Swimming in Svalbard

Swimming in Svalbard

Courtesy of Ram Barkai of the International Ice Swimming Association at 79.59°N 25.29°E.

Barkai describes the Svalbard Ice Swimming Adventures, held in Svalbard, Norway within the Arctic Circle where the swimmers swam in 0.00°C water and 0.00°C air temperatures. “The Svalbard Ice Swimming Adventures has been planned for over a year now. It was the natural next stop after our 2018 Antarctica Ice Swimming Adventure. Everything was ready, yet, some bizarre virus started to rattle the world. We first learned about it in December 2019 while ice swimming in Far East China.

When we arrived in Beijing in late December, it was still a local issue in Wuhan. Stewart, our travel and the trip logistic agent, was hopeful, that all will be well. [But] suddenly, the world simply shut down on us.

We didn’t give up. Some dropped and some new faces joined, but the core team was unwavering. Another year went by. The virus started to get harnessed, or at least we thought so, and then, in early 2021, another wave spiked around the world and shut us down again. It was a bizarre world where dreams seized to exist and the focus was on survival, in our own homes, with nowhere to go to.

The venue

For me/us, no matter how wide the digital world is, I needed to see, touch, and feel the Ice, the frozen water, and the wonderful nature it brings with it.

It was late 2021 and the trip started to look real again. Suddenly Russia decided to invade Ukraine for reasons we will probably never understand, and while it is a “local” war, it is in Europe. It was not far from Norway and Scandinavia.

I took a deep breath and just hoped…while preparing literarily in the last few weeks. I already learned to omit dates and years from the medals, jackets, swimwear, and any expedition accessories. All was ready to go, whatever year or date it happens.

Suddenly, it was time. We got the green light; Svalbard is a go.

We didn’t even need a COVID test since we were double vaccinated, but the flight had to extend for a few hours to avoid southern Russia and Ukraine on route to Oslo via Qatar. Arriving in Oslo and meeting everyone was the start of an epic and surreal expedition. I knew almost everyone. Some are very well, but haven’t seen them for several years. All seasoned swimmers, some Ice Milers, English Channel or North Channel swimmers, some Oceans Seven and Ironman warriors, and myself, the frozen mad one with my bright side next to me, Sam Whelpton [shown above].

It was time to head far and deep north to the last stop before the North Pole. The last bit of civilisation, as small as it is, before the Arctic Sea of ice. No one prepared us for how brutal, but breathtaking, it is going to be. For some of the swimmers, there were a few new challenges: swimming in sub-zero water was new to those who haven’t been with us in Antarctica. It is extreme.

Water temperature
Petar Stoychev rewarming
Rewarming with shirtless Jean Craven

The other one was swimming north of the Arctic Circle. In IISA terms, it is considered a Polar Swim, and you must swim at least 1 kilometer under IISA rules. Swimmers who swim at least 1 kilometer in both Polar regions: south of 60° South and north of 70° North are awarded [the title of] Both-Polar Ice Swimmer.

To date, there were only 5 Both-Polar Ice Swimmers.

The Ice Swimming team included

Josh Ackerman (23 years old from South Africa, shown below) (and his parents Johnathan and Samantha – converted ice plungers), a newcomer to the Ice and open water swimming. He completed Ice Kilometers in Lesotho and Glogow, Poland in IISA 4th World Championship.

Jean Craven (50 years old from South Africa), a seasoned open water swimmer, founder of Mad Swimmers, and an official Both-Polar Ice Swimmer.

Neil Hopkins (40 years old from South Africa shown below), open water and ice swimmer who has swum in the 3rd IISA World Championships in Murmansk, Russia.

Sam Whelpton (36 years old from South Africa, shown below), an Ironman, an open water warrior, and an Ice Swimmer who swam in Antarctica and helped with the expedition logistics and everything. Sam swam in Murmansk, Burghausen and Glogow at the 2nd, 3rd and 4th IISA World Championships who is also my beloved partner in life.

Ellery McGowan (75 years old from Australia, shown below), an ice warrior who never complained and took it all in with open arms and heart. I have some competition here.

Hassan Baraka (35 years old from Morocco, shown below), a recent Ice Swimmer with boundless energy and always a warm smile for all even when the chips are down and frozen. Hassan has accomplished 2 Ice Miles.

