For the last two and a half years, I’ve carved out some time each week to bob about in a spot of cold water. It’s a task that has become an integral part of my wellbeing and one I wouldn’t be without now. I’ve brought together a collection of pictures of my favourite dips through the seasons with a few words about each of them – I’ve not included the exact locations, but instead encourage you to seek out your own!
I’ll start with autumn. For two reasons, a) it’s my favourite season and b), perhaps more relevant to this piece, it’s when I first started weekly swimming back in September 2020. I was having a rough time at uni with covid lockdowns and no in-person teaching, and a couple friends started getting me out for a swim together – little did they know what they would spark! (Thanks Sam and Bethan.) Autumn is a great time to start cold water swimming, mostly as it’s not that cold! The summer heat lingers in the water longer than it lingers in the air and the colours that bleed into the pools are breath- taking. The temperatures drop gradually with the leaves and that allows you to slowly accustom yourself to warmth-gobbling temperatures. Autumn tingles with excitement for me, the anticipation of the cold that winter steadfastly brings swirls about my neoprene-clad feet each year with every advancing dip.
Pink-footed Derwent Monster
Exceptionally excited the temps were dropping – also featuring the buff bra!
One of my early dips – can you tell from my face?!
Something beautiful about trees overhanging water
Trying my best to match the autumnal colours
Unsurprisingly the best time of year for cold water swimming, winter brings a whole new level of challenge, and fun. It sneaks up on you, imperceptibly, until one morning those autumn winds are suddenly bitter, biting at any exposed flesh with sharp, vengeful teeth. Reclaiming warmth for its own, the water stings, consumes, and drives all other thought from your mind. Swimming in winter is as brutal as it is beautiful; but I love the rawness of it, the stress it momentarily puts my body under as I adjust to the cold. It’s a fine balance, and certainly more dangerous – testing and learning my limits and what my body is capable of is infinitely exciting – but it’s tempered with caution, erring on the side of getting out early and keeping myself safe. My body has become very comfortable with cold water but that doesn’t mean I can be complacent – on my coldest swims, the wind feels warm against me – a strange sensation and a chivvy to get warm clothes on quickly. I never push it and I never swim alone in winter – this isn’t an advice article, but I feel the need to pop that in if I’m writing about it! Cold water swimming has, over the last couple years, brought me a wonderfully freeing sense of acceptance towards my body. Sharing this experience with others, especially women, allows me to focus on what my body can withstand and do, rather than a skewed societal expectation. The fish don’t give two ducks about body hair, cellulite etc…anyway… The effects of the cold stay with me for a while in winter – namely that invigorating buzz you’ll hear cold water swimmers enthralled by which is as wonderful as everyone says it is! My mood is always lifted by a swim, it’s a safety net I can unfailingly fall back on – and one I’m very grateful for. It’s utterly absorbing and allows me to fully immerse myself in the bone-chilling power of this season, bringing a new depth of appreciation for nature and experiencing the turn of the year on a very visceral level. On a practical note, my bum takes the longest to warm up and is often cold for hours!
Spring is here you say? It’s getting warm?! Narp, not in the water! It takes a fair bit longer for those clear, icy rivers to warm up, the lakes are a wee bit quicker but still a way behind the air! I’m normally in a hat (or two) for most of March/April. The abundance of life at this time of year can make for some wonderful encounters – I get excited about anything that wriggles, especially tadpoles. Sharing your swim with ducklings (from a good distance away) is a delight! I had a beautiful swim the other day with several bright blue dragonflies flitting around me as I bobbed about on my tow float (affectionately named ‘Floaty toe’). Providing wildlife are not in the vicinity, my dogs back home are excellent swim companions, even Swift with her incessant barking at/trying to eat the water… I gain so much joy from messing about with them in the water. Swimming in all weathers is another favourite pastime of mine. Last spring, a huge weather front blew across Cumbria, and I convinced my partner to jump in my car with swim stuff already on, run into Bass as the rain lashed down and then drive the 2 mins back home to warm up. I vividly remember closing my eyes against the drops as the gusts tore through me and dived into the water, feeling utterly joyful at being alive.
