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Cold comfort - open water swimming in Loch Morlich near Aviemore with Alice Goodridge and the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers

By John Davidson

John feeling the effects of the cold!
John feeling the effects of the cold!

Very little can prepare you for that first ice-cold dip into the water – but that didn’t stop me from trying. Arriving early for my first real taste of open water swimming, I walked down to the beach at Loch Morlich and dipped my ungloved hand into the water.

That was mistake number one. Chilly doesn’t even begin to describe it. I started to wonder what I had let myself in for.

At the beginning of the year, I set myself the challenge of doing some open water swimming as part of Scotland’s year of coasts and waters. In April I plan to take part in an organised swim – not a race – in a sea loch in the Highlands.

I’ve been finding time to do some sessions in the pool but knew at some point I would need to take the plunge and get in the water outside.

So why not at the foot of the snow-covered Cairngorms, with the temperature in Glenmore hanging just above the zero degrees mark?

With snow melt and the time of year, the water temperature was around two degrees Celsius as we made our way towards the water – with me the only one of around 15 swimmers wearing a wetsuit!

Thankfully, I was in good hands, as long-distance open water swimmer Alice Goodridge was introducing me to the joys of winter swimming.

John prepares for the water ont he beach at Loch Morlich, with Alice Goodridge (left).
John prepares for the water ont he beach at Loch Morlich, with Alice Goodridge (left).

Alice (32) is the founder of the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers group and has completed an impressive array of solo swims, including the English Channel, the length of Loch Lomond and the IISA (International Ice Swimming Association) Ice Mile.

“The Channel was extreme,” she tells me, “but the water temperature wasn’t that extreme – it was about 16 degrees – and because I’d acclimatised over the previous couple of years, I didn’t find it cold at all.

“Loch Lomond was really tough temperature-wise because it was about 14 degrees but we did it overnight, so the air temperature went down to about four degrees and I got really cold.

“I’ve never been that cold for that long – I was cold for about 10 hours – and the only thing that kept me going was that I knew I could deal with that water temperature.”

Today was all about getting in the water and getting used to the idea of acclimatising to the cold – there would be no distance records here! My own ambition was just to get in and swim a few strokes in the new wetsuit, a first small step.

The water temperature was similar to that during Alice’s Ice Mile, which involved swimming that distance in water under five degrees. Having dipped my face in the icy water a couple of times on this occasion, I didn’t envy Alice’s long swim in this stuff, when she told me she was “properly swimming” and had to put her head fully under the water.

The feeling of being in the water of Loch Morlich surrounded by the vista of Rothiemurchus Forest with the Northern Corries rising up into their icy cauldrons behind was really something to savour, though. Not that there was much time for savouring anything in these conditions.

Getting some swimming in before the adrenaline wears off.
Getting some swimming in before the adrenaline wears off.

Alice, who is originally from Hampshire but lives in Newtonmore, guided me into the water slowly, concentrating on taking deep breaths and particularly exhaling properly – something that’s easy to forget when the cold water hits your body.

I was certainly glad of the wetsuit and wondered just how everybody else was bobbing about in their swimsuits, albeit with hands and feet well wrapped in neoprene and with hats on.

Warming up in the café afterwards, Alice explains how many members of the group started off in wetsuits but gradually acclimatised to the water without them – largely due to the faff of taking off a wetsuit afterwards – but there is no judgment here from anybody. In fact, there is a welcoming atmosphere from the moment I arrive, and everyone is keen to share tips and enthusiasm with a newcomer like me.

And for Alice, who is planning to swim Loch Awe, the longest fresh-water loch in Scotland at 41km, later this year, that’s what it is all about.

She said: “Yes, I’ve got all these things to train for, I’ve done lots of big swims but I think my proudest achievement in swimming is setting up the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers and getting more and more people into it rather than the long swims that I’ve achieved individually.

Final preparations as John and Alice head towards the shore.
Final preparations as John and Alice head towards the shore.

“Those aren’t really important beyond being my personal challenges, whereas actually we’ve got some amazing stories within this group.”

She tells me tales of people who have not only done impressive swims themselves since coming along but also of people’s personal journeys, witnessing them blossoming as part of the group.

“It’s a really nice social thing to do, a little bit crazy but then it’s nice to do something crazy with another bunch of crazy people!”

The group meets every Sunday morning at Loch Morlich, as well as arranging ad hoc swims at other times and locations.

“For me, Sunday mornings are all about Cairngorm Wild Swimmers,” says Alice. “If there are new people I’ll look after them; if there’s someone who’s come from afar I’ll chat to them but my Sunday mornings are not about training, my Sunday mornings are about Cairngorm Wild Swimmers, whether that’s taking newbies in or keeping an eye on people from a safety point of view.”

It was reassuring to have somebody who is so experienced close to hand for my first real wild swim. I’ll certainly be back for more, though I’m looking forward to some warmer water in the future!

Getting some swimming in before the adrenaline wears off.
Getting some swimming in before the adrenaline wears off.

About Cairngorm Wild Swimmers

Cairngorm Wild Swimmers is a network of people who love swimming wild in the outdoors. Based in the Cairngorms National Park, the group is friendly and welcoming to swimmers of all abilities, whether you just want to dip your toe in or are looking for training partners for more serious swims or triathlons.

For more information on Cairngorm Wild Swimmers, search for the group on Facebook

Alice Goodridge also runs SwimWild, offering coaching, adventure and events in open water swimming. See swimwilduk.com

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