Madswimmers On High

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

South African Madswimmers Jean Craven, Juandre Human, Hardi Wilkins and Megan Harrington-Johnson crossed the highest water body in Africa, Lewis Tarn at 4700 meters above sea level high up on the slopes in Mount Kenya in 6.5°C water.

We asked them about their exploit.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you train for these high-altitude swims at home?
Jean Craven: The biggest training we did thus far was climbing Mount Kenya and swimming at 4800 meters. We wanted to see how it is swimming at that altitude and temperature – the water was 6.5°C. The Ojos Swim is going to be a different ball game. We looking at 1600 meters higher still and water can be 1 – 2°C as we plan to take chain saws to cut open the top ice layer.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Where is home?
Jean Craven: Johannesburg for most of us – doctors from Cape Town.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: When you swim at high altitudes, do you change your stroke patterns or number of strokes per minute in any way?
Jean Craven: You definitely have to swim slower and breath more often, a very slow crawl or a breaststroke. The trick is still to try and limit the time in the water, but not lose power at altitude.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Isn’t breathing difficult at such high altitudes?
Jean Craven: It really is. The biggest risk is altitude sickness too. The ultimate challenge is trying to limit time in the water due to the cold temperature, but also not losing power by swimming too fast, it’s a tricky balance.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Are there any special precautions or preparations that you take (e.g., carrying oxygen tanks or sleep in hyperbaric chambers)?
Jean Craven: We are taking along two medical specialists. Dr. Sean Gottschalk who was the medical support to Lewis Pugh’s swim in Tibet. Sean will be joining us on the trip as the lead medical doctor. Dr. Francois du Toit who spent 10 years on a Kyrgyzstan high-altitude mine, and Dr. Dan Badenhorst as the assistant. This altitude advice from Francois du Toit “For Altitude Acclimatisation, Exercise your brain and lungs to get used to relative little oxygen.

It will be good to push up your heart rate with hypoxic living. How? Swim is an natural anaerobic exercise, better to swim with a long snorkel. Even better, swim long distance and breathe every 4 to 6 strokes, also a lot of underwater swimming. Walk far 4 – 6 hours, uphill is better. If not too steep, wear a mask or breathe through a snorkel. Sleeping in a hypoxic chamber would have been better, but this pricy. Putting in a lot of hours to push up your heart rate is good. Cheaper to sleep with a surgical mask, deprive yourself from oxygen, don’t kill yourself, Swimming once above 4000 meters would be great.


Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You are breaking new ground with these high-altitude swims. What safety protocols can you share with the open water swimming community?
Jean Craven: It was an extreme trip with significant physiological challenges. [For the December trip] there is a rapid ascent profile proposed – definite risk altitude illness. Further intel on lake is imperative including water temperature and salt content. Ideally, we need paddlers next to the swimmers. Heating facilities are required at the lake like a heated tent. The idea of altitude / ice swim test runs are very useful, and we will also get the swimmers to do hiking training. It is great to have 3 doctors if possible especially if group splitting between swimmers versus peak climbers. I’ve made contact with the MediClinic, a private hospital group in South Africa, special events department regarding the trip. The model used on the Nepal trip with Lewis Pugh worked well and could probably be repeated.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: If you focus on high-altitude swims, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities for open water swimmers. What advice can you give to scouting out locations and executing these types of swims?
Jean Craven: Like most of these adventures you start with Google and then move on to Google Earth. You have a clean slate, but you need to do a lot of research. Altitude is a new one for us. A big challenge is that there is not a lot of material on swimming at altitude. We can only try and manage the risks as we go, hence we taking 3 doctors with us, and two of them experts in their field.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What do you think of the following proposed definitions of a high-altitude swim: 1 km in distance at 1 km in altitude or 1 mile in distance at 1 mile at altitude (or 1609 meters)?
Jean Craven: The problem with altitude is that the temperature drops roughly 5 degrees per 1 km – so once you reach 5000 meters, the water going to be sub-5°C and less, and swimming a mile at this distance already a massive challenge. Maybe 1 km = 100m so we at 6.4 km = 640 meters. This should be doable. If one wants to go more aggressive, say for every mile you swim 1000 feet, so on top of Ojos – 4 miles (6.4 km) you’ll have to swim 4,000 feet (1200 meters) which will be really tough. Doable, possibly, but really hard. I’ve seen good swimmers try to swim a mile at sea level in sub-5°C degrees, and most of them could not do it. At 4 miles in the air…

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