Swimming in open water is very different to swimming in a pool. Unseen currents, cold water and waves make wild swimming much more challenging. Join a local club or learn from experts before taking the plunge - we always recommend using a guide or swimming with a club in open water. Read more top tips on how to swim safe.
There’s been a surge in interest in wild swimming over the past few years. And there’s almost nowhere better to enjoy this kind of outdoor activity than the epic landscapes of Wales. I’ve been wanting to try it for a while now. I’m a strong swimmer, but wouldn’t trust myself in remote waters unfamiliar to me. So getting a guide was the perfect solution.
Vivienne Rickman-Poole has lived in the mountains of Snowdonia for 16 years, and spent most of them exploring and swimming in its lakes. As an artist, she creates mesmeric poetry and photography that accompany her physical feats, and is currently on a mission to swim in every one of Snowdonia's lakes. Happily, she’s also a qualified Mountain Leader with a long list of first-aid and water-safety certifications. I couldn’t be in better hands.
We meet at a laid-back café called Pete’s Eats in Llanberis, a small town used by steely adventurers as a base for their mountain escapades. Pete's Eats recently furnished itself with bunks above the café and has the kind of vibe you’d expect from a hostel on the tourist trails of south-east Asia. The conversations I overhear reveal the area's international appeal: Aussie, Kiwi, American, English and Norwegian, explorers from all over the world are discussing the day's conditions and pouring over OS maps. The intrepid ones that headed up Snowdon for sunrise are already back, guzzling vast hot chocolates and ceremonial cooked breakfasts.
In the café we grab a takeaway lunch and get our flasks filled with hot tea (Vivienne assures us we will be freezing after the swim and it’ll be good to get some calories in us). We have a quick chat to go through housekeeping and safety rules, and discuss the location that Vivienne has chosen.
Today she’s taking us to one of her favourite lakes, about a 40 minute drive into the mountains from Llanberis. She picks a different lake for each swim, depending on the weather and also the time of year. Vivienne's hallmark is her ability to find lakes that, even on the busiest of weekends, are quiet.
“Snowdon is packed during the high season, but Snowdonia has so many other peaks and beautiful places to swim, I’d rather take people to a place where they can find some solitude and discover the beauty of the region. Where’s the joy in queuing to go up a mountain?”
We hop in her van and wind past beautiful mountains, through valleys, and past the tiny hamlets and farms of Snowdonia. We reach the “car park” (a small green patch by a fence) and then it’s another 30 minute walk to the water.
Our destination is actually two lakes, clefted into the side of a craggy peak. Somehow, in a week of horrible weather, we’ve picked a day of clear skies and crystalline waters. I’ve never been happier to feel the sun on my back.
I'm ready quickly, but Vivienne is still setting up her underwater camera. I can't wait any longer and jump straight in, then instantly regret it. The lake is the coldest thing I’ve ever experienced; when I submerge myself, it feels like a full-body slap. It's freezing. I’m convinced that I won't be able to wait for Vivienne to get the camera before I have to get out.
But then something happens. The sun is glistening on the water, and slowly, the cold feeling turns into a warm numbness across my entire body. I catch my breath and float on my back, looking up at the blue sky and the crag that shelters the lake. There are fluffy clouds in the sky, framing the view. I’ve never swum in anything like this before.
Later, Vivienne tells me that her swimming days are experiences that are based on the individual. “If you want to push your limits, then we can. If you want a quick dip just to get the experience of it, you can. There’s no pressure to stay in for ages.” Obviously while we’re in the water she can sense I can do more than I’d have volunteered initially because I’m so freaking cold.
Could I dive down, perhaps, she asks? Apparently it makes for great photos. I’m half tempted to call the whole thing off and just swim to shore, but also I’m intrigued. Can I do it?
Eventually I gear myself up and take the plunge. It’s like trying to swim through a glutinous ice bath. Submerged, the world is green, but with surprisingly good visibility. Dark rocks, covered in thin, forest green watery weeds. There are no fish or other animals that I can see. I plunge downwards as far as I can before my lungs reach their limit, and it’s time to flip vertically and kick as hard as I can to reach the surface.
I've been in the water for nearly half an hour before I decide to call it a day. Vivienne paddles around some more, getting some more photos from different angles. It takes me about half an hour to get dry and put my clothes back on. I’ve never been so grateful for the hot tea and dry cheese toastie we got from Pete’s Eats earlier that morning.
It’s the kind of experience I could not have had by myself, and it really underlined for me the value of using a guide in places you don’t know. Vivienne says she’s never seen anyone at this lake, or at most of the lakes she swims in. These are places of solace that she has spent 16 years discovering – and with her as your guide, you get to share in her lifelong adventure (whilst enjoying the security of her safety training).
Walking back along the track to the van, I realise we’ve not seen another person during the whole trip. The word is overused, but being in the cold the lake was truly awesome. Vivienne says mountain lake swimming can be addictive, and although I’m not sure I’d ever reach Wim Hof levels of enthusiasm for it, I can see what she means. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I did it.
Be AdventureSmart: respect the water
Swimming in open water is very different to swimming in a pool, so it’s a good idea to swim at an organised venue where there will be a safety crew to provide guidance.
Our top tips for being safe when open water swimming are to:
- Wear a bright hat (bright green or bright orange are the best) and use a tow float so that you can be seen by other water users.
- Enter the water slowly and allow time for your body to get used to the cold.
- Check the tide times before swimming in the sea or in estuarine waters.
- If you are in difficulty in the water don’t panic, stay calm; attract attention by raising your hand and shouting for help.
Go to AdventureSmart.UK for all the information you need to help make your Welsh adventure both safe and fun!