Cape Town


Cape Town Lawyer Swims in the North Pole

Lewis Gordon Pugh dives into the ocean17/07/2007

A Cape Town lawyer, dressed only in swimming trunks, a cap and goggles, spent nearly 19 minutes yesterday in the coldest water ever endured by a man who lived to tell the tale.

Lewis Gordon Pugh dives into the ocean at the North Pole
Lewis Gordon Pugh became the first person to complete a long distance swim at the North Pole.

The feat is not only unprecedented in physical terms. It also provides compelling evidence that global warming is breaking up the Arctic ice cap.

The adventurer, the only man to carry out endurance swims in all five oceans, swam 1km (more than half a mile) along a temporary crack in the ice in 18 minutes and 50 seconds.

Most people would die quickly in a water temperature of -1.8C (29F) through a rapid process of hyperventilation, shock and drowning. But Mr Pugh is made of sterner stuff.

After recovering in his support boat he confessed that the pain was excruciating.

It should not be possible to swim at the North Pole, at 90 degrees North in the Arctic Ocean, but an increase in global air temperatures has resulted in a decrease in sea ice. As a result, patches of open sea are appearing in summer. Scientists predict that by 2040 there may be no sea ice left in the Arctic in summer.

Mr Pugh, 37, said he hoped his effort to draw attention to the effects of global warming would put pressure on world leaders to cut carbon emissions. He added: "I want my children, and their children, to know that polar bears are still living in the Arctic.

"I am obviously ecstatic to have succeeded but this swim is a triumph and a tragedy. A triumph that I could swim in such ferocious conditions but a tragedy that it's possible to swim at the North Pole."

An international ambassador for the conservation organisation WWF, he carried out the swim after years spent acclimatising his body to extreme cold.

In the process he broke his own record yesterday for the coldest human swim, which previously stood at a balmy 0C in the waters off Antarctica.

Mr Pugh's ability to survive in such an extreme environment has baffled scientists for years, but he admitted yesterday that he considered giving up during his toughest challenge.

Mr Pugh's ability to survive in such an extreme environment has baffled scientists for years

He said he was spurred on by the presence of Jorgen Amundsen, a relative of Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach to the South Pole. Mr Pugh trained with Mr Amundsen for the event, The Investec North Pole Challenge, at a Norwegian glacial lake, and the Norwegian skied on the ice alongside him during the swim.

"The water was absolutely black," said Mr Pugh. "It was like jumping into a dark black hole. It was frightening. The pain was immediate and felt like my body was on fire. I was in excruciating pain from beginning to end and I nearly quit on a few occasions. It was without doubt the hardest swim of my life.

"I just kept on looking at Jorgen Amundsen. I will never ever give up in front of a Norwegian, let alone a relative of Roald Amundsen. There is too must rivalry between our two nations."

The swim took place at 2am in the permanent daytime at the North Pole at this time of year. Mr Pugh wore just trunks and goggles to comply with the rules of the Channel Swimming Association.

His cold water endurance swims are made possible by a phenomenon he calls "anticipatory thermogenesis", the ability to elevate his core body temperature while psyching himself up before he enters the water.

"As soon as I enter cold water my body shunts all my warm blood to my core to protect my vital organs. It then generates incredible heat," he said. "Before I even enter the water, I am able to elevate my core body temperature by as much as 1.4C. This phenomenon has, to our knowledge, not been noted in any other human."

Mr Pugh discovered his unusual gift by accident when he began to perspire and feel thirsty while staring at freezing water before an earlier Arctic dip. Prof Tim Noakes, a professor of sports science from the University of Cape Town, who has been monitoring the swimmer, said he had pushed the boundaries of what was humanly possible.

"To swim at the North Pole is an incredible achievement and is the culmination of years of unique endeavour by an astonishing individual.

"At the end of the swim Lewis was showing obvious signs of distress but he never faltered and his performance was his best yet.

"There has never been anyone like him. He was sweating before he left the ship and got into the water, and within one hour of finishing he was walking around in a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops. The rest of us are wearing multiple layers of clothing, including gloves and hats."

Prof Noakes said that while Mr Pugh was able to raise the temperature around his heart, lungs and brain before a swim, the temperature of his muscles dropped to 30C during the event, which would prove fatal for most people.

The adventurer believes he has trained himself to experience a kind of Pavlovian response to cold water, which results in his body heating up.

Last year, Mr Pugh, who moved to England from South Africa as a child, became the first person to swim the 203-mile length of the Thames.

Article from The Daily Telegraph

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