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Madswimmers Set Their Sights on the World’s Highest Swim

Madswimmers Set Their Sights on the World’s Highest Swim

Nov 2015

Words Fiona McIntosh

Next month eight Madswimmers will cut a lane in the ice to swim across the highest lake in the world. If successful, the swim, in a lake situated at an altitude of 6,400m on Chile’s Mt Ojos del Salado, will beat the previous world record - set by Lewis Pugh on Mt Everest - by 1,100m.

Jean Craven, founder of Madswimmer and one of the shortlisted nominees for Nightjar Adventurer of the Year 2015, explains that changing children’s lives is the motivation for the swim. ‘As we go for the extreme, we need to contribute where it counts. This swim, in a high altitude Andean lake on the world's highest volcano, is a call to all our friends, family and colleagues to donate and help us raise US$75,000 to make a difference. We are very fortunate to have corporate sponsors helping us cover the costs of the swim so 100% of all donations will benefit Madswimmer's 10 registered charities.’ 

As part of their training, in June this year the team completed a swim in the Lewis Tarn on Mount Kenya, the highest lake in Africa at 4,800m above sea level. ‘We were looking for a “high pool” relatively close by’ said Craven. ‘We considered swimming in a dam at AfriSki in Lesotho but this was only 3500m, so the Mt Kenya option was more appealing and would give us a taste of what lay ahead in the Andes.’

After only two months of preparation, Craven, along with Juandre Human, a first time Madswimmer, Hardi Wilkins who had completed a Madswim in Alaska and Megan Harrington-Johnson, who’d swum Lake Tanganyika, set out for the Lewis Tarn on the slopes of Mt Kenya.

‘The temperature was 6.5° C’ said Craven. ‘We all did the 65m crossing, then I swam for about 20 minutes to do some trials for the Ojos swim. I was experimenting with different strokes - crawl versus breaststroke - as well as different speeds. Swimming in high altitude involves a difficult balance. In cold water you want to limit your time in the water, so the obvious solution is to swim crawl and cover the distance as fast as possible. But the problem is that it’s very hard to swim crawl at altitude; the lack of oxygen in the air means that your breath is extremely short. So you have to try to breathe slowly. As a result you swim slowly and end up spending a lot of time in the water!

That’s the crux of the challenge at high altitude: having to swim slowly enough to keep your breath, and at the same time trying to limit your time in the water. That’s why we’ll have two doctors and a defibrillator on board when we head to Ojos!

Kenya was quite an experience. We drove all the way from Nairobi; then the climb took us through various different types of vegetation, from dense forest to the bare high alpine zone.  We saw eland on the mountain and the landscape was beautiful – at times it felt like we were on a different planet: actually quite a few different planets!

Obviously completing the swim was the highlight of the trip, but the next morning we climbed up to Point Lenana, the “walkers’ summit” for sunrise. What a view, it’s not often you going to see that!

And we learnt some big lessons, most importantly that you have the right kit and be prepared for all weather situations. You need every ounce of sleep and warmth, otherwise mountain sickness catches up with you.’ 

Forewarned, on 5 December 2015 the team of eight Madswimmers – Jean Craven, Milton Brest, Evan Feldman, Chris Marthinusen,  Herman van der Westhuizen, Robert Graaff, Juandre Human and Megan Harrington-Johnson - will fly to Patagonia to start their bid to swim in the Ojos Pool. After climbing the mountain for eight days they plan to swim across the ice-covered lake in only their Speedos. The temperature is likely to be one degree C. Nobody has combined these extreme levels of altitude and cold before.

They’ll be packing chain saws. ‘The condition of the pool remains a mystery’ admits Craven. ‘It might be half-thermal; it might be completely frozen. Either way we’ll have to cut a channel that’s at least a metre wide.  It’s high, so it’s going to be a mission to even get the chain saws to work at that altitude.

So how did he get a team together for such a crazy escapade? ‘It took quite a bit of cajoling’ Craven admits. ‘But I told them "come on, its going to be a story to tell your grandchildren". That was persuasion enough!’

How can you help? 

The Indiegogo campaign provides the full story with pictures, a link to donate and an opportunity to earn yourself a gift! Or you can donate via the Madswimmer web page

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