A VERSION OF THIS APPEARED IN THE SCOTS MAGAZINE AND IT WAS DONE PRE-LOCKDOWN
The snowplough was out, clearing the roads at the foot of Glen Feshie, while the frosted trees and icy landscape were doing their best to create the appearance of a magical winter wonderland. A perfect day to be on the snowy shore of Loch Insh. But perhaps less than ideal for an outdoor swim.
Alice Goodridge, however, would disagree. She runs SwimWild which organises courses and adventures in the Highlands for those who like to get into the water outdoors – and that includes in winter.
“It is the most amazing way to start the day, it sets you up and I find I have more positive days afterwards,” she told me. I had a sneaking suspicion that I would get the same effect from a cup of steaming coffee from the nearby café, but I decided instead to have faith in her qualification as a lifeguard and take the plunge – despite the fact I was shivering already while still wearing four layers of clothing.
Outdoor swimming has gained huge popularity in recent years and that now also includes the colder months, even when the thermometer drops below zero. A quick change saw me even colder but ready to go in. When Alice produced a sledgehammer to break the snow-covered ice, however, I began to wonder if this was a bit too extreme and undertaking for me.
I needn’t have worried – the ice was thin enough to crack and move out of the way by hand (thank goodness for thick neoprene gloves and socks, essentials at this time of year) – and the water was genuinely lovely. Yes, it was cold – Alice said the water temperature was 1 degree C – but the action of breaking ice warmed the body.
Then came the moment of actual swimming; I gingerly dipped down so my shoulders were submerged then decided just going for it was the only option. There followed a desperate imitation of breaststroke but it was actual swimming, in winter, surrounded by ice and snow!
We had only been in for ten minutes but the adrenaline was surging through me, not realising the most important part of the experience was to come – getting warm as quickly as possible once out of the water.
Numb fingers were warmed on a hot water bottle, then I had to ask for help while struggling out of my wetsuit – this was no time to be prudish.
“You get to know each other quite well because you will be helping each other get dressed really quickly,” Alice explained. “Your hands and feet are going to get cold but it is your core you need to get warm as soon as a possible. Your hands and feet will be throbbing and your body will feel fine but there is this thing called after drop which means your core keeps cooling down when you get out of the water so you want to get clothes on as soon as possible.”
Alice’s introduction to taking a dip in winter began when training to swim the Channel in 2012. In 2017 she set up the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers group and more than 20 meet for a dip every Sunday in winter – it is important to swim with someone else for safety. But it is the thrill of it which attracts most. “I get a buzz
afterwards – it is a little bit addictive,” Alice said. And after my dip I realised I might be an addict too.
TOP TIPS FOR WILD SWIMMING IN WINTER
Good clothing – a woolly hat to keep the heat in; thick, tight-fitting neoprene gloves and socks (a wetsuit can be worn but only if you can take it off quickly afterwards to avoid getting overly cold).
Never swim alone.
Make sure you know what is under the water such as whether the bed of the loch drops off suddenly.
Clear ice before swimming to avoid being cut on sharp edges.
Breathe out – focus on your breathing to avoid hyperventilation caused by repeated sharp intakes of breath.
Hot water bottle and lots of warm layers to quickly put on afterwards.
A hot drink in a flask, or café close by.
HOW TO GET INTO WILD SWIMMING
The Outdoor Swimming Society was established in 2006 to pioneer outdoor swimming in rivers, lakes, lido and seas.
It has a comprehensive list of outdoor swimming clubs which can be found on its website: www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com