The only time of year where the rest of the population won’t look at you like a nutter for getting in the water! I once had a guy in the depths of winter ask me astounded if I’d lost a bet…. The water is my refuge in a different way in the summer, being someone who is not a fan of the heat, slipping beneath the cool surface of a lake is a much welcome relief. The long daylight hours that stretch the edges of the day are beautiful for late evening swims. It’s also a great time of year to introduce friends to the joy of outdoor swimming and get them hooked in time for the temps to start dropping again…
Snow crunches softly under my boots as I hop between frozen and not-so-frozen bog.
After an hour of taking the ropes for a walk we’re about to find out if a) we should buy a dog to walk instead or b)Kinder is likely to be climbable. Rounding the umpteenth bend of a river bearded with icicles, I see my partner Sam grinning back at me from round the corner, our gamble has paid off – the downfall is draped in swathes of ice, glinting at us in the (rather unfortunately bright) midday light.
Another forty-five minutes later and we are finally at the base of the downfall. It’s dripping in the sun but looking promising and well formed. Another chap is at the bottom; however, a reluctant second means we are the only pair to rack and rope up. I look Sam square in the face and do my usual ‘are you sure about this?’ and ‘should we be climbing it?’. Reassuringly, he calms my nerves.
The familiar routine of “OK you’re on belay, Sam” and “climbing” ring out across the ice.
Given his much greater experience of ice climbing Sam took the sharp end of the rope – I’ve led a bit of mixed climbing in Scotland but working on my confidence leading in winter is a key aim of mine this season and the coming years. It’s hard when there aren’t many female winter climbers – I know there are others of course, but it has an impact when you’re in the minority out in the snow. I’m lucky that Sam has been a route into winter climbing for me, but a lot of women don’t have an easy way into the mountains, especially winter stuff, which, from an outside view can seem significantly more daunting than other types of climbing.
When I’ve gained a bit more experience and confidence in my ability, I hope to be able to encourage women I know into the mountains in winter. (I’m quite literally sh*t deep in a vet degree so no guiding aspirations for me but there are some fantastic female instructors working in winter.)
Back to the downfall – the initial corner wasn’t quite as well iced as normal but on the plus side that allowed Sam to get a hex in to the right and further up a solid bulldog (not the 4-legged type) that offered some protection for the first pitch. Reminding myself I’m not totally hopeless with a pair of tools, I set off after him, climbing delicately so as not to bring the route down on myself. Scratching around the right side for some hooks and testing out the ice quality I teetered delicately upwards – my hand me down Grivel crampons from my old school instructor serving me well, even if they are a little like climbing with miniature spades on my feet.
The belay sits part way up the downfall before you traverse across to the left and escape out the top corner – assessing the risk from the large icicles that looked like they’d give a decent go at blunt dissection if they came down, I positioned myself out the way as Sam set off on the second pitch. A good decision as one did come down part way through with startling force. Happily, I was safely tucked beyond its reach – a sharp reminder of the importance of good decision making when it comes to winter stuff and the unpredictable nature of the structures we climb on.
Once Sam had made it across and out the top corner, I dismantled the belay and scurried across the icicle fall zone to minimise the time spent in it, reaching the safety of the overhanging gritstone lip at the back of the falls – a calculated risk that I was comfortable taking but a risk nonetheless (I think my mother reads these, perhaps I should take that bit out…)
Winter climbing, especially ice climbing, is a fragile and fleeting pursuit.
With the season becoming less predictable it’s harder to get routes in good condition and often you are taking a punt on a route hoping it will pay off. When it does though, it’s worth every long slog with the ropes and axes. There’s something even more alluring about heading out for the day, not knowing if your plan will be possible. Perhaps you’ll get there and find turf or ice that disintegrates beneath your fingers and beat a hasty retreat, or maybe you’ll swing an axe in and be met with the reassuring thud of a beautiful placement that you’d hang your grandmother off (well sadly mine wouldn’t manage the walk in….).
