Ice Swimming

Michael Gibson

You’ve seen the scene many times, DeCaprio bobbing up and down in freezing sea water next to a floating door, on top of which is Kate Winslet. As we reach for the tissues, Leonid succumbs to the cold and slips beneath the icy waves. Now if only DeCaprio had spent his winters swimming in Russian prorubs, or ice swimming  – he’d have made it. He would have been able to swim to a lifeboat and a lifetime with Kate. When Captain Sully landed his stricken airliner on the icy Hudson River – he said he had spent a lifetime preparing for that one moment – so preparation pays off. The good news is Russian winter provides the perfect opportunity.

OK, you might argue that the Titanic has already sunk and the American Airlines plane has already ditched, and since lightening rarely strike twice in the same place, there’s no point in giving ice swimming a try. Think again, those life saving qualities of ice swimming are not just limited to swimming to a Titanic lifeboat. In fact the reasons are many and I encourage you all to give it a go. The good news is that in Russia there are plenty of places to try ice swimming.

In fact ice swimming is about the cheapest and most natural way to a high as you’ll ever get. Your body, on contact with icy water thinks ‘WTF!’ and dumps a mass of endorphins into the system (think DIY opium). Then there are all the other benefits; boosts immune system, enhances circulation, reduces stress and combats depression (that would be the opium). Everyone feels invigorated after an ice swim even if you think its hell while it’s happening. There is a whole branch of medicine, called ‘cryotherpy’, which uses cold, but they are hard-core and generally opt for liquid nitrogen at minus 210 degrees. So at 0.8 degrees your local ice hole is a lot warmer and totally free.

Russians have a special word to describe the sort of hole one makes in the ice for swimming in. It’s called a prorub (прорубь). If you want to simply fish and prefer a teeny-tiny hole you can’t nod-off and accidentally fall into, then you make a ‘lunka (лунка). The Brits, alas, have no need for such words and can only make an unromantic ‘hole in the ice’.

Cold water comes in three temperatures; ‘brr!’, ‘AahhhH!!’  and ‘FAAA#!K!!’ (often spelt with more ‘A’s). ‘brr!’ isn’t really cold and is what comes out of your shower when attempting to have a cold shower (sorry to brake it to the cold shower faculty – you have two chill levels to go). ‘AahhhH!!’ is when the cold begins to get serious and you might come across this swimming in the sea off Scotland or swimming in Russian rivers in spring. When you get to FAAA#!K!!’, you are in the twilight zone of ultra cold, the sort of cold that claimed the souls of the Titanic and is basically death on a long burning fuse, kept at bay by will-power, experience and sheer madness. The body core temp is under attack, and you feel stuff happening particularly if you attempt distance ice swimming. So why would anyone in their right mind try ice swimming? Well all the best things we do are death defying, from extreme sports to speedy thrills, even orgasms are known as ‘le petite mort’.

I have seen many people take their first ice dip. People divide into categories. There are the ‘freak-out ‘n leap out’, people who barely get their bodies wet before they are making for the exit …a sort of chilly version of a bat out of hell. The next group is a bit more chilled (literally) and maintains an ice-cool determination, getting into the water, perhaps dipping their head, paddling a bit and then exiting. The next group is the clinically insane who get in, don’t register its cold and head for the far end of the ice hole, which might be 25m away. You need to keep an eye on this bunch as some loose the plot altogether and don’t want to get out, especially those who are distance swimmers. Those who swim 500m and over at my local ice hole, all attest that your body goes into some very weird territory at these distances. You feel like you can stay in forever as that part of your body that was screaming, ‘get out, get out, this is insane’, has fallen silent or is too frozen to speak. But first timers are nowhere near that and every single person who I have taken with me to the ice hole have loved the experience. They may not care to repeat it but they have all been happy to give it a go and all leave with a glow and feeling fabulous. One British Deputy Ambassador became a regular and by the time he left was swimming 100m – pretty hard-core.

In my Morzhi Club  (the name given to an ice swimmer) the ‘after-swim’ is a rich part of the experience. Full of camaraderie, we all huddle and shiver around a basic stove in an even more basic, but soulful little hut. If you have just emerged from the ice hole, frozen, everyone pushes you to the front. As warmth returns you gradually make room for the latest shivering arrival, some of whom are the super-shiverers, the distance swimmers who swim up to 1000m and are literally blue from head to toe. Tea is often passed around, perhaps someone trucks up with a guitar and it’s all this that has made every ‘first timer’ I bring along totally fall in love with the whole ice-swim thing.

The popularity of Ice swimming is increasing at an insane pace. Numbers are hard to find but since the reintroduction of the Epiphany ice dip (Kreschenie) in Russia on 19th January, a celebration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, numbers have sky rocketed. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of people take the dip in dozens of ice holes in Moscow alone. My local ice hole builds special wooden walkways in and out of the water and like some ice-water human-sheep-dip, process industrial numbers of people throughout the night. In the UK some venues have seen as much a four fold increase in winter swimming in the last 5 years (OK – British ‘brr!’ cold is nothing like Russian  ‘FAAA#!K!!’ cold – but still, credit where its due).

One visiting British friend came to the ice hole a year ago and watched as old babushkas and small kids alike climbed in and out of the ice hole. He turned to me and said, ‘What on earth were Hitler and Napoleon ever thinking when they invaded this country!’ In life you don’t know what you don’t know, and until you try ice swimming you can never understand just how life affirming, refreshing and totally awesome it is. I urge you – go for it.

PS – if you want to join me you are welcome or make your own way to my Morzh Club. Swimming until the end of March early April at least.