09:46
TEDGlobal 2010

Lewis Pugh: My mind-shifting Everest swim

Filmed:

After he swam the North Pole, Lewis Pugh vowed never to take another cold-water dip. Then he heard of Lake Imja in the Himalayas, created by recent glacial melting, and Lake Pumori, a body of water at an altitude of 5300 m on Everest -- and so began a journey that would teach him a radical new way to approach swimming and think about climate change.

- Coldwater swimmer
Pushing his body through epic cold-water swims, Lewis Gordon Pugh wants to draw attention to our global climate. He's just back from swimming in a meltwater lake on the slopes of Mount Everest. Full bio

Last year when I was here, I was speaking to you about a swim
00:15
which I did across the North Pole.
00:18
And while that swim took place three years ago,
00:21
I can remember it as if it was yesterday.
00:23
I remember standing on the edge of the ice,
00:26
about to dive into the water,
00:29
and thinking to myself, I have never ever
00:31
seen any place on this earth
00:34
which is just so frightening.
00:36
The water is completely black.
00:38
The water is minus 1.7 degrees centigrade,
00:40
or 29 degrees Fahrenheit.
00:43
It's flipping freezing in that water.
00:46
And then a thought came across my mind:
00:49
if things go pear-shaped on this swim,
00:52
how long will it take for my frozen body
00:55
to sink the four and a half kilometers
00:58
to the bottom of the ocean?
01:00
And then I said to myself, I've just got to get this thought
01:02
out of my mind as quickly as possible.
01:04
And the only way I can dive
01:06
into that freezing cold water
01:08
and swim a kilometer
01:10
is by listening to my iPod and really revving myself up,
01:12
listening to everything from beautiful opera
01:15
all the way across to Puff Daddy,
01:18
and then committing myself a hundred percent --
01:21
there is nothing more powerful than the made-up mind --
01:23
and then walking up to the edge of the ice
01:26
and just diving into the water.
01:29
And that swim took me
01:31
18 minutes and 50 seconds,
01:33
and it felt like 18 days.
01:35
And I remember getting out of the water
01:37
and my hands feeling so painful
01:39
and looking down at my fingers,
01:41
and my fingers were literally the size of sausages
01:43
because -- you know, we're made partially of water --
01:46
when water freezes it expands,
01:49
and so the cells in my fingers
01:51
had frozen and expanded
01:53
and burst.
01:55
And the most immediate thought when I came out of that water
01:57
was the following:
01:59
I'm never, ever
02:01
going to do another cold water swim
02:03
in my life again.
02:06
Anyway, last year, I heard about the Himalayas
02:09
and the melting of the -- (Laughter)
02:12
and the melting of the glaciers
02:14
because of climate change.
02:16
I heard about this lake, Lake Imja.
02:18
This lake has been formed in the last couple of years
02:21
because of the melting of the glacier.
02:24
The glacier's gone all the way up the mountain
02:26
and left in its place this big lake.
02:28
And I firmly believe
02:31
that what we're seeing in the Himalayas
02:33
is the next great, big battleground
02:35
on this earth.
02:37
Nearly two billion people --
02:39
so one in three people on this earth --
02:41
rely on the water from the Himalayas.
02:43
And with a population increasing as quickly as it is,
02:46
and with the water supply from these glaciers --
02:49
because of climate change --
02:51
decreasing so much,
02:53
I think we have a real risk of instability.
02:55
North, you've got China; south, you've India, Pakistan, Bangladesh,
02:57
all these countries.
03:00
And so I decided
03:02
to walk up to Mt. Everest,
03:04
the highest mountain on this earth,
03:06
and go and do a symbolic swim
03:08
underneath the summit
03:10
of Mt. Everest.
03:12
Now, I don't know if any of you have had the opportunity to go to Mt. Everest,
03:14
but it's quite an ordeal getting up there.
03:17
28 great, big, powerful yaks
03:20
carrying all the equipment up onto this mountain --
03:22
I don't just have my Speedo,
03:25
but there's a big film crew who then
03:27
send all the images around the world.
03:29
The other thing which was so challenging about this swim
03:32
is not just the altitude.
03:35
I wanted to do the swim at 5,300 meters above sea level.
03:37
So it's right up in the heavens.
03:40
It's very, very difficult to breath. You get altitude sickness.
03:42
I feels like you've got a man standing behind you with a hammer
03:45
just hitting your head all the time.
03:48
That's not the worst part of it.
03:50
The worst part was this year was the year where they decided
03:52
to do a big cleanup operation on Mt. Everest.
03:54
Many, many people have died on Mt. Everest,
03:57
and this was the year they decided to go
04:00
and recover all the bodies of the mountaineers
04:02
and then bring them down the mountain.
04:04
And when you're walking up the mountain
04:07
to attempt to do something
04:09
which no human has ever done before, and, in fact, no fish --
04:11
there are no fish up there swimming at 5,300 meters --
04:14
When you're trying to do that,
04:17
and then the bodies are coming past you,
04:19
it humbles you,
04:21
and you also realize very, very clearly
04:23
that nature is so much more powerful
04:25
than we are.
04:28
And we walked up this pathway,
04:30
all the way up.
04:32
And to the right hand side of us
04:34
was this great Khumbu Glacier.
04:36
And all the way along the glacier we saw
04:38
these big pools of melting ice.
04:40
And then we got up to this small lake
04:43
underneath the summit of Mt. Everest,
04:46
and I prepared myself
04:48
the same way as I've always prepared myself,
04:50
for this swim which was going to be so very difficult.
04:52
I put on my iPod, I listened to some music,
04:54
I got myself as aggressive as possible --
04:57
but controlled aggression --
04:59
and then I hurled myself
05:01
into that water.
05:03
I swam as quickly as I could
05:05
