Monday, May 28, 2007

Iceman to crack North Pole Swim

First polar swimmer will negotiate cracks in the ice cap to reach the North Pole

Forget the rigors of Everest, or big wave surfing in Hawaii. This is an extreme sport beyond the capability of mere mortals. In fact, it is fair to suggest that South African Lewis Pugh’s attempt to swim* for 15 minutes (and about 1000m) in Arctic water as cold as -1.6 C is humanly impossible.

Fresh water freezes at around 0 C, so Pugh’s attempt (in salt water) is not merely in freezing conditions, but below freezing. The South African aims to draw the world’s attention to global warming through a 1km swim at the North Pole – a feat that ought in the natural scheme of things to be impossible anyway, except global warming has created vast cracks across even the North Pole ice sheets, and these cracks have gotten bigger every year.

But Pugh, an ex-maritime lawyer, is no ordinary mortal. Not only has he demonstrated incredible toughness as a swimmer (in 2006 he swam the length of the Thames river in England (320km), over 21 days), but scientists and doctors have discovered Pugh has an extraordinary ability to maintain an elevated core body temperature in cold water for a lot longer than other human beings. This talent will be vital at the North Pole. Pugh, gritty and methodical as ever, has taken up the challenge by bulking up his fat stores (he has gained 20kg in weight recently), and by training in tanks filled with ice. He is doing this at the South African Sports Science Institute in Cape Town.

Pugh, a tall 38-year-old, plans to travel to the North Pole in December, accompanied by a team who will assess the conditions and guide him on personal safety issues. He will be swimming only in briefs and a bathing cap, in conditions that kill most people in only a few minutes.

Hypothermia: What it feels like

It may not seem braver than climbing a mountain or surfing a roaring pipeline, but to actually experience icy water conditions for any length of time is very unpleasant. It requires both endurance and the tenacity to cling to one’s life against the constant shark bite of cold.

Just how vulnerable the body is to cold water conditions is easily demonstrated by my own experience. Some years ago, on Boxing Day, I participated in my second 1 mile out-and-back swim from Clifton Beach, in Cape Town. The beach is licked by icy Atlantic waters. The rough seas produced a soapy lather of foam, which made visibility and breathing more difficult in the heaving waters. Most painful of all was the marrow freezing cold: 11 degrees Celcius, and in places, the wind had ripped the surface skin away and the colder water had reached the surface, as low as 9 C.

Like Pugh, I swam only in swimming briefs. Unfortunately I did not have a bathing cap with me that day – a near fatal mistake. It’s fair to say that even in 11 degrees, the body screams in agony, and being completely immersed, it actually feels unendurable. I swam as hard as I could to get it over with as soon as possible, and to warm up my body. My back, exposed to the air, felt as though it was on fire. My face felt numb with cold, my skull as though it was cracking, my brain seized by a hundred ice-cream headaches. In these conditions one needs to stay calm, concentrate on even breathing and a flowing swimming stroke. It’s not easy. I quickly found myself gagging on the very salty foam I was inhaling, and being further sickened by the combination of rough sea and extreme cold.

After 20 minutes I’d turned around at Barker Rock, and then after a short distance, with about 400 meters to go still, I felt the cold eating right into me, and the beach just seemed beyond my power. I lifted my arm to wave to lifeguards, and as I did so, sank underwater. I remember a moment, cold and alone and submerged, thinking: “I could easily die here, and it wouldn’t be unpleasant. Like falling asleep, being a little out of breath.”

Every moment I did not move, the cold bit deeper into my spine. I could see no reaction from the beach. I hovered a little while, conscious that my situation was increasingly desperate, and I was becoming increasingly fragile. Still no response from the beach. I realized even if they did respond, would they reach me in time? I knew I had to keep moving, keep swimming. I decided then to try one more time for the beach. I don’t remember the next 10 minutes. It was as though I woke up with my fingertips scraping the kelp on the shallow seabed. I tried to stand up, but without the support of the water, my cold numbed body couldn’t support me. Lifeguards caught me and carried me to the showers. I remained under a hot shower, people were rubbing my skin to get the circulation going; they did this for around 12 minutes before I started to shiver. The shivering subsided, and then returned shortly after. Then I shook almost uncontrollably.

The Cape Times carried the story of my near demise. Friends who saw me emerge out of the water said my face had turned purple in the cold. When I finally left the beach that day it felt like I had been electrocuted.

I have a photograph taken that day, and what occurs to me is that I had very little body fat, and of course, not using a bathing cap would only have exacerbated vulnerability since the body loses a great deal of its heat through the head. Pugh has swum the entire Cape Peninsula, over 100km in conditions probably as cold as and colder than those I’d experienced in Clifton. Pugh will need to maintain a high level of fitness, but develop a thicker skin to protect him. As a safety precaution he will swim with an electronic harness which will provide his team with changes in his core body temperature during his North Pole swim. Even so, a 1km polar swim must feel like 15 minutes of blinding white pain.

On his website, Pugh says he has witnessed retreating glaciers, coral bleaching, animal migrations to colder climes etc. He has encountered crocodiles, sharks and even polar bears during previous swims. The odds are though that any creature that spots Pugh, a naked human being, swimming in its cracking icy domain, is going to realize something very peculiar is going on in the world. Hopefully the human population will receive the same message, loud and clear.

*Based on Bobby Jordan’s Sunday Times article: SA man aims to be first polar swimmer (May 27, 2007)

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