High altitude swimming, Matscherjochsee, Alps, South Tirol

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For a few years, myself and Thomas Kofler had discussed a possible swim in Matscherjochsee, the highest lake in the Alps, situated on the Matscherjoch (Matscher pass) at 3190m above sealevel, in the Otzal alps of South Tyrol, Italy. Finally we agreed to attempt it on the first week of August this year. Thomas made a preliminary trip to the lake a few weeks before and confirmed that it was indeed difficult to reach, being on the opposite side of the valley from the nearest mountain hut and over 1300m above the parking place at Glieshof….

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I trusted the assessment of Thomas seeing as he is not only a highly successful long distance and winter swimmer but he is also Tyrolian and in the past has summited some big mountains.
After a short discussion we opted to start from Glieshof and then ascend to the Oberettes Hutte (originally the Carlsbad hut, built by the Prague section of AV in 1882) at 2670m on the other side of the Matsch valley, spending the night there before continuing to the lake the next day. The group consisited of myself, Thomas, Paolo Chiarino of Italy and my club colleague Ivan Petruzela of the Czech Republic.The weather was fine, warm and sunny with only a few clouds and no wind. Day 1 went well as we reached the hut in time for dinner at 7pm. We discussed the itinerary for the next day and opted to try the traverse at the end of the valley rather than descending and then ascending to reach the pass and thus the lake. We had good navigational aids in the form of map/compass and also 2 GPS units with tracks already saved. We have compiled this list of best spin bikes, in order to help you with picking the best performing indoor spinning bike at home. Alternatively you can read out these rowing machine reviews and start doing rowing activities indoor.

We set out at 8am and soon climbed to 3000m where we were treated to a view of the snout of the Matscher glacier and on the other side the Matscherjoch which was partially obscured by clouds. The traverse proved to be demanding and we had to cross a canyon and then ford the Matsch river at our lowest point of 2600m before beginning the steep climb to the pass. As we looked at the rocky ridge at the top of the pass it was hard to imagine athat there was a lake nestled behind but that is the reality of nature, it is capable of anything and works in a way that is somehow above us. The last part of the ascent was tricky due to slippery rocks and scree, combined with clouds and drizzle. I opted to veer to the left as I saw a route to the top. This put us a few hundred metres off course but we soon put that right and arrived at the lake.

The weather was not terrible but equally it was not good – clouds and light drizzle. The beauty of the glacier and the friebrunnerspitze peak overlooking the lake were obscured, only visible for a short every few minutes as the clouds moved around. We confirmed the location and that we were 3190m above sea level. The air was around 6c and the water on the shallow edge of the lake on the opposite side of the glacier feeding the lake was 4.9c. The lake itself looked much longer than we anticipated and was a banana shape and we all agreed that this was clearly a lake and not a tarn. We found a good place to base ourselves with an entrance to the water that which was more sediment covered and less rocky. I rolled out a karrimat to provide some respite from the sharp stones and that was the technical preparation done, all we had to now was get our trunks on! Soon we were ready and Thomas began chanting “warm, warm, warm” as he did some stretches. He attribute this to Adam (oceans 7) Walker. In a comic scene of “after you because you are local/older/faster, etc” finally (and I don’t know why) it was me who stepped in first. I immediately exclaimed “oh it’s warm”, which was a complete lie because within 30 seconds I could feel a glacial shiver running from my head through my neck into my back and shoulders. The water was really cold and it was a humbling and powerful experience. A usual with this kind of “wild” swim there is always a split second where you get a really powerful feeling of being engulfed by powerful nature and it came as floated on my back. Soon Paolo, the Italian Ferrari was freestyling his way to the other end of the lake so we followed his lead and went on an exploratory swim, staying to the middle of the lake where it was at its deepest. Mostly rocky it was a few metres deep at most. We negotiated the clouds and arrived back at the starting place. It was noticeable that we were over 3000m above seal level, for breathing during the swim was more laboured than usual. Personally I found it an interesting addition to the encounter with powerful nature. It is hard enough in cold water but add altitude into the equation and it becomes even more of a test. We had been in the water for between 4m30s and 5mins. We were unable to obtain a reading from the middle of the lake but we all agreed that it was colder than on the edge. (4.9c) As usual it took some time to get dressed, drink tea, talk a little nonsense and get back to normality, before we set off on our return journey to the hut. Swimming in the Matscherjochsee was a truly wild experience, it is not easy to get to and is seldom visited by hikers and mountaineers, let alone swimmers.