Either way, the uncertainty of it is enthralling.
I’m fascinated by the shapes that form with the ice. On Kinder the icicles draped the amphitheatre in pearlescent white, the flow of the river momentarily paused, half hung over the rocks it normally dashes down – so temporary yet so beautiful. As we finished the route the sun sank low in the sky and the long shadows lit the ice with an internal fire – waiting for the night’s freeze to quench the flames.
Clambering over the top of the falls, a bitter wind rimed the top of our packs and froze the quickdraws solid.
If the wind didn’t manage it, the view over the Kinder plateau finished off the job of taking our breath away – Manchester and Bolton dazzling far off in the distance, inner city life feeling wholly detached from the wild winter refuge we had escaped to.
Breathing in the glacial air, I let it invade my lungs and prick my cheeks. It worms its way between the layers of wool thermals and escapes in my reflected breath – cold, crisp, clear, comforting. I feel overwhelming gratitude for a day spent in a beautiful place and the transformation of rushing water to immovable ice. I never undervalue the chance to experience nature and I cherish this most acutely in the depths of winter. I love this season, I delight in how fleeting winter can be, and it breaks my heart that climate change spells trouble for this ephemeral landscape.
But for now, I’ll dust off my axes and hope that this winter is just beginning.
Myself and partner-in-climb, Sam had cautiously pencilled in an attempt at Skye’s Black Cuillin Ridge and decided to play it by ear closer to the time. The ridge had been in the back of my mind for years, always feeling far off and intimidating (I can confirm it’s intimidating up close too) however with psyche from me and infinitely more psyche from Sam we decided to give it a go.
Wednesday morning was a quick dash to a practical on lung pathology (vet student here) and then with a bag on the front and a bag on the back I got on the train to Sheffield, meeting Sam there and driving up to my home in the Lakes for a night. Thursday was the long ol’ slog to Skye, arriving at about 11pm in the evening as Sam had to visit some random quarry for us to climb a HVS each to get his ‘fix’ for the day (to be fair Promontory Direct at Auchinstarry is surprisingly excellent).
I’d like to say we had an early start the next day but truthfully after getting in quite late, sorting all the kit in the morning, standing in the queue to pay for the previous night’s camping for about 45 mins and then returning with extra blueberry muffins for the ridge (essentials only) we finally set off at 10.30am from Glen Brittle. With excellent weather, we contoured off around the base of the Cuillin.
Lulled into a nice bit of steady walking, it was a wallop to the system heading up the scree-covered downwards escalator that led to the start of the ridge. We’d decided to do it in two days to try and ‘take it steady’ and ‘enjoy the experience’ however lugging the packs up that starting section with two full nalgenes each and all our food was a special form of type II (maybe III) fun. Once at the top of Gars-bheinn we snaffled some lunch and got going, thankful to be starting on the ridge proper.
The first section was steady, with incredible views and a healthy dose of overwhelming ‘oh boy look how far we have to go’.
I would try and describe the sections, but a lot has blurred in my sleepy mind as I write a couple days after. Coming around one of the early sections of upwards scrambling, I looked up and caught the flash of a chap falling off out of sight behind a rock whilst scrambling down, his partner calling from above after him. Mind racing, I turned to Sam who pithily pointed out that as he wasn’t making any noise, he was either fine or insert your choice word here. We both quickly headed rounded the corner and to my abject relief found that he’d only slipped a couple of metres onto steady ground when a rock gave way, and he was shaken but intact. Reeling slightly, we offered some words of support and I tried to slot it away. A harsh reminder that mountaineering, in all its beguiling complexity, really does dance a dangerous game. But crack on we did, concentrating on every hand and foot hold and reminding myself that I know how to move over rock and that I can trust in my bodies’ ability. My mum always had two phrases for my sister and I when we were walking in the Lakeland fells as children.