Filip Jicha Sr. (52 years old from the Czech Republic) and Filip Jicha, Jr. (18 years old), and Marketa (44 years old), a beautiful frozen family from Czech Republic.

Petar Stoychev (45 years old from Bulgaria, shown below), the one and only, the legendary swimmer from Bulgaria, now officially a both-Polar ice swimmer. Petar swam in 4 Olympics Games and was the professional marathon swimming world championship for 11 years in a row. He sits on IISA Global Board.

Paolo Chiarino (55 years old from Italy, shown below), a long-time Ice Swimmer. We shared many adventures in the past and many more to come. A marathon swimmer, an Ironman triathlete, and a newly crowned Both-Polar Ice swimmer.

Elina Mäkinen (28 years old from Finland), our young TikTok celebrity and a hard-core Ice Swimmer from Finland.

Craig Lenning (42 years old from the USA, shown below), a well-known open water swimmer and Sarah Thomas’ swimming buddy, an old-time good friend from Colorado who swam the Bering Straits together as well as across the English Channel and North Channel.

Lynton Mortensen (58 years from Australia and his lovely wife Lisa, another ice swimming convert), nicknamed the Sea Bull who was actually a Viking in his previous life. An Oceans Seven swimmer and now an Ice Swimmer.

Marion Joffle (23 years old from France), a petite French Ice Swimmer who is ranked in the Top 10 in the ICE KM event worldwide. She is a strong swimmer with a strong head, always happy.

Peggy Henning (54 years old from Germany), a quiet, strong swimmer. She also won the snowmobile race against all of us macho loud men. She was accompanied by her friends from Germany Heiki and Michael

Dr Michal Starosolski (40 years old from Poland), our expedition doctor who is a solid and fun Emergency Room doctor who was my Svalbard Ice Mile doctor in 2016 and the IISA 4th World Championship Medical Officer.

Last, but not least, your humble Ice veteran and expedition leader, Ram Barkai, IISA Chair and founder and multiple Both-Polar ice swimmer. I swam in Antarctica 3 times and completed 11 Ice Miles and dozens of Ice Kilometers around the world. I started Ice Swimming Adventures in 2018 with the first trip to Antarctica.

I have to mention Stewart Campbell who doesn’t join us in our adventures, but is an integral part of making my adventure dreams happen.

The expedition has two parts: The Swim, and Svalbard exploration. The Swim decided to venture out to the beautiful glaciers to seek a beautiful location for our test swim. The test swim is around 200m or max of a 5-minute swim to bring in the Ice into your veins and brain. I started it in my first Antarctica Swim in 2008 and I carried it for every event and swim we do. It’s not a fitness or warm-up swim. It is simply to calibrate your body and mind with what you are to attempt the following day. That icy feeling in your hands, feet, and all other sensitive extremities. It reminds your muscles and brain of what is about to come and not to panic when it comes. It is always hard and can be scary. It is short and nothing like a the big swim. But I found it very useful and helpful for the big swim.

Svalbard welcomed us with an unexpected cold front with high of -10°C and a low of -17°C.

On top of that, add gusty winds. If you don’t understand windchill factor, try this and it will freeze your internal organs solid. We ventured across the fjord to find a frozen sea with a water temperature of -2°C or lower. I’ve seen ice in many places around the world, but I have never seen -2°C or lower sea temperature. The sea salinity level here is high and allows the water to freeze at around close to -3°C.

To put things in perspective, the fluids in our body, which is around 70% of our constituency freeze around -1.7°C, so to swim in water that cold that conducts heat around 30 times faster than air is simply deadly. The water temp at the event location was -1°C which suddenly looked so warm and inviting compared to the -2°C. The captain’s thermometer said -3°C, I decided to use my thermometers.

We could all plunge into -2°C. I have had an Ice bath at -2°C before with my hands up to avoid long-term damage to my fingers, but a swim with a frozen access ladder to the big boat was simply not safe. I learned a while ago that it is the nature of Ice Swimming Adventures to shift and change with extreme parameters and one needs to adapt quickly to maintain the high level of safety required in such conditions. We headed back to the harbor which had a frozen jetty and sauna and offered some protection from the soul penetrating wind.

