The idea of conquering fear suggests that a fear that was once felt, irrational or not, is somehow destroyed or replaced. I'm not sure I agree based on my experience. Some days, swimming is just as rewarding as a day running in the mountains, gill scrambling or climbing and other days, it is mentally tiring and has the soul-destroying feeling of failure. Still, I'm learning to be at ease with the fear and more importantly to maintain a calm mental state even though part of my psyche is screaming at me to run away and it's this that is making me realise that I've not truly known the environment I've been playing in, but simply falling in love with what I see on the surface.
Two mini adventures have come from my refusal to turn away from the open water and to swim on a regular basis. The first was a swim-camp outing and the second, something I never really even thought of, despite it being blatantly obvious as an adventure, to swim run from a summit to sea.
The Swim camp adventure was simple. An evening swim out to an island in the middle of Derwent Water, tow warm clothes, shelter and sleeping kit in a tow float and spent the evening on the island, having a meal and enjoying that sense of utter seclusion despite the close proximity of civilization. The swim was more challenging than normal, with strong winds from the jaws of Borrowdale creating fairly hefty waves. Once on the island though, the trees sheltered us from the winds and as the sun began to set, the weather seemed to calm itself. We set up camp, Andy with his full complement of Alpkit goodies, me with my minimalist approach of a survival blanket turned into a tarp, bubblewrap groundsheet and my super light sleeping bag. Other's visit these islands by other means and it was obvious that the place had a history of being used as a wild camping or midday picnic spot. We cooked our evening meal, set up camp and then sat, enjoying the peace of the island whilst we were rewarded for out adventurous efforts with a unique view of the sun setting over Derwent Water.
After a good night's sleep and we wake to rain, don our damp wetsuits and remove all trace of our night there. After a quick scout for any rubbish left behind on the island, we headed to the water. I have to say, this was the low point of the whole experience. Leaving a warm and delightful bed behind to get into a lake cold with the water running off the fells that surround it. A slow and deliberate swim back, enjoying the slow rise of the sun and chatting as we returned to the shore and the promise of warm, dry clothes. I can't recommend this type of adventure enough. That sense of discovery and exploration you feel as a child, charging your way through the undergrowth and working your way through new places is what makes adventures special, and despite the short distance and time spent on this one, it had an abundance of that feeling.
A few weeks later, I've had some great swim filled with laughter, diving off rocks and sinking calmly into the depths of Wast Water and Crummock, but at the same time I experienced that lack of calm and panic as my fear started to overtake any progress I felt I'd made. When this happens I try calming myself by controlling my breathing but if it has little effect, I opt for an early exit before I put myself in unnecessary danger. I'm learning to read the water in lakes and rivers and understand it better, so it seemed a good time to attempt a swim-run from Scafell Pike to the sea, a 25 mile route that has a 1:4 swim to run ration.
The idea of it excited me. To start at the peak of England's tallest peak, to swim sections of Ingmell Beck into Wast Water, England's deepest lake, then into a section of the River Irt, followed by a run to Drigg to finish at the Irish sea. The weather as always didn't want to play ball and I'm getting the feeling that maybe there's some kind of bad weather magnet attached to me at times, but I've been to the summit of Scafell Pike in all weathers and with a check of weather forecasts it seemed it would just be a cold wet summit, which when adding that I was getting into a cold and wet river followed by a lake, seemed like an apt start. The summit was in heavy clag and I had to use my map and compass to make sure I didn't wander off course before I reached the trig. As I stood at the top collecting my thoughts a getting myself ready for the descent and swims, visibility improved as the wind speed increased. On slippery rocks, I ran down from the summit along the main path, descending out of the clouds and being rewarded by the usual incredible view of Wast Water and the Screes. A quick change at my van and I head into Ingmell Beck, flowing higher than normal due to the recent rains and cold... Mind-numbingly cold.
I walk along the river to check for potential obstacles beneath the surface, return further upstream and I'm in. Face in the water, looking ahead and feeling like I'm flying. This is my first experience of swooshing and despite the onset of brain freeze, I stand in the shallows with a manic grin on my face. There was no fear in these shallower waters and I found myself fascinated by the small hollows on the banks of the river. Dark little hovels churned out by the moving water beneath the base of trees. The beck deepens and I'm stood waist deep at the mouth of Wast water. The oncoming wind creates waves that reach the opposing current form the beck and create huge rolling waves that never seem to make any progress.
I've never seen this before and I'm transfixed by them. I hear Jimmy and Josh (two friends who have come along to film the mini-adventure, something that in reality involves lots of "can you just go back and do that again?") shout that they are ready to go and look to see them paddling into Wast Water. Goggles go on and I'm off, swimming into the big waves with a small sense of uncertainty but calm knowing that I have safety support if I need it.
The swim is tough, having spent two hours submerged in the colder water of the beck and with large swells making breathing a delicate operation. Despite the challenge, I'm amazed by the beauty of the water. A deep turquoise with flecks of gold floating at different depths. Wast Water is a truly amazing lake to swim in as it's clear waters allow you to really appreciate how deep it is whilst giving you great views of the Screes on its west shoreline dive deep into its black belly. I remember my first panicked swim and my trip out to simply float face down in the middle of Wast Water. It's as though it's been one of those places that hold moment after moment of important memories, and more importantly, it's where I realized that the lakes have a hidden beauty beneath their surfaces and each has its own character and personality.
Three more hours of swimming and filming and I can feel the first tiring effects of the cold, so we call it a day and we head back to camp in the canoe. The next day, I set off from the same location and swam towards the River Irt. My old fear sat closer to my conscious thoughts, so I hugged the line of screes and immersed myself in the rocky underwater landscape, looking at the bright red weeds that floated up from the lake bed and was bemused that despite heading to the outlet of the lake, all the vegetation in the lake seemed to be bending in the opposite direction. Swimming to the Irt seemed to happen faster than I was expecting and the sudden change in the flora beneath the surface unnerves me. I stand in the shallows for a few minutes, regain some composure, remember the joy of floating with the current of Lingmell Beck and head back into the river.
Swathes of golden and dark green weeds bend and sway with the current and I glide above them as they slowly give way to a floor of rounded pebbles. I treat the river with more caution than before, heading to eddies and constantly scouting ahead. A weir is avoided by popping out of the river, walking on the footpath and then returning to it further downstream. I pass from shallows to deeper sections and all the while I seem to revel in the sense of exploration, a sense that maybe no one has ever been here before. With the current helping me along, it's not long before I reach my out point at Nether Wasdale and start the run section.
Taking time to wash equipment before moving on... Help stop the inadvertent spread of invasive species. http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/caringfor/policies/alien-2
A winding trail through woodland gives way to rough farmer tracks as the land becomes more inhabited and tamed by humans. Then footpaths become country roads and pavements until a final stretch of road with sand dunes on the horizon. A last small climb and I'm there. It's the sea ahead of me and I stop staring out at the choppy waters. What an odd experience to have stood on a mountain, swam across a lake and in a river, to run and then stand at the sea where the water that flowed from the peak has joined the water in the oceans. Now I want to repeat the adventure, taking a different route down from Scafell Pike, following a different river and across different lakes. While I keep improving my swimming, exploring new places to swim and finding a new enjoyment from gill scrambling and swooshing, I constantly return to a quote by Marcel Proust - "The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes"
It's time to explore the landscapes that I love in a new way, as I keep finding ways to make fear my friend.