Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland.
Previously known on Extreme Dreams as “Location X”, we can now reveal that it is actually Loch Etchachan in the Cairngorm Mountains, in Scotland. Loch Etchachan is the highest loch / lake in the UK, sitting at 927 metres (3,041ft) above sea level. It is frozen over for most of the year, and is only totally ice free for a very short period. Many people have taken a dip in the loch, but as far as we can find, nobody has swam the full width or length of it.
The reason for keeping the location secret for the last year is that I wanted to be the first person to swim the full 600m width of the loch. I had failed on my first visit there in September of 2011, (read about that at “Swimming – Location X”). Could I do it on my next visit on the 4th of August 2012?
At 06.45 on a sunny Saturday the 4th of August, our team (Colin Campbell, Dennis Underwood, Rhona Dunbar and me, Deano) jumped into the fully ladened Land Rover and left Blairgowrie, heading for the Linn of Dee car park. 95 minutes later we were on our mountain bikes starting the first 5km easy stage of mountain biking to Derry Lodge. This route was on a wide gritted road, and was fairly clear for me to see where I was going. However, I did have a couple of close calls when some walkers had left there backpacks on the road and I didn’t see them until I was a couple of metres from them. Fortunately my brakes worked well!
After 35 minutes on this road we were at Derry Lodge and the path became very narrow, and much more technical and harder to follow. There were lots of run off ditches criss-crossing the path and a lot of rocks sticking up. It was one of these rocks that caused my first crash.
Going downhill is always much harder for me, as the ground is that bit further away, and I can’t really see it. I was trying to follow the path, when my front wheel hit a rock and I was thrown forward over the handlebars. The weight of my rucksack then dragged me to my left, into a combination of mud and rocks. As I hit the ground my head smashed into a rock and my left leg and arm came crashing down on to some others. As I lay there, I tried to work out what had just happened, and do a quick mental check-list of what was hurting. My nose was really painful, and my arm and leg were starting to throb. As Rhona rushed over to help me, I started to sit up. The reason my nose was so sore, was because as my helmet had crashed into the rocks, it had been forced forward and down, and into the bridge of my nose. (This has happened once before whilst biking, and on that occasion I broke my nose.) There was a fair bit of blood, but fortunately this time it was just cut and bruised. After a few minutes of compression, the bleeding stopped. During this time Rhona did a quick check over the left side of my body. Luckily, I had been wearing my elbow and knee pads, and they had taken the brunt of the landing, and apart from a few bruises everything seemed to be working. (I very rarely wear pads, as the type of biking I do is not that extreme for most fully sighted people, and it makes me look like a bit of a plonker. But after my crash last year, I had started to wear them, and boy it is just as well I did. If I hadn’t been wearing them this time, the trip would have probably been over there and then.)
Once back on the bikes, we did a further 5km before stashing the bikes and starting our 4.5km hike to the Hutchison Hut just below Loch Etchachan. Here the team had some food before climbing the last few hundred metres to the loch.
The weather forecast had said that the weather was going to turn cloudy with some showers around 13.00, so it was important that we got to the loch before then. (I didn’t want to get wet!) We made it to the loch around midday.
After a quick recce, the rest of the team asked was I planning to swim the width or the length of Loch Etchachan. The original plan had been to swim the width, as the only information I had previously found about the loch, “Expedition to Loch Etchachan by Alan Sinclair” had mentioned that the loch was around 600m, and that looked to be the width. I didn’t know how long it was. Dennis got his map out and did a quick calculation. He approximated that it was just over 800m. What the heck, in for a penny, in for a pound. I decided I’d do the length.
In 2011 I had come up to Loch Etchachan but had failed to swim very far, as the water temperature was only 6°C, with an air temperature of 4°C. This time, I was determined to swim the loch whatever the temperature, so as well as my swimming shorts I had also brought some neoprene trousers and a rash vest. One way or another I was going do this swim.
One of the problems with doing open water swimming when you are registered blind is that you can’t see where you are going. I tend to pull off to one side, and could end up going around and around in circles. So to prevent this I need a guide, and my guide needs some transport.
That is where the lovely folk at Alpackaraft came to our rescue and very kindly loaned us one of their packrafts. These are fantastic little inflatable boats that pack down really small and along with the paddles, only weigh around 3kg. Without this piece of kit, the swim would have been impossible for me.