We all did our test swim, including the support and friends and the doctor. John Ackerman just couldn’t have enough of it and he plunged in and out of the icy water like an ecstatic frozen seal. Samantha, his wife, didn’t hold back as well, but the dark horses were Lisa Mortensen and Marketa who plunged into a few-minute swim, unfazed and elated.

The big day arrived.

I set the heats, two swimmers at a time and one or two for the Ice Miles.

The distances were from 250m to 1 mile, which is brutal in these temperatures. I will not go through each swimmer’s experience. I’ll leave it up to them to share it, but it was a packed two days of tough swims and hard recoveries. The sun here at 78° North is on 24/7. There is no sunset or sunrise, it is the same for three months.

In Ice Swimming, the swims are always an amazing display of one’s grit and skill and wonderful teamwork. Everyone was involved at all times. Swimmers or supporters, we all had a part to play. Swim, second a swimmer, walk up and down in a dry suit for safety, keep a watching eye on each swimmer, assist the swimmer exit the water, and most importantly, assist in the recovery.

Not everyone swam what they hoped to swim initially. Some scaled-down due to the severe conditions and some had to abort early as the cold shut them down. Nevertheless, everyone was a superhero in my books.

To strip, basically naked, in a skimpy swimming costume with one cap and a pair of goggles and step down into -1°C with an air temp of -17°C with wind gusts that can turn your extremities into icicles in a few seconds – that takes a huge amount of commitment. The female crowd noticed a new phenomenon in the sauna. The first thing all male swimmers did, even though their minds and brain were still solidly frozen, was to reach down under their skimpy frozen swimwear and check the crown jewels. For whatever reason, it seemed to be a common thread among the men who said, “It’s gone! I can’t find it!” Followed by an attempt to green with frozen face muscles and state “I found them!”.

If you haven’t been in a recovery room after a brutal Ice Swim, you need to understand that the icy swim strip everyone from every layer of pretense and inhibitions. It levels us all as a simple mortal human being real and honest. It may sound wrong, but it is a wonderful sight. Everyone helps everyone with laughter and a smile. Frozen or melting with sweat in the sauna. No judgment or critics, just getting everyone through the recovery process and later in the endless post ice swim high.

The female swimmers who are always stronger than the strongest man, suffer quietly and don’t complain. Who invented that ridiculous saying, “Just take it like a man?”. The women are so much stronger than the men.

The swims certainly had their moments.

In such cold water, things change quickly. A swimmer can look frozen, but is strong and deteriorate within 10 meters. Each swimmer had a tow float and was close to the jetty and the boat.

Some recoveries were very hard, but everyone is fine and well.

The swims went over two days. No party or defection, we needed everyone for the entire two days and everyone obliged 100%+. Everyone was great.

The next day followed by dog sledding, took us deep into the ice and frozen fjords. It was such a beautiful and surreal experience, we simply must come back again. Once the dogs are harnessed and start their stride, it all goes quiet. All you can hear is their heavy breathing and the sound of the sled. The surrounding beauty can’t be captured by images, videos, and words. You simply have to come here and take it all in yourself.

A few of us remained for the extension trip, which will become an integral part of the adventure from the next trip. It was three days of around 100 km a day into the wild white desert. We stayed in a remote cabin and were visited by a lone polar bear at around midnight.

The expedition guide managed to chase him away with a flare gun before he got the opportunity to smash some windows and make his way onto the cabin. We saw a couple of them from a distance later on as we drove over frozen seas and fjords.

We visited the Russian ghost town, Pyramides, and ate expedition food for a few days. The scenery was simply extra-terrestrial. I just couldn’t believe my eyes, how beautiful and raw nature is here. I forgot to blink for a while, speeding in my snowmobile, and got my right eyeball covered with frost I had to blink again and again to wash the frost and get it working again. It wasn’t a fun experience. Sam and others got their eyelashes solid frozen.

We are all well and defrosted now. So long Svalbard. I miss my flat white with almond milk, I miss the comfort of our home and my home-cooked meals, I miss the tips of my fingers and the beach, BUT most of all I miss beautiful Svalbard and the team that bonded for life in this surreal and unreal adventure.”

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Steven Munatones