“Make sure every step’s a safe step” and “When in doubt, use your bum”
– the latter proving rather entertaining when my sister wrote it on a design your family crest and motto task in primary school. I had those on repeat in my head, though I would like to get more confident at staying on my feet and less attached to my bum at times – I’m always learning.
Up next, the approach to the TD gap provided a nice bit of airy scrambling.
Sam skilfully took the lead of the gap with an enjoyable second for me if made more complex by the lack of rock shoes and the heavy bag. We headed onto King’s Chimney, another classic climb and then mooted on towards the Inaccessible Pinnacle (In Pinn). It was in this section that doing the ridge started to feel unachievable and I had a brief ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed’ moment (but I didn’t really have the salt to do much crying). However, with encouragement from my ridiculously indefatigable partner we trundled onwards. By this point, time was sneaking up on us with an ever-present tick and significant exhaustion, coupled with losing a bit of head game, meant I decided that we’d take the An Stac bypass to the In Pinn rather than tackling the serious scramble over the top.
Quick progress was made to the base of the climb and Sam headed up as the sunset cocooned the improbably balanced rock. The evening light split the sky open as we revelled in the (unsurprising) lack of queues given it was 10.30pm at night and hastily stuffed layers on as the wind began to wick in earnest at the day’s sweat. Abseiling off the back, we dropped down the other side and gratefully spotted a bivy spot.
Water supplies were running low and we hadn’t quite reached the water source we hoped, but decided we had just enough for the night. (Matters were complicated when I managed to tip over the pan of boiling water I was supposed to be minding and dent our meagre supplies further…) Dinner consisted of one of alpkit’s firepot meals each (I don’t think we had enough water to do them justice but big props to the compostable packaging) followed with a hot chocolate Sam kindly gave me the majority of as I was shivering in earnest. Sleeping stuff was unpacked and psychological adjustments were made to the bivy spot in the form of a few extra stones around the edge.
The night’s sleep got off to an interesting start, my plan to use one of my layers as a pillow fell foul when I discovered I was wearing all of them.
The snack bag stepping up to the mark as the world’s sh*test pillow I’ve ever had. (Cue very squashed food for the second day.) As I shivered in and out of sleep, wondering if I had ever felt so sweaty yet so cold simultaneously before, the sheer beauty of where I was lying wiggled into my tired mind.
I was in such space yet there was utter silence.
I couldn’t believe the mountains made such little noise at night. I almost expected the ridge to be creaking and groaning as she slumbered through the night with us. I’d say morning dawned but that sounds far too romantic when I woke up cold and covered in condensation to be plonked inside Sam’s much warmer sleeping bag and topped up with hot chocolate again. As the sun began to hit our spot, we packed up and set off to find water. I was feeling very sick at this point, (to the point that I gagged a couple times…) and I often struggle to eat early on in the day. A combination of nerves and being bad at mornings, I think. Whilst I perched at the top of the next gully feeling sorry for myself trying to coax food down, Sam descended part way down to the water source.
With horribly heavy bags once again, day two began in earnest. Fortunately, once I got going, I felt much better and settled for some Laughing Cow cheese triangles. The second day, whilst containing less pitched climbs, has a fair bit more technical scrambling than the first. The knife edge arete along the top of Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh proved a particular challenge to my frayed mental reserves and a short rope from Sam here and at a few other points was much appreciated. (For those potentially unaware, short roping is a few metres of rope out where the more confident person can give you a big ‘ol tug if you slip to give the less confident person a bit of support).
With the sun baking us to a pringle again, we navigated through the mod and diff sections efficiently, with Sam scrambling up them and then rock belaying me up. The end was starting to feel ever so slightly tangible however we were running short on time and decided to take the northern bypass due to this – a shame to miss Bidean but pragmatism prevailed on my part here.
