old. He was the first person to swim across Lake Malawi in Africa – 25 kilometers. The lake is home to hippos and crocodiles so he had to swim very fast at the beginning and at the end to avoid them. He swam the English Channel and Sognefjord, the longest unfrozen fjord in Norway at 204 kilometers. The latter swim inspired other Norwegian open water swimmers. They started the annual Sognefjord Challenge and formed the Fjord Swimming Club.

Lewis completed the most northernly long distance swim at Verlegenhuken, the northernmost point at Spitsbergen, Svalbard, a Norwegian island that borders the Arctic Ocean. The water temperature was 37 degrees (to put it in perspective, 80 degrees is the typical temperature of a swimming pool).

Lewis completed the most southerly long distance swim around Petermann Island in Antarctica in 32 degree water. He trained in Nigards Glacier Lake in Norway (32 degrees), which also earned him the record for the longest swim in freezing freshwater. Although he greased himself up for the English Channel swim, Lewis has not used a wet suit or grease to insulate himself from the cold in any of his other extreme swims.

Lewis ultimately set his sights on swimming in the most difficult place on Earth – in the Arctic Sea at the North Pole. In 2007 Lewis traveled by ice breaker to the North Pole. He was accompanied by a support team of 29 people from 10 countries.

One day before the scheduled swim, Lewis took a 5 minute test swim. Everything about the swim went horribly wrong. His goggles froze to his face. Procedures that they used to monitor his vital signs and communicate information to him failed. When he emerged from the water, he could not bend his fingers. They were swollen like sausages. The human body is about 60% water. When Lewis started swimming, the water in the cells of his hands froze and expanded, bursting the cells. He was in absolute agony; it took 4 months for him to regain feeling in his hands.

Lewis had to get the dismal experience out of his mind.  Probably due to his rigorous SAS training, Lewis has incredible mental strength to get through conditions that would severely injure or kill most people. Scientists that accompanied him on his swims have studied how his body responds to the extreme cold. Lewis is remarkable for his ability to increase his core body temperature in the minutes before he starts a cold water swim, called “anticipatory thermo-genesis.” Before he enters the water, he has the ability to increase his core body temperature 2 degrees.

On the day of his North Pole swim, Lewis headed out onto the ice, wearing his Speedo swim trunks, his swim cap, and goggles under his parka. Russian guards with rifles were there to protect him from polar bears. The air temperature was a brisk zero degrees. Lewis jumped into the 28 degree water and completed four 250-meter laps (0.62 miles) in 18 minutes and 50 seconds. His team rushed him back to the ship and he spent 50 minutes in a warm shower to warm up. As grueling as it had been, Lewis had completed the ultimate ice water challenge.

I am amazed by Lewis’s accomplishments. He makes me think of that expression “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” But by swimming in a place that should be frozen but no longer is, Lewis brings awareness to the fragility of our planet.

If you would like to learn more about Lewis Gordon Pugh and his swimming accomplishments, I recommend reading his book “Achieving the Impossible”. I found it fascinating. Lewis also has a web site with stunning photos from his exploits including a link to his TED talk on his North Pole swim.