Soon after arriving at Whistler (for the TEDActive conference) – a mecca for ski enthusiasts from around the world – I had a few hours to spare before meeting up with my colleagues. Though surrounded by magnificent mountain peaks swaddled in a blanket of white snow, I was consumed with a single thought: I need to swim in a glacial lake.
To date, the coldest water I have ever swum in is 46 degrees. I wanted to explore the limits of my body, and thought what better environment to try something new and dangerous than during a work trip. Right. It made total sense. My obsession for this activity began many weeks prior to traveling. Even in the days leading up to my trip, in an effort to locate the perfect swimmable (aka not frozen over) lake, I carefully perused Google Maps, zooming in, out and around the surrounding landscape of Whistler. Once I pinpointed two nearby lakes (satellite view was particularly helpful to find a safe entry and exit point from each lake), I made a mental note: Alta Lake and Lost Lake.
Once unpacked and settled in my hotel room, I prepared myself for the mission at hand: I changed into my swimsuit, threw on sweatpants and a jacket, and then grabbed my GoPro camera, swim cap, goggles and earplugs. A hotel bath towel draped around my shoulders completed the look. I was incredibly excited. Encountering a few odd looks as I sauntered down to the main lobby, littered with skiers returning from the slopes, I inquired with Concierge as to the best way to walk to these lakes. Skeptical as to my real intent, the Concierge kindly offered to drive me to both locations.
A short chauffeured drive later, the Concierge and I determined both lakes were not safe for swimming. Only partially thawed in the middle, there was no way I could enter or exit the water without risking injury. Deeply grateful for him indulging my madness, I thanked him profusely. To which he replied “oh you’re most welcome. Truthfully, I was really worried about you.”
Undeterred and determined to complete my mission, I discovered Alpha Lake during a short conference break later in the week on the recommendation of a local. There was a slim possibility that this lake would be thawed. Again I suited up, walked outside and hailed a taxi.
In a strange chance of serendipity, my taxi driver was not only a ski patroller but also a medic. Initially I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this piece of information. What was the universe telling me exactly? Committed to my mission, I decided to continue. Driving up to Alpha Lake, the taxi driver parked the car. As the snow fell around the car against a white canvas of fresh snow, I bade a fond farewell to a new friend, put on my woolen hat and proceeded out of the car. “Wait – I’ll go with you if that’s ok and then drive you back when you’re done” yelled the taxi driver. “Sure! That would be great – thank you!” And just like that, the universe kindly provided me with a sensible swim observer and medic.
As we searched for a safe entry point into the mostly frozen lake, I surveyed my surroundings. This was crazy, but I love it. A short walk along a dock and at the direction of a puzzled dog walker we found a ladder that led into a small patch of thawed ice. This was the spot! I was so nervous and so excited that my hands trembled as I peeled off my clothes, put on my swim cap, goggles and earplugs. Camera in hand, my heart raced. This was my moment of truth. I set the timer on my watch.
Stepping down gingerly on the rungs of the ladder, the bones in my feet ached intensely upon meeting the water. This water was really cold. I slipped carefully into the water and was relieved I did not suffer a heart attack. Once fully submerged, I spent some time (by time, I mean mere minutes) exploring, but soon discovered the ice was too thick to break and I was confined to a 4 foot by 4 foot ice enclosure. I could not believe I was doing this! A strange but glorious euphoria undulated through my freezing body. At 5 minutes I had trouble moving my fingers. It was time to get out.
Hardly a swim, the duration of my dip was 5 minutes 39 seconds. The steel ladder next to the dock was no further than 3 feet away from me. And my ski-patrol-medic-taxi-driver-swim-observer was standing watch, with laughter of course.
The wonderful thing about this sport is that it doesn’t need to be a marathon swim to be a memorable experience. For me, it is about trying something you never imagined ever attempting. It is about experiencing the raw unfiltered joy of being some place beyond your comfort zone.