After this came a couple of exciting gaps in the ridge. You can go round these but Sam didn’t tell me this until afterwards – deciding they would be more fun for us to jump or cautiously step in my case.
Heading up to Bruach na Frithe we stopped for a quick bit of cous cous and pot noodle (my guilty pleasure) at the top – contemplating the significant distance and then walk out we still had to come… With the evening making itself known, we had a brief grump with each other about whether to go over Am Basteir or to do Naismith’s as we’d hoped to do all the pitched climbs. In the end, we didn’t do either as by this point all I wanted was a nice straightforward path where I didn’t matter if I put a foot in the wrong place…A little frustrating to miss those bits out but I never climb for a box ticking exercise so happily made my peace with this.
Everyone does the Cuillin in their own way and in my opinion I don’t feel there’s a right or wrong way to do it.
Dropping bags on the path below Am Basteir (as we’d be reversing our steps to them) brought welcome relief for the final push – I’d found that the weight of the pack had badly affected my balance and thus confidence for a lot of the ridge. We soloed the first section onto Sgurr nan Gillean and then Sam rock belayed me for the slightly more exposed bit. Once over this, the scramble to the top was steady and popping through the window an entertaining little feature (see my face below). Standing on top of the final summit, I didn’t feel as elated as I expected, perhaps because we still had to get down or maybe emotions were a bit beyond me at that point.
Abseiling down the final chimney, we returned to the bags and tootled off towards Sligachan, supressing the urge to dip in the beautiful deep pools we passed. In a stroke of luck, my parents and dogs were also holidaying on Skye and I’d cajoled them into cooking us dinner and dropping us off back at Glen Brittle. Knowing that finishing the ridge also meant seeing my dogs for the first time in 6 weeks was a source of motivation that can’t be understated! (Seeing my parents was alright too 😉 ).
After the best shower I’ve ever had we collapsed into bed at about half midnight and didn’t stir until the tent became a sauna and I made a speedy exit into the sea the next morning. A few days on and lots of sleep later (including in my lecture on Monday…) and I’m already itching to go back and have another go. The classic refrain of “I’m never doing that again” as I touched the final cairn evaporating quickly in rose-tinted hindsight and thoughts about trying it in a day with a light pack…
I’d want to have more practice at sustained grade three scrambling before another attempt. I’ve done several scrambles before (Aonach Eagach, Pinnacle Ridge etc….) but they pale into insignificance when compared with the sustained nature of the Cuillin that bit by bit ate away at my reserves – it’s rarely talked about in mountaineering I feel, but I certainly find that repeated exposure has this effect on me.
Back to uni life and two weeks of exams that I’m sure the Cuillin will have been excellent revision for, I’ve felt a little deflated. It’s always an odd experience after climbing something you’ve been thinking about for years – I don’t have any other big goals at the moment so if anyone has suggestions to re-focus my psyche please let me know! My thanks and love must also go to Sam – I’m so grateful for the experiences we get to share together, even if at times I get a little grumpy…
On reflection, the Cuillin is one the most compelling and stunning ridges I’ve ever been on – when Scotland has good weather, and not too many of the biting buggers we shan’t speak of, it can be truly breath-taking. I think a little bit of my mind is still up there on the ridge, waiting for another crack…
My bike is called Otter, she’s been my faithful companion for a number of years now, mainly for commuting. However, earlier this summer we took the rather deep plunge together of going on a cycle tour.
My main sports are climbing and fell/trail/ultra-running (anything that involves an excuse to walk uphill essentially) so cycle touring was a rather new adventure. I’m not fully sure where the idea to give it a go came from; I think I just decided it looked quite fun. Fast forward to the start of July, and I found myself on a ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye with a friend from the climbing club at uni cajoled along for the ride. (I later discovered he’d done some cycling holidays before, not as novice as he let on!) The original plan had been to cycle up the Outer Hebrides, and then back down the West Coast, however due to my inability to book ferries until the week before and some uncertainty around dates due to graduations, we had to reverse the direction to be able to make the crossings work. I think it ended up better though, with the harder West Coast out the way, allowing for a more relaxed second half.