Our return journey to the hut was tricky but not as difficult as we chose an easier descent/ascent rather than the traverse. I took a moment to reflect on the day and I was sure that this was an extreme, not only I terms of our swimming but with regards to the location and access. I recommend a visit to the Matscherjochsee but it is not an easy trip and the Matscher valley traverse route is rated by Alpenverein as “difficult” compared to the ascent from this valley of the big peak Weisskugel which is only “medium”.
We were satisfied and the next day we managed to visit the stunning Saldurseen lakes, with another swim at 2900m, but that is another story, summed up by saying that it was quite beautiful, slightly longer and aesthetically pleasing but that the Matscherjochsee eclipsed it for excitement, remoteness and the innate power of nature.

 

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Kola Peninsula – Seydozero and Semenovske lakes

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In March 2014 I travelled to the Kola Peninsula in the far north of European Russia. The logistics of day 1 were interesting as it involved leaving Prague at 12.30pm, flying to St Petersburg before arriving in Murmansk at 2.30am. I repacked my bag and managed to lie down on  bench for 45mins before I went outsode to get the bus to the city centre. There I sourced some petrol for my stove whcih wasn’t easy as I had to ask a motorist to buy it for me as 5litres is the minimum buy and I just wanted 800ml! Then I took a bus, 2 hours to Olenegorsk, followed by a smaller bus to Revda one of the final settlements before the tundra wilderness extends east, arriving there at 12.30pm. After a short walk around and a visit to the local shop I met a local man with whom I spoke in Russian for several minutes.Hhe was surprised that i wanted to go alone to Seydozero lake and he gave me a good tip which was to take a taxi to the factory marking the start of the trailhead. It cost only 100rubles and was a good idea for the walk was uphill on  a boring asphalt road for 8km….

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By 2pm I had signed myself in at the office as going through to the tundra and I was soon folowed by  a few dogs as I walked through the factory and upwards toward the pass some 7km away and several hundred metres higher. I soon put the snowshoes on and made good progress, reaching the pass within a few hours. The wind was blowing hard but I was well equipped. I was slightly concerned about finding the route down but in the end it was not a major challenge although I noted that the descent seemed more favourable than coming the other way.

Gradually I made my way down and bushes started to apppear, then a few trees. By 7pm it was getting gloomy and I was tired, deciding that I had made more than enough ground for day 1. I pitched the tent, melted snow and cooked, then soon I was fast asleep. that marathon first day or 2 had taken it’s toll and I the next day i was unable to open my eyes until 9.30am due to tiredness. I got away at 11.30 and made good progress for an hour and a half. Then I decided to follow the main stream of the frozen river to the southeast before trying to take one of the tributaries that led through the Taiga. After some time it became too difficult to get through and I returned. Shortly after I crossed what seemed like a small frozen lake but I couldn’t tell as there was such a lot of snow. The air temperature was around zero and the sun was shining, completely different conditions here in the valley compared to up on the pass. I tried to get through the thick taiga but it was no use so I retraced my steps and again troed to follow another tributary. I knew that the lae was only 1 or 2km away but i was already worried due to the sunshine, warm temperatures and the site of open water. In fact, again I had to turn round. I had now spent 2.5 hours without making any headway. I decided that I must try the northern shore as there was some kind of route there. Then I met a group of Russian skiers who assured me they knew the way to Seydozero so I joined them. We found a path through the tundra and after 2 more hours we reached the end of the taiga and finally the lake. I left the Russians at this point and went to inspect the lake. It didn’t look good as where I was standing there was open water and no way across. I looked around for a bridge. a few kms away to the north I could see the snow scooter of a fisherman. I dropped my pack and went to investigate the area, searching for a crossing point. I found an ice bridge but it was a metre or so short of the other side. There was a bush to grab onto. I weighed up the situation and decided to try it. The ice gave way and soon I was up to my waist in the icy water. In a split second several things went through my mind as I simultaneously cursed outloud. AS I said I was well equipped with goretex trousers and waterproof boots. I knew that I would be ok due to the proximity of the Taiga and ironically the mild weather that which had casued the problem. So I didn’t panic but simply extracted myself slowly and deliberately and went back to my bag. I assessed the situation and decided that I must make the 15min trip to the Taiga forest for safety. I got the tent up and changed clothes before getting  a fire on. At this point I met the Russians again and ended up camping with them for that night. It is worth mentioning that due to old legends about the man “Kuyva” who appears to be stuck in the side of a cliff the local Saami people don’t like to visit Seydozero lake. For the record Kuyva was visible when I went through the ice and I am sure I shared a moment with him!

