01 March 2012

Meet the Iceman

‘Human polar bear’ and ecowarrior Lewis Gordon Pugh braves the iciest seas to save the planet. Would you follow his lead?


‘Human polar bear’ and ecowarrior Lewis Gordon Pugh braves the iciest seas, ostensibly to save the planet. Would you follow his lead?

The day I met Lewis Pugh, famous for plunging into deathly polar seas that would snatch the life out of most humans in minutes, I bought a thermometer.

Later that evening I ran a cold bath, added plenty of ice cubes, called a friend in case I passed out -- or worse, stumbled around the neighbourhood naked and delusional -- and got into the water. 9°C. I lasted all of a minute. 

Attempting to recreate the Arctic Circle on a midwinter evening in your bathroom is probably not the most constructive way to go about solving the global environmental crisis.

But it does go to show that South-African raised Pugh and his exploits – most recently, swimming Everest in a frigid lake below the summit to raise awareness about how climate change is shrinking the life-sustaining water supply of the Himalayan glaciers – may inspire something more dynamic than armchair awe and dinner-table banter in those back home.

(To put my little stunt into perspective: when Pugh became the first person to swim at the North Pole, he spent just under 19 minutes in -1.7 °C water. Cold. Bone-crushing. Lifeblood-stilling. To even begin to imagine it, get out the ice cubes.)

What lies beneath

Reading Pugh's new autobiography, Achieving the Impossible, prior to meeting him should have made me glad that someone who commands public attention as he can is championing the Green cause.

But it didn't make me glad; it made me grumpy. I steer clear of biography and travel writing because it inevitably brings on an attack of the jealous sulks: who wants to sit on the couch while someone else larks about in exotic locales? Even if such larks do make for choice anecdotes:

...everywhere there were whalebones. Thousands of them, stacked on top of each other. They rose from the seabed almost to the surface of the water. They were big, big bones. I could make out many of them: rib bones, jaw bones, vertebrae. In some places they were piled so high that when I took a stroke my hands touched them.”

This surreal scene of environmental plunder was revealed to Pugh while swimming at Deception Island, an old whaling station off the Antarctic Peninsula.

“When you sail past about 55°S towards Deception Island”, he says, “You see penguins, seal colonies, beautiful sea vistas. But just put your head under surface of the water, and things won't seem so perfect. Cut open a polar bear, it'll be full of pollutants.”

The least spoilt parts of the planet used to be those least accessible and hospitable to Homo Sapiens: the frozen wastes, the highest peaks. But those who know remote natural areas by heart – mountaineers, glaciologists, wildlife filmmakers, strangely driven extreme swimmers – are seeing, even there, portents of rapid, calamitous change.

The signs are so disturbing to first-hand witnesses that many feel compelled to testify to the destruction. Pugh felt this strongly enough that he packed in his profession as lawyer and repackaged himself as environmental activist.

A tonic for Green Fatigue

Colourful figures like Pugh, who tend to make more suburban lives seem rather drab by comparison, inspire admiration in some; in others, a bad case of sour grapes, which voices itself something like this: “Huh. He sets himself up as an eco-hero; what about all that carbon he's pumping into the atmosphere flying round the globe to go swimming and then get paid to talk about it. What's he actually doing about it?”

But any interviewer who thinks she's going to get Pugh on the defensive with this line of questioning will be disappointed.

His responses do sometimes have formulaic ring to them, the result, no doubt, of multiple media encounters, and he name-drops (particularly irksome when these are names that fall into the conversation with the force of small bombs: Jane Goodall, Tony Blair, David Blane). But there is also something disarmingly genuine, unjaded and not overly slick or studied about him; it's easy to imagine this 40-year-old dreaming over maps of the world and histories of the great explorers as a boy. And it quickly sounds odd not to refer to him by his first name.

Also, Lewis arrived a bit late and out-of-breath for the interview like a regular human being, which went a fair way towards winning me over.

I was further thawed to hear that, like me, he drives a relatively humble 1.3-litre bakkie – which was the only item he offered when I asked him what he does to reduce his own carbon footprint. He's unabashed about burning up the jet fuel (he travels extensively, not only for his expeditions but as an international speaker, booked for around 120 speeches a year), giving the not unreasonable justification that he must to do so in order to make his kind of difference.

“Yes, I do think people who call themselves environmentalists should be prepared, especially, to stand up and account for themselves. But if you did the maths, worked out the carbon reductions made by corporates I’ve spoken to who’ve then acted to reduce their footprint, I hope in part because of me, you'd find that would more than make up for the emissions produced getting to meet with them.”

Further, he reminds me, he functions as an invaluable “hook” for journalists at their wits' end about how to sell climate change stories to a Green-fatigued audience. It’s a lot easier holding readers' interest by having them relate to an interesting human being, than to impersonal melting ice shelves or spreading deserts.

