Superhuman Antarctic plan for environment hero and Lewis is the perfect training ground

Lewis and Max have become firm friends after their Hebridean training camp. Picture by Dr Stacey Holloway.
Lewis and Max have become firm friends after their Hebridean training camp. Picture by Dr Stacey Holloway.

As Lewis Pugh and Max Holloway rose from the rising and falling waters of Loch Orasaigh, just outside Grimsader in the Lochs region of Lewis, in nothing more than swimming trunks and goggles in the midst of one of Mother Nature’s notoriously wild wintry Hebridean moodswings, they appear unaffected.

Somehow impervious to the ferocity of the biting cold of the near-50mph gusts which are pummelling their bare skin in tandem with massive fist-sized droplets of rain.

For the fearless lads it was just another day of braving the elements and hard training as they wrapped up their twelfth open water swim on the island in just seven hectic days.

Around 14 kilometres in chilly Hebridean waters which rarely rose above 4 or 5 degrees and all while wearing nothing but speedos and a swim cap has been – in Pugh’s own words – the ‘perfect training camp’ for what is yet to come.

GRUELLING CHALLENGE

For Pugh this is essential training as he strives to condition his body for his most gruelling challenge to date. And considering his swimming CV already boasts conquered challenges such as swimming 1 KM in the Ross Sea in Antarctica; swimming in a glacial lake on Mount Everest and becoming the only swimmer to ever swim the 348-mile length of the English Channel - that’s saying something.

But now Pugh is eyeing up another world first as he is throwing himself into unchartered waters – quite literally – with an attempt to swim where no human has swum before with 1km swim across a supra-glacial lake in East Antarctica, which is the coldest place on the planet, in one of many basins of melted water that have gathered in recesses on the surfaces of glaciers and polar ice sheets.

The steady rising temperature of the planet has seen more than 65,000 of these lakes develop in just three years and he will be swimming ‘skins’ style (no wetsuit and just his speedos and swim cap) in dangerous water temperatures which will be marginally above freezing point but the air directly above it will be at deadly mercury readings of minus 37c (minus 35f).

LIFE THREATENING

He’s not doing it for glory, or praise or any form of accolades. The 50-year-old endurance swimmer is also the UN Patron of the Oceans and this life-threatening challenge is for the sole purpose of trying to create a network of protected marine sanctuaries in east Antarctica.

Pugh is helping to coordinate the efforts of 25 countries in securing protection for the region and an area roughly the size of Australia. MPA status will protect the oceans from exploitation ensuring one of the planet’s final wildernesses remains pristine. Twenty-three have already signed up: only Russia and China are stubbornly holding out.

“Yes it is dangerous,” he admits, “and some people say you must be mad. I think I’m normal and the rest of the world might be mad.”

Not only is the sub-zero temperatures a potentially fatal risk for Lewis, these ice-melt lakes have been known to spontaneously drain, plummeting their contents hundreds of metres into the ice below with cracks often big enough for a human body to disappear into.

“It is very dangerous and I need to acclimatise my body which is why this week on Lewis has been wonderful,” he continued.

“‘I wish I’d trained here before. Lewis is perfect — rugged and wild. I was out there swimming in an inland loch and it was extreme. It was 4 degrees with huge waves and some things can only be learned in a storm.

“On top of the ice sheets you can get these strong winds coming from the South Pole, very fast, and swimming in that loch was just literally like Antarctica but we had rain instead of snow but it was absolutely identical.”

He continued: “These swims get a huge amount of media attention around the world and it is and 80/20 split in my head where 20 per cent of the effort is the swim but the back end negotiations can go on for years and that’s when you need the real grit and determination to keep going.

“The negotiations for this part of Antarctica (east Antarctica) have been going on for 8 years. For my previous challenge at the Ross Sea it was 17-years but we don’t have the time anymore. It is a race against time to protect the environment. This is an unusual intervention and I’m doing this swimming challenge and from there I’m going to Moscow with Slava Fetisov who is a Russian senator and it is no exaggeration to compare his standing in Russia to Pele in Brazil or Muhammed Ali in America.

“He transcends sport and he helped me persuade Russia to sign the Ross Sea deal in 2015 as again it was Russia and China who hadn’t signed the deal. He was a great help and helped create the biggest protected area in the world at 1.5m square kilometres but we want to protect the whole of Antarctica which brings us to now and the challenge to save East Antarctica.

“Slava is coming with me to second me during my swim. Also coming with us is the former president of Costa Rica, José María Figueres. We are all determined to protect this area and then go to China and if we get this right it would be another 1m square kilometres.”

ANSWERED TIMES ADVERT FOR A TRAINING PARTNER

By Lewis’ side throughout his Hebridean swims has been Dr Max Holloway who answered a call for a training partner in The Times in the style of polar explorer Earnest Shackleton which read: ‘Young guns to train with polar swimmer. Must be willing to swim and run hard. No tea breaks. No Hogmanay. Outer Hebrides.’