The next day I had a look again at the lake, but wisely chose to make my way back to Revda. The wind was blowing fiercely and it was very intimidating to travel alone in the conditions but I just kept telling myself, “reach the pass and it will be ok.” It took several hours but finally I made it to the pass, straight up the couloir and then a traverse, technically it wasn’t difficult but it was steep. many hours later and I had found a Taiga forest outside Revda where I made  my camp. Now I relaxed somewhat and visited the local museums and the furthest reachable outpost of Lovozero including a corral that could hold several thousand reindeer.

The second part of the trip started when I got to Murmansk for the winter swimming competition and really deserves a longer article of it’s own. It was absolutely fantastic, amazing hospitality and a very well run event. The water in the frozen Semenovske lake was cold and just right for winter swimming. There was no super marathon and instead we swum all distances up to 500m. I surprised myself and won a silver in the head up breaststroke and another silver in the 500m freestyle before our relay team took a bronze. I’ve had longer more extreme swims but on this occasion I won medals which was a great feeling. A truly magificent experience and I even managed a few more adventures as we gtried to take a car to a remote outpost called Teriberka only to be halted by a blizzard. We also sampled the local nightlife with our new found friends, the group of young interpreters who were both excellent company and very good at their jobs. Murmansk is a smashing venue for winter swimming and the welcome is very warm from the local people. They are hosting the first 1km IISA world championship in March 2015 and it will surely be a great event.

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Bering Strait swim, Russia to USA finally succeeds in 2013

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After what seems like an eternity we finally landed at the native village of Wales, the most western point of the United States of America after we started swimming from Cape Dezhnev, the most eastern point of Russia.

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The swim took 6 days and the organisation took far, far longer….

To explain everything that happened both before and during the swim needs many thousands of words but needless to say massive kudos to all those involved over the years that helped to make this project succeed in 2013.

6 days is a quite a long time to cross an 86km strait but when you take into consideration the fact that we swum 134km in total and had to deal with waves of up to 4 or 5 metres, winds of up to 44knots, heavy rain, extremely strong currents, fog as thick as thick as candy floss and of course extremely cold water as low as 2c, it becomes apparent that it was a major achievement to make the crossing. Personally I am glad it was difficult not only because it was a tremendous adventure but because it meant that I got something lasting for all my dedication to do this for the last 2.5 years. I would say that the challenge was somewhere around 20% swimming, 40% psychological and 40% nature.

Fear, pain, fatigue, confusion, cold, sleep deprivation, seasickness, in the end I felt like we morphed from swimmers into 50% swimmer and 50% old school marine explorers such was the uniqueness of the challenge in the far north, well above the 10c July isotherm in an area described by one word…arctic.

This was a major success for the sport of winter swimming. There have only been two other swims that have been made at such a latitude in the northern hemisphere. Lewis Gordon Pugh took an icebreaker to the north pole and swum 1km there in 2007. He did that swim to highlight the melting of arctic sea ice. Our 2013 swim was about international cooperation, also relevant to the region as the arctic continues to attract more interest in terms of resources and energy and therefore logistics. Lynne Cox of course got to the Bering Strait before us, she made an amazing solo swim in 1987 when she swam between the 2 diomede islands. That was the first America to Russia swim but we made the first continent to continent swim with our relay.

We succeeded in not only linking the  two continents but in connecting 16 nations as swimmers from various backgrounds and countries came together in a relay swim of friendship, proving that the most important things in life aren’t material riches but human feelings and friendship.

Personally I’ll be looking North and East for future projects from my Czech Republic base.…

Spitsbergen 2013, Winter swimming and polar travel

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For the last few years I had been thinking more about making a trip to the arctic, combining winter swimming with traditional polar travel. This went from fanciful idea to reality, mainly as I realized that I had a lot of the necessary skills for such a trip, namely tolerance to cold, endurance and a general indifference to hardship both emotional and physical. (after dealing with a murder the former becomes easier)….