Whilst Rhona inflated the Alpackaraft, I took the temperature of the shallow water, remembering that the last time I had been here the water was a freezing 6°C. Luckily on this day the air temperature was a balmy 13°C and the water was a cool 10°C. I was aware that this was in very shallow water, and further out into the loch the temperature could drop as much as 2 or 3 degrees. After a quick internal discussion I decided the neoprene kit would remain in my bag and I would do the swim in my swimming shorts and cap.
Within a few minutes of this decision, Rhona was sat in the Alpackaraft and I was changed. Rhona got me lined up in the direction of where I needed to swim, and I stepped into the loch. I waded out to around thigh depth and then dived under. The water was definitely cold, but I had been in colder. As I came to the surface, my right arm came over, and I was off.
The first two minutes were spent getting my stroke speed right and dealing with the cold water.
Five minutes into the swim I started to feel throbbing at the bottom of my left big toe. Shortly that throbbing turned into cramp. Over the next five minutes the cramp crept up my left leg. From my foot it went up my calf, into my hamstrings and finally into the quadriceps, at the front of my leg. The cramp was so severe that after ten minutes of swimming I had lost the use of my left leg. Over the next few minutes my right leg also started to cramp up.
My stroke was slowing down and my whole body became heavy and lethargic. I couldn’t keep the stroke rate up, so instead decided to slow it down, but make sure I got every little bit I could out of each stroke. Reaching as far as I could in front, and pulling as far as I could in the backward part of the stroke. Every stroke had to count. My legs were now totally useless, so it was all upper body now.
For the last ten minutes I could see nothing under the water. It was just very deep and dark. Then I made out some rocks and realised I was close to the end. A few more strokes and I made contact with the shore. I had just become the first person to swim the full length of Loch Etchachan, but there was no time to celebrate. I had to get out of the water and start warming up. As I clambered onto a rock, Rhona handed me a bottle of lukewarm juice. I took a few mouthfuls, then grabbed my towel and wrapped myself in it. As I sat there trying to get some heat from the sun, my legs kept cramping up, and shooting pain right through them.
Once Rhona had tied the packraft up, she came over and helped me get dressed. I could dress my upper body myself, but she had to do everything below the waist. Every time I tried to bend over to put on my trousers, or bend my legs, the cramp would take hold. Once I was dressed and had finished the warm drink, the shivering started.
I had just swam the loch, but now needed to get back to Dennis and Colin at the other end of the loch. There was not enough room in the packraft for 2 people, so I would have to walk back. However, it was not just a simple stroll. This end of the loch was surrounded by extremely steep boggy slopes, which were covered with loose rocks which had fallen from higher up. I would now have to negotiate my way across the loose landscape before I could get back to base, and from the boat the only safe way was to go up 50 metres before I could go around.
Over the next 20 minutes I slowly picked my way through the rocks, until Colin met me and guided me the last 20 minutes back to the others.
The swim had been done, and it was now time to pack everything up and make our way back to the Linn of Dee car park.
The total trip took us just over 8 hours, covering approximately 20km by bike and 10km by foot. The total length of the swim was approximately 900m and took 15 minutes and 34 seconds.
It was only when I woke up on the following morning and inspected my bruising, that I realised how bad the crash could have actually been without the pads. My upper left arm was very badly bruised, and so was my forearm. My left leg, just above the knee and below it weren’t looking too good either. Each bruise either stopped just above or just below where the elbow and knee protection pads had been. The pads had certainly done what it says on the tin! I would like to say thanks to our friends Colin and Dennis for coming along and being extremely helpful with guiding, load sharing, etc. I would also like to say thanks to the missus, (Rhona), who may also have set a record for paddling up and down the full length of Loch Etchachan.
I would also like to say huge thank you to Alpackaraft and to SunnyCam. Without the Alpackaraft the swim would not have been possible, and without the SunnyCam HD camera, provided to us by Ben at SunnyCam, I would not have been able to see where I had been. (When I’m walking and biking, I only look down, in order to try and see where I am going. I don’t have the luxury of being able to take in the scenery around me whilst moving. I only see the track, if I’m lucky.)
So, if you ever see a guy with elbow and knee pads on whilst mountain biking on an easy route, don’t think of him as over-dressed. It may just be the Blind Man!
As well as Alan Sinclair’s “Expedition to Loch Etchachan”, you may also want to check out the Dundee Mountain Club’s “Mountain Windsurfing/Extreme Ironing, Loch Etchachan”
NOTE: In the video you can hear Rhona say that the water temperature was 11°C. I was sure this was wrong, so on the way back she stopped the boat and pushed the floating thermometer a couple of inches under the water. Sure enough, she then measured a temperature of 8°C. The 11°C temperature was whilst the thermometer floated on the surface, with the sun shining on it.