Before you know it, the last of the warmth of summer vanished completely. The valley is met with cool frigid air and initially with it, an excitement for the season’s change. Chamonix is a bustling mountain town for most of the year, but at this time the lifts no longer run, the tourists vacate and locals take a well-earned pause. Many of the businesses shut up shop, regrouping between a busy hiking season and the winter of skiing to come. It feels as though everything just slows down.
This beautiful valley I’m lucky enough to call home is spoiled with iconic jagged peaks and breathtaking scenery, but it is the very grandeur that I fell in love with that also leaves us in the dark for much of the day. Moving now deep into Autumn, the sun takes some time to edge above the towering peaks, making mornings a somewhat lacklustre affair. It’s easy to feel a little lost and my usual motivation for big mountain adventures definitely wanes. This fall was to be different however, I’d decided to test my resilience and get back into my cold water swimming.
I would attempt to swim in a different lake or river every single day for 30 days non-stop. The idea? To see if I would notice any of the numerous physical and mental benefits that are well-documented but also give me a good reason to get out and explore more of the incredible spots Chamonix has to offer. I called up friend and keen adventure buddy, Jess Clark, who took no persuading and in the dead of Autumn we threw ourselves into the deep end.
So at this point, I feel it necessary to share an important disclaimer: I’m no professional swimmer, far from in fact. My front crawl is probably more akin to a labrador doggy paddle than Michael Phelps, but despite this I absolutely love being in water. After hiking up to our first swim, Lac Bleu at over 2000m, a beautifully serene small lake that sits right under the watchful eye of Chamonix’s iconic needles. Wading as calmly as I can into the 5.5 degree icy waters, I can feel my heart beginning to race and with every step another hit of adrenaline hits the blood. At this point, it’s fight or flight, and it takes all your resolve to keep pushing deeper until you plunge your whole body under the freezing water. This love-hate battle within is not so dissimilar to my own ongoing relationship with being in cold water.
It took some years to remember the root of the flashbacks of a pretty unpleasant near-drowning experience as a child. Now into my early-thirties, I reminisce about the vague memories jumping into a river very close to our family home in Cumbria. I can only be 4 or 5 years of age and youngest of my three siblings who I would regularly join for nature-themed adventures. With even less common sense than I have today, I naively threw myself off a sizable river cliff into the dark waters below only to find my wellies (surprise surprise) filled up with water dragging me to the bottom. Luckily I managed to fight off one boot giving me enough float to reach the surface, but at this point, I’d left myself with an experience I’d never quite get over for the rest of my life.
"Luckily I managed to fight off one boot giving me enough float to reach the surface, but at this point, I’d left myself with an experience I’d never quite get over for the rest of my life."
And so even today I find myself in a confusing juxtaposition, with a deep love of being in water yet find myself fighting a deep battle of discomfort. If this challenge wouldn’t help me face my fears head on then I don’t know what would.
A couple of weeks in and we’d found ourselves exploring new areas of the valley we never even knew existed. Our missions became the highlight of our days and having been treated to some fine weather, the oranges and reds of Autumn seemed to be getting better by the day. My mental resolve in the cold water was also improving, easily sometimes spending 10 minutes without a wetsuit and much longer with one, always supplemented with a cold dip after of course. Studies suggest, even in water as mild as 14°C, you will experience around a 250% increase in dopamine levels in the blood. Dopamine is a naturally occurring hormone and neurotransmitter known for increasing motivation and focus, and most likely the primary source for links often made between cold water and mental health.
Jess and I had spotted a natural pool at the foot of the impressive Les Bossons glacier which runs right off Mont Blanc itself. Keen to push ourselves, we began the adventurous hike over moraine and rock slabs. Taking a water temperature read, a routine we’d learnt to enjoy on our daily swims, we couldn’t quite believe an alarming 0.6°C. I didn’t even realise fresh water could get that cold without freezing, and although both somewhat nervous, we’d come too far to come back with nothing. It was the kind of day that had the colour and warmth drained out by a veiled and moody sky, but motivated by the epic glacial landscapes right in front we pushed through and swim. The burn from the cold is overwhelming on bare skin with a stream of water that must have been ice just moments prior. For sure this wouldn’t be our longest swim, but we’d fought the internal battle and come on top again. The comfort of warm clothes and a cup of tea after was even sweeter than usual, and we were buzzing to have swam in this truly crazy spot.
Going out every single day also means swimming in bad weather too. We’d often opt for more local spots in the valley on rainy days and more remote locations when the forecast was brighter but on this particular moody day, I was desperate to get up into the higher alpine in the Aiguille Rouge side of the Chamonix valley. I’ve found the outdoor culture in the Alps is quite different from that of home in the UK, when the weather is bad here, you simply stay at home. Well it was time to rediscover what a childhood in the English Lake District had prepared me for… We grit our teeth and endure a sideways snow blizzard until reaching today’s lake of choice which sits just shy of 2400m (8000ft). The clouds relentlessly roll in and out of this incredible natural amphitheatre. Admittedly, it may well be some of the least enticing weather possible for a swim, but quite honestly I find some sort of perverse excitement in the stupidity of this challenge.
Having deliberately fast-hiked to build up a little heat, there’s zero time for hesitation. In the time it’s taken me to change, I’m already shivering as the snow lands on my bare skin, robbing me of that much-needed body heat. I plunge into the dark and inky waters which contrast beautifully to the totally untouched clean white snow that surrounds the lake. Kicking down deeper and deeper into the cold, I get an otherworldly experience of calm. It’s a deadly place I cannot stay for long but for some moments, the water provides a peaceful respite from the wild and windy blizzard above. Make no mistake about it, swimming in cold water in bad weather demands special attention. We're on your own up here, so I'm all too wary that I can't let my core body temperature dip too low. We change into warm clothes as fast as our frozen fingers would allow and run back towards town, eventually warming as we go.
"Admittedly, it may well be some of the least enticing weather possible for a swim, but quite honestly I find some sort of perverse excitement in the stupidity of this challenge."
As the days flew by, the temperatures began to dip as winter took its grip across the Alps. Our mountain lakes were now freezing over entirely and yet somehow, I was more composed than ever. Needless to say, I was not a serious or competitive swimmer, and that’s absolutely fine - it was all about the adventure and just being there. Over 30 days, we swam in 30 rivers, pools, mountain lakes, valley lakes and everything in between. We hiked up mountains, trekked through forests and just as you think you know a place, we discovered so much more around our home.
The swim challenge provided the perfect excuse not just to swim, but also to spend 30 days outside and perhaps that was the biggest win of all? In the water however, I’d finally learnt how to control the deeply physical response, finding a serene calmness in the cold. I was no longer managed by my fear and for the first time in my life, I was enjoying the swim as well as the feeling after. Taking the plunge isn’t easy but I can honestly say, I’ve never once regretted a cold swim.
Note: Anyone interested in cold water swimming, we recommend always bringing a friend, building up to it gradually in duration and temperature and always bring lots of warm clothing for afterwards.
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