‘Human polar bear’ Lewis Pugh to tell of his Arctic dice with death

2010-08-17 00:00

LEWIS Pugh, author of Achieving the Impossible, will be talking at Exclusive Books at the Midlands Mall in Pietermaritzburg at 12.30 pm on Thursday.

The accomplished swimmer will be heading for Pietermaritzburg again early next year to compete in the 38th aQuelle Midmar Mile, where competitors will get another chance to hear about some of his feats.

On Thursday, he will be talking about swimming at the North Pole and on Mt Everest.

At a little after midnight on July 15, 2007, Lewis Gordon Pugh stood on the edge of the sea ice at the North Pole. It was the 15th anniversary of his father’s death and he was wearing just a Speedo swimsuit, the old-fashioned one that barely covers all that needs to be covered. Air temperature at the North Pole that night was below zero, the water into which he was about to plunge was -1,7° although this was no in-and-out dip into the world’s coldest water. Pugh was about to swim one kilometre across the North Pole and the thought did cross his mind that he might die.

If you had been alongside Professor Tim Noakes, who stood in a small Zodiac boat supervising Pugh’s swim, you would have seen something truly startling. One of the world’s most eminent exercise physiologists, Noakes was looking at a computer screen hooked up to a thermometer on the swimmer’s body. What the screen told the scientist was that in the minutes before the swim was to commence, Pugh’s core body temperature was rising significantly.

More or less naked, standing on ice in freezing temperatures at the North Pole and yet his body was heating up. Is it any wonder they call him “the human polar bear”? Noakes, who had never encountered this phenomenon before, came up with a scientific term for it — “anticipatory thermogenesis”. Without it, Pugh wouldn’t have stood a chance of swimming a kilometre in those Arctic waters. With it, he was still dicing with death.

What scared him was the depth of the water. He could sink over four kilometres before reaching the bottom. Drowning was a possibility because hypothermia creeps up on the cold-water swimmer, pressing on his respiratory channels, denying muscles oxygen, until there is no power to fight, limbs go limp, swimmer disappears. Pugh would do the swim without harness or rope and if it went wrong, his body would not be recovered.

Why was he prepared to do it? Pugh will cover his reasons and more — all one has to do is go along to listen to an amazing person, and it’s free!

To give an idea of what he has achieved, just imagine the following secnario — have you ever taken a cold shower, a really cold shower, on a very cold day? Did you first put your arms under the spray of water, followed by your legs before easing your torso into the pain and then, finally, with what seemed like the hardest thing you’d ever done, move your head into the line of freezing-cold fire? The temperature of that water was probably between 10 or 11 degrees compared to the -1,7° Pugh endured.

That is a remarkable story and, ironically, extraordinary testimony to one man’s belief in life.

Pugh wants to help protect the most wonderful places on the planet. He wants us to reverse the damage we have done to our environment and he has given up everything to dedicate his life to this purpose. And it is not like he feels he is wasting his time.

Pugh spent the first 10 years of his life in England, the next 17 in South Africa, and since then has lived in both countries, not forgetting great times spent in Norway. A maritime lawyer by training and a pursuer of dreams by inclination, it was no surprise to him when he quit his well-paid lawyer’s job in the City of London for a life more interesting.

He spent five years in the British SAS, devoted his free time to preparing for and swimming in the world’s most hostile places — the North Cape, the Antarctic and the North Pole — and developed an understanding of the beauty, the preciousness and fragility of life and its many eco-systems. Driven by nothing more than deep belief, he has achieved things most would regard as impossible. He doesn’t tell us what we must do, but shows what can be done.

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