Swimming at the top of the world

Swimming at the top of the world

Photos: Michael Walker/Lewis Pugh

On 22 May 2010, Lewis Gordon Pugh undertook a 1-kilometre swim in the freezing waters of Pumori Lake – a glacial lake at an altitude of 5,300 metres under the summit of Mount Everest on the Khumbu Glacier – to call attention to the hazard of glacial outburst flooding in the Himalayas. Such flooding is caused by runoff from rapid glacial melt, which scientists believe is caused by global warming.

The immediate danger of glacial lake outburst flooding is to the people and environments directly in the path of torrents that have broken the banks of glacial lakes, wiping out property, roads and electric plants as well as people, livestock and wild habitats. ‘Temperatures in the Himalayas have risen by 1ºC since the 1970s, and are rising by 0.06ºC each year,’ notes Pugh. ‘Scientists working with UNEP have pinpointed 44 glacial lakes that are filling up so quickly they could overflow within five years.’

In the long term, the consequen­ces are far reaching. ‘These glaciers provide water to around 2 billion people, nearly a third of the world’s population,’ says Pugh. ‘India, China, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Bhutan depend on the meltwater from the Himalayan and Hindu Kush glaciers. Without it, there is a real risk of instability in the region.

‘Indirectly, the whole world relies on this water,’ he adds. ‘Many goods we consume are produced in India and China.’

This isn’t the first time that Pugh – appropriately nicknamed the Human Polar Bear – has swum under extreme conditions: in 2007 he completed the world’s first 1-kilometre swim at the North Pole, raising awareness about the effect of global warming on Arctic ice, and he has swum in Antarctica, adventures he details in his recently published autobiography, Achieving the Impossible.

The icy temperatures would quickly kill most people, but Pugh can elevate his core temperature before he enters the water, which he des­cribes as a visualization process. ‘I spend a lot of time imaging the swim from the beginning to the end – every stroke. When I can see the swim in my mind, then I can do it.’

But Pugh says that the Pumori Lake swim – the first ever long-distance swim undertaken under the summit of Everest – has been the hardest of his career: ‘Because of the altitude you need to swim very slowly and deliberately, not with aggression and speed as I did at the Poles. I was gasping for air, and if I had swum any faster I would have gone under.’

Pugh is often asked how he went from being a maritime lawyer edu­cated at the Universities of Cape Town and Cambridge to a full-time environmental campaigner, serving as ambassador for WWF. He says that long-distance swimming sparked his interest in the environment.

‘I grew up in England, but when I was 10 we emigrated to South Africa, where I had my first proper swimming lesson. Since then, I have swum in every ocean of the world. I made regular visits to the Arctic for seven years, and witnessed the ice rapidly retreating. In 2005 and 2006 a quarter of the summer sea ice cover disappeared.

‘These experiences helped me realize that what happens in one part of the world impacts every other part. We must stop arguing about which country should act first. Given the urgency of the state of the Earth, every country needs to put in place every solution at its disposal. There’s no time for delay.’

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This post is also available in: French, Spanish