'Emma and I are going to dip every day in December to raise money for charity’ said my friend Karen through chattering teeth after a chilly loch swim in late November, ‘are you going to join us?’ There wasn’t much to think about really - I enjoy swimming in cold water; I love raising money for charity; I can never resist a challenge – ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘absolutely!’
A few days later we had managed to recruit three additional swimmers, all ready to commit to dipping every day in December, without wetsuits. We created a charity donation page and told everyone what we were going to do. Now we just had to do it!
Week 1 – Chilly Waters and Icy Winds
On the 1st December the six of us, plus a few other Cairngorm Wild Swimmers, met on the shores of Loch Morlich for the first of our December dips. The snow on the hills was reflected perfectly in the mirror-like surface of the loch and the sand was completely frozen underfoot. Sporting colourful swimwear and woolly hats we entered the water with lots of high pitched screeches and leaping around. After lots of shivering and laughter, we agreed that this had been an invigorating start to the December challenge. Only 30 more dips to go!
Over the next couple of days, I had to travel over to the West Coast, where I found myself swimming in the beautiful waters around Arisaig. The sea was stunningly clear and definitely a warmer than the lochs in the Cairngorms. Loch Morar, on the other hand, was bitterly cold. This was not surprising as, at 310m deep, it is the deepest freshwater loch in Scotland. After an ungraceful entry and a very quick swim, I looked back over the loch and marvelled at how my friend Helen Beverage had swum the full length (18km) in 8 hours and 32 minutes back in 2016. In contrast, I think I had swum about 50m and lasted less than 5 minutes!
I returned home to the Cairngorms National Park to find temperatures had dropped even more, with a bitter wind blowing in from the Arctic. During our last swim of the week, the wind-chill was measured at around -15 degrees centigrade.
Week 2 – SNOW!
The second week began with a heavy fall of snow. We all got thoroughly overexcited, our post-swim euphoria was high and we hoped the snow would stay for the next few days. Little did we know that it was about to get even colder and that the snow would persist for the next couple of weeks.
My swim in the dark waters of the Uath Lochan was probably my most memorable swim of the month. The peaty lochan was partially frozen, the clouds were perfectly reflected and the Caledonian pine trees dusted with fresh snow. With my trusty dog Tally keeping an eye on me as I swam, I felt like I was in the middle of a winter wonderland.
On the 11th December, we arrived at Loch Morlich to find that the ice had been completely covered in snow. We could no longer see where the beach ended and the loch began. The ice was now too thick to break without tools and we had to resort to using sledgehammers and snow shovels to make a channel in the ice.
Thankfully not everywhere had completely frozen yet and we were still able to swim out to the castle at Loch an Eilein. As the temperatures dropped further, however, the ice became more widespread and we had to keep returning to our ice channel in Loch Morlich.
Week 3 – Ice, Sledgehammers and Snow Shovels
Around halfway through our challenge, we all agreed that what had seemed like a crazy idea at first had turned into a mild addiction. Wendy described the feeling as “the anticipation before wading into the calm, dark unknown, the sensation of cold moving up the body until you are completely and obliviously subsumed, the glory of moving through the black depths, looking up at a sky, surrounded by white snow-covered mountains.” We were all completely hooked!
During the third week, most days began with breaking the ice in Loch Morlich. Typically reaching the loch in the dark, we used sledgehammers to smash the ice and snow shovels to clear the shards of ice to the side of the channel so that we could at least manage a few strokes in the icy water before heading to work.
Karin MacKinnon hadn’t been entirely sure whether she would manage to swim every day, but so far she hadn’t missed a dip! “On some days it was very cold and I was very tired and couldn't decide if I wanted to go on or not. Two minutes into my swims and I realised this id not a challenge, this id an honour. Fantastic swims in beautiful locations with great friends and all for the most worthy of causes.”
Week 4 – Sunset, Sunrise and Festive Dips
As Christmas approached I headed down to the south of England for a few days to see family and fiends. While down there I managed a sunset swim in the sea on the shortest day of the year, a dip in a muddy pond in the New Forest (possibly my most unpleasant dip of the month!) and a Christmas river swim with Hampshire Open Water Swimmers, with well-deserved bacon rolls and mince pies afterwards.
On Christmas Eve I enjoyed a final sunrise dip with a few of my favourite Southern swim buddies before flying back up to Scotland for Christmas Day and Boxing Day swims in Loch an Eilen.
The Final Countdown!
Realizing we only had a few more days to go we took the opportunity to swim in some different places, including a stunning dip in the green waters of Lochan Uaine (the fairy lochan,) an adventure to Loch Alvie and a chilly dip in the River Feshie, with icicles hanging off the bridge!
On the 31st December, the eager group of December dippers joined us for a celebratory dip in Loch Morlich. We had somehow survived 31 days of consecutive dipping, we had raised £1,800 for our chosen charity and we had had a whole lot of fun along the way. According to Sarah Wiseman, dipping every day in December had been ‘an amazing experience, pushing personal boundaries and raising money for a fantastic cause.’
For Emma, this had been a tough challenge requiring equal measures of physical and mental determination. ‘Tolerating the cold water has not been easy, but the overwhelming sense of happiness and well-being post-dip makes it worthwhile.’
When I had started the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers group the previous April I was the only person regularly swimming without a wetsuit. I could never have predicted that several months later there would be a whole group of swimmers stripping off the neoprene and swimming every day to raise money for charity.
‘So, ladies,’ I said, ‘What’s the plan for tomorrow?’ We may have had every intention of stopping after 31 days, but who can resist an icy New Year’s Day Dook?