Long-distance swimming in Nepal’s glacial mountain lakes
In May 2010, Lewis Gordon Pugh completed a 1km swim across a glacial lake on Mount Everest. (Michael Walker)
Every year, thousands of tourists travel to Nepal for walking, trekking and mountaineering. More than 90% head to the country’s three best-known national parks -- Everest, Annapurna and Langtang. Some visitors venture beyond these areas for rafting and jungle safaris. But few go in search of a place to swim.
The geography of Nepal was once described to me as a large staircase. To the north is the highest step, the majestic snow-capped mountains that mark the border with China. Of the 14 more-than-8,000m peaks in the world, Nepal has eight -- including the world’s highest, Mount Everest. Then there is the middle step, the green hills that rise from 1,000m to 4,000m. And finally to the south is the bottom step, the flatlands and wild forests that border India’s northern states.
Woven throughout the three levels are hundreds of rivers, streams and lakes; the glacial ice of the Himalayas is a water source for much of Asia. While a map easily identifies the many small and large mountain lakes, mostly unknown to tourists, I was keen to find the perfect one for a long-distance, open-air, cold-water swim.
My inspiration came from an old friend. British explorer Lewis Gordon Pugh has swum across some of the most challenging stretches of icy water in the world, wearing only a swimming costume, hat and goggles. The Ice Bear, as he is often called, also became the first person to complete a long distance swim in every ocean in the world.
In May 2010, Pugh completed a 1km swim across a glacial lake on Mount Everest, at 5,300m, setting the record for the world’s highest altitude swim. The temperature of the water was a very chilling 2C. His motivation was to highlight the effect of climate change on the Himalayas, clearly illustrated by the very existence of one of the lakes that he used for training. Before the 1960s Imja was a glacier, but a recent temperature increase in the Himalayan region melted it into a substantial lake, which glistens under the shadow of the awe-inspiring Everest range.
On Pugh’s return to Kathmandu he was able to pass on some important tips. While swimming at altitude, he cautioned, the key is finding the right speed. There is so little oxygen – if you go too fast you will want stop and catch your breath. But if you go too slowly, you will get hypothermia.
Despite careful planning, he had not anticipated the difficulty of carrying a canoe up to base camp -- a support boat is often the only way to ensure your safety in unchartered waters. When the Nepali authorities refused to let the canoe into Everest National Park without a permit, Pugh was forced to hide it under tarpaulin and smuggle it in on the back of a yak.
Armed with all this knowledge, I couldn’t put off my attempted swim any longer. Close to the tourist centre of Pokhara, Lake Begnas has many advantages for the first-time, open-water swimmer. It is easily accessible from Pokhara, and even though it is at a lower altitude than Imja, it is still not surrounded by human habitation and thus, not polluted.
The Begnas Lake Resort and Villas, based at one end of the lake, helped me organise my swim. The hotel manager told me that tourists did swim in the lake, but he had not heard of anyone trying to swim across it before. Nevertheless, he wished me luck and allocated one of his staff to paddle my support canoe.
Although it was November, the temperature of both the air and water was still warm and it was not hard to launch myself into the green water. As I began stroking out towards the centre of the lake, the sun shone on my back and butterflies flew around my head. All I could hear was the sound of my arms splashing into the water and a softer splash from the support canoe behind me. The water reflected the snowy-white outline of the Annapurna mountains in the distance.
Stroking slowly I made my way down the length of the lake, covering a cool 3km. The silence and stillness was magical. Later, as night fell, I could hear the faint sound of avalanches on the distant mountains. But otherwise, the air was as still as the water I had swum in hours earlier.