The first day of cycling started well although I swiftly realised that one packet of tortellini for dinner was not enough to fill me up.
I had several moments where I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task ahead of me, with my mind frequently wandering to the thought of ‘it’s ok, I could just cycle back to the car within a day’; but once we’d crossed the Bealach na Bà at Applecross (the highest mountain pass in the UK, a great one for your first day of cycle touring….I hope you can hear the sarcasm) those thoughts were quickly dispelled as there was no way I was going back over. With 55 miles and a decent amount of ascent, fish and chips at the bottom never tasted so good and the yellow weather warnings that had accompanied us up the motorway didn’t make their appearance until the evening,
Over the next few days, we wound our way up the West Coast, eating massive dinners (although I kept eating my breakfast when I woke up in the middle of the night) and trying to dodge the midges. Poolewe was a particularly stunning spot with our first proper bit of sun and a wash in the sea, I wrote a couple of snippets whilst sitting on the rocks by the shore.
“Oyster catches peeling the setting sky open with their calls. The sun glinting through the intricate lace of clouds draping the bay, handsewn together by the weather; wind for the holes, rain for the pattern and sun to bleach it white. The sharp distinctive tang of seaweed tickles my nose as I watch the waders in their teeniest of pitter patters flit across the shore.”
Throughout the next week we crossed from Ullapool (if you haven’t been to the Seafood Shack there and had their haddock wrap, especially when you forgot to buy breakfast the day before, then I’m not sure you’ve lived) to Stornoway on the Outer Hebrides and gently settled into the rhythm of cycle touring. At times I found it a little stressful, half an eye always kept on looming rain clouds, wondering whether I needed to pack away the optimistic solar charger slung over my panniers. Other times my body felt attuned to the weather and the lie of the land, the hills a statement, something requiring further effort from my legs accompanied by a thin film of sweat. A rather different method of travel to merely pressing harder on the right-hand pedal.
Our first night on the Outer Hebs was a wee bit tragic, and the lowest point of the trip. With no decent spots on the road heading north late at night after the ferry got in, we ended up on some rocks and between concrete blocks by a fishing lock. The midges nearly exsanguinated us, and breached the tent, meaning I slept in a head net for the night. Singing to myself was required to distract from how grim the current predicament was.
The rest of the week however was a gorgeous meander down the Hebridean Way. A medley of calligraphic beaches bordered by mountains, and evenings spent by the sea, watching the oyster catchers thread the tide line. We washed in the sea most evenings, a rhythm I delighted in and found brought me in step with the pace of the journey. North Uist even spoilt us with an afternoon of roaring sunshine, and I bobbed about in the sea with my eyes shut against the reflected light, feeling on the cusp of merging into the seascape that held me.
I wrote a little poem while we were on Luskentyre beach, it’s nothing much but here goes:
Cycle touring as a method of travel surprised me in many ways.
The slower pace made each day feel like it spanned at least two, or three, because it gave me time to notice the area around me in greater depth than I’ve previously experienced. It also leaves you more open to interaction with people, where the necessity of a car door otherwise creates an obvious barrier. Greetings and smiles from those in their gardens, accompanied by passing enquires about our journey’s start and end, lent a feeling of community on the road.
Our final day of cycling saw us ploughing through a heavy headwind all day, and exhausted we finally made it to Lochboisdale. A reminder that had the weather been in cahoots against us, the trip could have had a rather less relaxing feel. Our ferry back to Mallaig at early doors had an odd feeling to it, I’d got rather used to the routine of wake, cycle, swim in the sea and allowing the landscape to sustain me. Though I won’t fib it was nice to be in a bed having shared a tent that was too small to sit up in for two weeks!
With thanks to my friend for joining in on my idea and to Otter for having nothing go wrong mechanically as that really isn’t my area of expertise….