30 Dips in 30 Days
Words & Photography by Aaron Rolph
Aaron Rolph and Jess Clark take on a 30 day cold water swimming challenge to explore the Alps in autumn.
I am lucky to call the Alps my home. I can’t help but feel that I was always made to be outdoors but I still, even now, have to pinch myself sometimes. My winters are spent climbing and skiing the jagged peaks and vast glaciers high above Chamonix. My summers: biking and running as much as I can. Although it’s true that living in a town that is driven primarily by tourism doesn’t come without its downsides. Chamonix is a thriving mountain town most of the year. But at times the pendulum swings, between overcrowded streets and lift queues to a complete ghost town. In the period between the summer months and the winter ski season, everything slows down. For the most part the chairlifts cease to operate and many of the businesses temporarily close, taking a well-earned rest.
I have a love-hate relationship with autumn. In just weeks, the warmth from summer is blown far out of the valley, making way for biting air as well as wetter and wilder days. The dreary days can be short and dark. Occasionally, the sun finds a path through the clouds, igniting the brilliant red and orange hues on the trees, contrasting beautifully with a fresh dusting of snow in the high Alpine. It’s difficult to maintain the usual enthusiasm for grand mountain adventures, and for people addicted to the outdoors can be a tough time.
This year however, would be different. The challenge: a cold water swim every single day for 30 days and – to keep it really interesting – it needed to be in a different body of water each time. Not only would this get me outside more, but we could see what all the hype about cold water was about. Never mind add some much-needed structure to my life at an otherwise sleepy time of the year.
Lac Bleu, 5.5° / 2229m
Jess Clark, a local adventure buddy, took no persuading. On day one, we were met with glorious weather and so, browsing our short-list, decided to throw ourselves in at the deep end. Despite my best efforts to maintain a cool and collected approach, I feel my breath shorten and chest grow tight as the icy waters engulf my bare stomach, chest and then shoulders. My entire body is tense as though I’m entering battle, and yet it is in this exact moment of the cold that you must search for some sort of zen from deep inside. As I plunge my head under, pushing out and down deeper into the cold, the dichotomy of overwhelming panic in such a beautifully serene mountain lake hits me almost as hard as the biting glacial waters. Bringing my head above water again, I glance up at the spectacular north faces that tower over a thousand metres above us, and finally find some composure from the bottom of my lungs. Day one complete, twenty-nine more swims to go.
Glacier des Bossons, 0.6° / 2229m
If we’re going to do this, we’re doing it properly. Spotting a glacial pool which didn’t seem to be on the map, we went to see if it would be swimmable. With the flask and backpacks filled, we started hiking up towards Europe’s steepest glacier: Les Bossons, which more or less flows straight off Mont Blanc itself. The air was bitter with a distinct northerly wind but the steep climb through the forest at least gave us a chance to get warm on the journey. Carefully navigating largely pathless rocky moraine, the climb took some hours, but we eventually reached the lip – revealing a surprisingly big glacial lake. This off-coloured pool appeared to bridge between the ice and a fast-flowing river, allowing it to remain unfrozen despite the high altitude. The thermometer reading was alarmingly low. Although the mood is one of apprehension, we’re here now and both secretly excited for the challenge. Not even Jess’ husky is interested in water this cold, but we take our first steps into the small lake, murky with the flow of eroded minerals. As I enter, I take special attention to slow my breathing but the bank is just too steep. Before I know it, I’m in deep.
Lac Blanc, 3.8° / 2352m
Studies suggest that the concentration of noradrenaline in your blood goes up 530% with immersion into 14°C water. I can’t imagine what’s happening in water this close to freezing, but it certainly feels like the fight or flight reaction in full force. I push out, swimming the most rigid breaststroke of my life before returning to the shores of safety. It’s impossible not to let out a cheer of relief, feeling the relative warmth of the November afternoon air. It’s generally accepted that your metabolism goes up during immersion to compensate for a drop in your body’s core temperature, something I definitely feel. I find myself predictably hungry after each and every cold swim. Perhaps more significantly though, it’s possible you could see anatomical change in your body. Under the pressure of cold, your body is able to convert white fat deposits to beige and brown fat, which generate heat in the body when burnt, helping to keep you warm.
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 gritted our teeth and endured a sideways snow blizzard until reaching this day’s lake of choice, sitting just shy of 2400m (8000ft). The clouds rolled relentlessly in and out of this incredible natural amphitheatre. It was 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 with the totally untouched white of the 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.
Swimming in remote locations in winter requires careful attention. Allow your core body temperature to cool too much and things get serious very quickly. We change into warm clothes as fast as our frozen fingers will allow and run back towards town, eventually warming as we go.
Lac Chesery 3.5° / 2170m
Of course without undertaking some experiments I’ll never know whether my body is undergoing physiological change from swimming every day. However, I can say with certainty that for whatever reason it is slowly getting easier. Day 21 brought with it a bright day, albeit with a vailed and moody sky hanging over the mountains opposite. After a couple of hours hiking into the Aiguille Rouge, we reached the Cheserys lakes, providing a truly dreamlike setting. The snowy peaks are mirrored perfectly in the still water.
Excited to get in, I wade out slowly and smoothly into the 3°C water, making a conscious effort to avoid disturbing these perfect reflections with my ripples. Now three weeks in, I find myself maintaining a totally calm approach. Yes it’s still as cold as ever but my mind is empty and for the first time I’m able to simply enjoy these calm moments in nature. The stress to my body is the same and yet my mental and physical response feels utterly different. Now I’m able to reap the same benefits as before, but no longer experience the overwhelming cold shock and adrenaline spike that comes with it. Pushing through the ice that clings onto the shoreline, I spend a cool 10 minutes leisurely floating around in the serenity of nature.
Swimming in freezing waters in such remote mountain locations is not a pastime to be underestimated. Your core temperature drops astoundingly quickly, and once the swim is complete, you’re then on a clock to get it back up before hypothermia sets in. It’s important to listen to your body, and prepare your post-swim change to be as easy as possible. Once I warmed up with a quick run back down the valley or a swift walk with all your layers on, I was consistently hit with a new found mental clarity and motivation that I simply didn’t have before. Is this so surprising though? Many of us splash our face with cold water to wake up in the morning…. The Dopamine concentration in your blood is reported to increase around 2-3 times after cold water immersion, this acts as a powerful neurotransmitter to increase motivation in all mammals.
So yes, it’s scary at first. But once you get into cold water swimming, you will most likely find you feel alive, awake, and with a clearer mind than before. Our 30 days were an incredible and truly unforgettable experience. In time, we did find a true calmness in the cold that I never thought would be possible. The swim became as enjoyable as the buzz afterwards and I can honestly say, I’ve never regretted a cold swim.