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Well, I was something of an expert in tolerance to cold water so combining this with my abilities on cross country skis which I had been developing for the last 3 years I was looking forward to the trip with relish. I had visited arctic Alaska in 2011 and on that occasion I had recieved a wake up in the form of the powerful nature and therefore I prepared well and constantly compelled my club colleague and team mate for the trip Matej to do the same. An incredibly strong man but he was yet to taste the arctic so I had to reassure him that although western Spitzbergen might not be completely extreme it would certainly be no walk in the park as we flew into 78° north roughly halfway between the Norweigian mainland and the north pole.

I prepared well and with hindsight the only mistake was with the small amount of snacks packed to be eaten each day during the short breaks from skiing, (and even that was something I suspected). I was right that I had just enough snacks for 6 hours but after that it was a problem and so was the single 0.75l thermos. I was also right that the 50g of  “hunters” salami would prove to be the tastiest of all the snacks. However, I was wrong about the  soya bars – normally I don’t really like these so I decided on 1 every 2 days but I was already cursing after I ate the first one as these things took on a wonderfully strong taste in the arctic. Unfortunately my favourite muesli bars that have worked well in temperate latitudes all year were nothing more than a taste at around 78° north. Luckily I had counted and bagged the breakfasts and evening meals perfectly even if I do say so myself although the porridge did need a little more enriching which I will correct next time by taking more semolina and an extra slab of lard. Being probably the poorest polar travellers on Spitzbergen we of course shunned the instant meals in favour of rice and red lentil based dinners, combined with various other things including salami, lard, bacon, and flavoured with herbs and spices and large amounts of garlic. A soup with extra added noodles or spaghetti ensured that we were satisfied come time to stop moving and get into the sleeping bags. A lot about food there but the body needs huge amounts of energy in the harsh cold of the polar desert.

As for the trip itself we prepared and checked all equipment including firearms. We started with full sledges at 2pm and within an hour we were out of town and into what would turn out to be a 4 hour ascent that took us from sea level to  a mountain pass that was over 700m higher.  Tricky, but we were never at our maximum, all those hours of skiing and trekking and climbing and swimming can prepare the body quite well.  A few hours later and it was more difficult, my thermos was empty and it was bothering me. We should have been making a camp but there was a general concensus to push on and make it to Rusanovs hut. I had seen Matej furiously chopping wood in the morning and I had heard him mention the hut so I already knew his intentions. Ever the optimist he was sure we would be there in an hour and of course I disagreed and I was backed up by both our maps and the GPS.

At around 10pm we reached the large valley and turned right heading for the sea, a few moments of unceratainty as light coloured animals were spotted in the dark just 50m away. However, they were reindeer and not polar bears – drama over. Finally at 1am we made it to the hut, the final 50m involved much cursing in both Czech and English language as we had to drag the sledges over an old broken bridge which in the past was used for the transport of coal. After this, it was all downhill as we never needed to put another marathon day in although we twice more racked up near 10 hour skiing days. Our average time on the skis was 7.5 hours and we covered some 140km.

Seeing as this is a blog about swimming I must mention that we made a short swim in the frozen sea, some 4 minutes and the odd seconds, so by our standards nothing more than a bath but even so it took some doing given the -18c air temperature and strong wind which sometimes took temperatures to -37c. The water itself was about -1.7c, clear with that lovely soft ice that salt water produces, less of a danger than the freshwater ice regarding cuts. However a few metres from the shore and already the ice was thicker. This was no time for heroics and the short swim was quite enough given conditions

The trip was a success and Spitbergen 2013 was the first in series of trips to combine winter swimming with polar travel. (a short movie about the trip is currently in post production) The next trip will be in winter 2014. We will build on the success of this first trip with the aim of furthering our own and others knowledge of the places we travel to and what we encounter.

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Book release: The Bering papers

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Finally, almost 5 years after I first became invloved with this project and 2 years after the expedition was completed along with my manuscript, my first book “The Bering Papers”: an extreme winters wimmers story, published by Austin Macauley of London was released on November the 30th 2015.

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The book is 313 pages long including around 45 photos, maps and charts and tells the story of an audacious idea originated by friends in Russia to be the first swimmers in history to cross the Bering Strait in it’s entirety  from continent to continent.

Little did I know in 2011 where my invlovement in this project would take me both physically and mentally. Now in the Bering Papers you will be able to read the full story for the first time.

I believe that it will be interesting for a wide range of people, not only lovers of winter swimming and other extreme sports but also those interested in people and places and real life events. There are around 6billion people in the world all with different experiences. In this book you will hear about some of those people scattered from the UK, to central Europe, the Russian far east, South Africa and America.…