Max responded to the advert and he was the perfect partner for this wild adventure in the Western Isles waters. After all he is a climate scientist and physical oceanographer with experience in both the Arctic and Antarctic. He has a history of high performance in sport; has coached Olympic sailing teams; is a strong cold-water swimmer and runner himself and happens to live on the West Coast of Scotland in Oban.

“My wife saw the advert and suggested me and the rest is history,” explained Max.

“We had a week’s notice that I was selected before we came up and we were thrilled to accept it as it is really was a once in life time opportunity.”

Throughout the duration of the Hebridean training camp Max has matched Lewis stride for stride on their challenging runs and stroke for stroke in the seas and lochs and he is no doubt that his new friend will conquer the east Antarctica lake.

“Lewis will definitely complete the swim as he is just super strong,” said Max.

“He has experience of swimming everywhere and he is the best person to do it and he is getting stronger every day, with every swim.

“He has to do something extreme like this to make people sit up and take notice and he is mentally so tough.

“The past week has been a confidence booster for me as well to be swimming side by side, stroke for stroke with someone like Lewis. Conditions were so rough in Loch Orasaigh but having someone like Lewis in the water with you put you at ease. It was a great learning opportunity and I hope we stay in touch and he has so much planned in the future too and I would love to be involved in any way if I can.

“If Lewis asks me to help out in any way I wouldn’t hesitate at jumping at the opportunity.”

Some sixty-six people applied to accompany Pugh on his swim training on Lewis with Dr Holloway a first pick but local charity endurance swimmer Colin S Macleod and wild swimmer Calum Maclean, of Dhan Uisge fame, both joining on several of his daring dips, while everyone’s favourite Castaway, Ben Fogle, also took a dip.

“I put the advert in the Times because we wanted to really push it out there to get maximum amount of coverage,” he said.

“I went through all the CVs and there were probably about 20-people who could have done the job but Max’s jumped out to me. I gave him a call and chatted for 10-minutes and I knew he was the guy. There are not many people who would have come out in the water with me today (Loch Orasaigh) but he did and Max has been outstanding.”

“I truly wish that 20-years ago I had come to Lewis to do my training. This has everything. Wild seas, incredible beaches which rival any beaches around the world and as UN Patron of the Seas I’ve been to most of the world’s top beaches but the Isle of Lewis rival anything I’ve ever been to.”

“But the people have stunned us,” picks up Lewis honestly as he leans forward in his seat.

“They are amazing. For example Colin S Macleod is just a beautiful person. Every day he has been swimming with us, helping us, and Calum Maclean is so humorous, motivating and fast in the water.

“Every single day we have met and had locals swimming with us. Try going out there on your own and it is miserable and horrible but this 11-day training camp we have been on has gone so quickly and the local people have made it.”

During their training camp Lewis and Max have been cramming in double open water swim sessions around the island with the pair joining local swimmers for a 9am session and then a later afternoon swim – with hill and beach running generously sprinkled in between.

It was a ‘dry’ New Year for the boys in terms of toasting the dawning of 2020 with a dram but it was very wet as they didn’t miss a session in the surf as they enjoyed a New Year’s Day Loony Dook at Bosta Beach in Bernera.

HAUNTED BY MEMORIES OF THE COLD

Lewis completed an Arctic swim two-years ago but he admits he remains haunted by the memories of the cold and he is under no illusions at how difficult and dangerous this latest swim in east Anatarctica will be.

“I do a lot of mental preparation and training to get into the water in Antarctica which can be very difficult,” he explained.

“The water is just above zero but the air can easily be -30. So even outing you hand out of zero into minus -30 is getting tougher and harder. When you have been really cold you never quite thaw out again in your mind. You remember the feeling and the cold in your bones.

“I did an Arctic swim two-years ago and I got really cold and that’s why this swim will be the toughest of my life but also the 80-per cent after as the world is even more divided now than it was then.

“When we cut the Ross Sea deal we had John Kerry fly to Beijing and urge China to sign the deal on behalf of President Obama who was very supportive. Now the world is different and more difficult.”

Lewis Pugh is a real life environmental superhero, a man who achieves the impossible and who attempts and conquers the most daring and daunting of challenges.

Having helped secure protection for 1.5m square kilometres in the Arctic he is now determined to secure another million in east Antarctica to fight for our planet’s future and having spent some time with him I am in doubt he will achieve both the swim and navigate the choppy waters of negotiations too.

“I’m very well prepared now for the swim and I only wish I had come here many years ago,” he said.

“I have done cold water training all over the world, in America, Norway, Namibia, South Africa, Iceland and Scotland but the Isle of Lewis is by far the best place in the world to train to do a cold swim.

“I will make my way to the Antarctica ice sheet on January 14th and in my mind when I will be swimming in Antarctica I have to realise it is just a little bit colder than Reef Beach and in my mind I have to remind myself of my training and imagine I have Max Holloway on my right hand side and Colin Macleod is on my left. I need to visualise this over and over again and I am utterly determined to do this swim and have this area protected.”