I perch on the edge of the hole I’ve just chopped into the ice. It’s about 8 inches thick here and covered in a layer of crunchy snow. The wind cuts through me and snow settles on my skin as I try and summon up the courage to lower myself into the dark water. Eventually I take a deep breath and drop slowly down. The sensation is overwhelming, it’s as though pins are stabbing every inch of my body. My breath is fast, out of control and I have to fight the urge not to jump out. Eventually I get my shoulders under, hold for about ten seconds and haul myself back out onto the ice. As I dress quickly, shivers running up my back, I wonder how on earth I’m going to do that another 27 times. It was not an experience I wished to repeat!
When I applied to be an Ambassador for The Cairn Project, my fundraiser was going to be a big bikepacking trip around the Scottish Highlands. Then the UK went into lockdown and I watched my potential start dates come and go. I started planning for a winter ride on the route, testing kit, riding hours into wild, rainy nights to make sure I could stay warm. Eventually, with the threat of a second lockdown, I had to accept my ride was not going to happen. I spent the first week of January in a funk, feeling demotivated, feeling like I was going to be letting The Cairn Project down. I watched the sleet and snow blow around outside my window as I snuggled deep under the duvet and scrolled through Instagram. Here I discovered a group of mighty women, they were plunging themselves into freezing water every day, to fundraise. I was in awe. I couldn’t think of much worse. How unpleasant to be getting so cold and wet. How strong they must be. And then the thought crept in “you could do that too.”
Try as I might to shove that thought away and come up with a better idea, it stuck. I live in one of the best places in the UK for wild swimming, so excuses were hard to come by. And so, my cold-water adventure began. That first week was brutal. Blizzards and thick ice made it a misery. I was riding out to the lochs, carrying everything on my bike and often even stripping my clothes off was a challenge. Then, in my second week the wind eased slightly and I was joined by a succession of friends. Having someone else to share the ice chopping and the craziness, turned an unpleasant experience into one filled with giggles and cake. I felt my attitude shifting. Rather than dread, was it possible I was starting to enjoy this activity?
The middle of the month brought Scotland’s coldest day in 23 years. I rode out to a distant loch in –20 C, my hair coated in ice crystals from my breath. The ice on this loch was clear like glass, occasional bubbles trapped under its slick surface. As I chopped my hole, shards of ice refracted the sunlight into a thousand rainbows and I felt happiness in the process.
Soon after a thaw set in, the snow rushed hurriedly down the rivers towards the sea. I started hiking high into the hills to find more ice and felt at peace with the simplicity of the process. I was looking at maps in a new way, excited to visit bodies of water I had never seen, or passed by with never a thought to immerse myself in its frigid liquid. I felt I had been on an incredible and intense journey, transported far from the numbness of Covid lockdown life. As the end of the month fast approached, I realized I felt a sadness that this would end. Sad that this activity of throwing myself into cold water, something that I had once despised, had become something filled with joy. But of course, it does not have to. I suspect I have found a new way of experiencing my world, that will be with me forever now.