He'd have caught the media’s attention in any case with his exploits, but it is the following detail that gives journos an extra frisson: Pugh can, through sheer force of will, raise his core temperature before diving into freezing water. This remarkable ability, recorded in no other human, leads the press (and a couple of dodgy paranormal-interest websites) to gleefully label him human polar bear, ice-man, X-man, superhuman.

The suggestion that he is performing some sort of Uri Gellerish mind-over-matter supernatural trick, rather than the result, albeit extraordinary, of years of conditioning, makes Lewis, a most amiable interviewee, quite rightly cross: “It's got nothing to do with magic! It's best described as a kind of Pavlovian response.”

Lewis has Science backing him up: the phenomenon has been dubbed “anticipatory thermogenesis” and studied by world-reknowned sports scientist Tim Noakes, who has accompanied Lewis on several expeditions.

Lewis presents scientists with a rare opportunity to study human endurance to extreme cold. Because of the considerable risks and extreme discomfort involved for potential subjects, experiments on the effects of extreme cold-water exposure are ethically problematic. Much of the information on the subject has been acquired, not from controlled lab experiments, but from real-life tragedies and emergency-room experience of treating hypothermia.

Achieving the Impossible cites one infamous exception that makes research in this area especially controversial, and necessitated special clearance from the University of Cape Town's ethics committee for Noakes' studies on Lewis: Nazi doctors at Dachau concentration camp immersed victims in ice water tanks, often killing them, to study how long German pilots downed by enemy fire could survive in the icy North Sea.

Lewis is cheerful about being used as a guineapig, and about such indignities as having thermometers inserted in his rectum, or sharpended ones stabbed excrutiatingly into his leg muscle by the gentle Prof. Noakes in the pursuit of data. “You have to embrace science” says Lewis, although the lassez-faire way he describes his training schedule would surely make many sports scientists throw up their hands.

He cites his Jack Russell, Nanu, as an important trainer in tenacity and never giving up, and when it comes nutrition he says he goes on “cravings and revulsions”:

“In the lead up to a big swim, I'll start to crave kudu and ostrich meat, and milk, and I'll start to put on weight. Then after the swim I’ll feel no desire for them. After the Everest swim I lost 8kg.”

But such intuition about what he needs to perform can only arise out of many years of close mind-body communication, of being in touch; if most of us went on vague cravings and revulsions we'd end up blimped out on chocolate in front of the telly.

For the first time in history, the majority of people live in urban areas, removed from the natural environment for which we are evolved. For those of us privileged enough to access this internet page, urban life is pretty sweet: we're buffered from hunger, thirst, wild animals, and extremes of temperature. The problem is we can get so comfy, so lulled and dulled, we can go sometimes weeks at a time pretending we aren't living organisms that are really completely dependent on the broader ecosystem. We lose touch. I needed that icy bath because I couldn't remember what real, deep cold felt like.

I think it's this that may be Lewis Pugh's most eloquent statement, which he makes every time he enters a new body of cold, physiologically unchartered water: get back in touch, immerse yourself (not necessarily quite as literally as he does), or, to use the term he favours, get "re-wilded".

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, July 2010

Cautionary note: immersion in nature and rewilding your urban self are all well and good, but if you plan to do this in cold water (even the bathtub option) it's best to have a basic medical checkup first. And if open water swimming appeals, link up with a trainer or organisation that can ease you into it. Lewis suggests Robben Island as an excellent swim to aim for if you're keen to find out if this challenging way of relating to nature is really for you. Have a look at the table he helped me compile below to begin to appreciate just how challenging!

Also brush up on avoiding and dealing with hypothermia - I was referring to some of the severer symptoms when I imagined myself wandering the 'hood naked and delusional - and know how to survive in cold water.

The human body and cold water: some interesting comparative temperatures


Core temperature of the human body.

35°C If your core temp. drops below this, you have entered the deadly realm of hypothermia.
30°C (early 30s)  Temperature of the water on a "hot swim" e.g. in Lake Malawi.
27°C The indoor pool at your gym.
22°C Water of Muizenberg beach in summer.
18° English Channel, summer
15°C A cold shower.
11°C Swimming to Robben Island (on a bad day).
5°C Water temperature when the Titanic sank. Most of the deaths were due to hypothermia within an hour of immersion in the sea.
0°C Fresh water freezes. The human body can't withstand water temperatures below this for much longer than about 15 minutes, at most, before unconsciousness or exhaustion. Death occurs in under 15 to 45 minutes.
-1.7°C Water at the North Pole. The body loses heat in cold water much faster than in cold air (remember the end of Titanic, when Kate Winslett survives by reclining on a piece of flotsam, while Leonardo di Caprio stays in the water and cops it?), and a moving body loses heat much faster than a stationary one. Exercise pumps blood to your extremities where the water rapidly cools it.
-1.8°C  Salt water freezes

Coldest sea water ever measured, a couple of months ago this year in a stream under a glacier in the Antarctic.

Pugh, Lewis Gordon. (2010). Achieving the Impossible. Jonathan Ball.
Images courtesy of Jonathan Ball.


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