for the first hundred meters,
05:08
and then I realized very, very quickly,
05:10
I had a huge problem on my hands.
05:12
I could barely breathe.
05:14
I was gasping for air.
05:16
I then began to choke,
05:18
and then it quickly led to me vomiting in the water.
05:20
And it all happened so quickly:
05:23
I then -- I don't know how it happened -- but I went underwater.
05:26
And luckily, the water was quite shallow,
05:29
and I was able to push myself off the bottom of the lake
05:32
and get up and then take another gasp of air.
05:35
And then I said, carry on. Carry on. Carry on.
05:38
I carried on for another five or six strokes,
05:40
and then I had nothing in my body,
05:43
and I went down to the bottom of the lake.
05:46
And I don't where I got it from,
05:48
but I was able to somehow
05:50
pull myself up and as quickly as possible
05:52
get to the side of the lake.
05:55
I've heard it said that drowning
05:58
is the most peaceful death that you can have.
06:00
I have never, ever heard
06:03
such utter bollocks.
06:05
(Laughter)
06:07
It is the most frightening and panicky feeling
06:09
that you can have.
06:12
I got myself to the side of the lake.
06:14
My crew grabbed me,
06:16
and then we walked as quickly as we could
06:18
down -- over the rubble --
06:20
down to our camp.
06:22
And there, we sat down,
06:24
and we did a debrief about what had gone wrong
06:26
there on Mt. Everest.
06:29
And my team just gave it to me straight.
06:31
They said, Lewis, you need to have
06:34
a radical tactical shift
06:36
if you want to do this swim.
06:39
Every single thing which you have learned
06:41
in the past 23 years of swimming,
06:43
you must forget.
06:45
Every single thing which you learned
06:47
when you were serving in the British army,
06:49
about speed and aggression,
06:51
you put that to one side.
06:53
We want you to walk up the hill in another two days' time.
06:55
Take some time to rest and think about things.
06:58
We want you to walk up the mountain in two days' time,
07:01
and instead of swimming fast,
07:04
swim as slowly as possible.
07:07
Instead of swimming crawl, swim breaststroke.
07:09
And remember, never ever swim with aggression.
07:12
This is the time to swim
07:15
with real humility.
07:17
And so we walked back up
07:19
to the mountain two days later.
07:21
And I stood there
07:23
on the edge of the lake,
07:25
and I looked up at Mt. Everest --
07:27
and she is one of the most beautiful mountains on the earth --
07:29
and I said to myself, just do this slowly.
07:32
And I swam across the lake.
07:35
And I can't begin to tell you
07:37
how good I felt
07:39
when I came to the other side.
07:41
But I learned two very, very
07:43
important lessons there on Mt. Everest,
07:45
and I thank my team of Sherpas who taught me this.
07:48
The first one is
07:51
that just because something has worked in the past so well,
07:53
doesn't mean it's going to work in the future.
07:56
And similarly,
07:59
now, before I do anything,
08:01
I ask myself what type of mindset
08:03
do I require
08:05
to successfully complete a task.
08:07
And taking that into the world of climate change --
08:10
which is, frankly,
08:13
the Mt. Everest of all problems --
08:15
just because we've lived the way we have lived for so long,
08:17
just because we have consumed the way we have for so long
08:20
and populated the earth the way we have for so long,
08:23
doesn't mean that we can carry on
08:26
the way we are carrying on.
08:28
The warning signs are all there.
08:30
When I was born, the world's population
08:33
was 3.5 billion people.
08:35
We're now 6.8 billion people,
08:37
and we're expected to be 9 billion people
08:40
by 2050.
08:42
And then the second lesson,
08:44
the radical, tactical shift.
08:46
And I've come here to ask you today:
08:48
what radical tactical shift
08:51
can you take in your relationship to the environment,
08:54
which will ensure
08:57
that our children and our grandchildren
08:59
live in a safe world
09:01
and a secure world,
09:03
and most importantly, in a sustainable world?
09:05
And I ask you, please, to go away from here
09:08
and think about that one
09:10
radical tactical shift
09:12
which you could make,
09:14
which will make that big difference,
09:16
and then commit a hundred percent to doing it.
09:18
Blog about it, tweet about it, talk about it,
09:21
and commit a hundred percent,
09:24
because very, very few things
09:26
are impossible to achieve
09:28
if we really put our whole minds to it.
09:30
So thank you very, very much.
09:32
(Applause)
09:34

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About the Speaker:

Lewis Pugh - Coldwater swimmer
Pushing his body through epic cold-water swims, Lewis Gordon Pugh wants to draw attention to our global climate. He's just back from swimming in a meltwater lake on the slopes of Mount Everest.

Why you should listen

Lewis Gordon Pugh loves to pioneer new swimming routes around or between landmarks once thought unswimmable. In 2006, he swam the drought-stricken Thames; also that year he became the first swimmer to do a long-distance swim in all five oceans of the world. The following year, he made the first long-distance swim across the North Pole -- where climate change made the ice temporarily disappear. Heading into the second decade of his swimming career, he's regarded as the greatest cold-water swimmer in history.

His swims have given him a sea-level view of our planet, and inspired him to do his bit to help preserve it. He left a career in maritime law to become a public speaker on environmental issues with his group, Polar Defence Project -- and of course to plan more astonishing swims and treks. In September 2008, Pugh and Robbie Hedgus kayaked across the Arctic Ocean into the polar ice pack, to raise awareness of the thinning sea ice and the dangers of climate change in the Arctic and across the world. And at the end of May 2010 he swam 1 kilometer across Pumori, a meltwater lake situated next to the Khumbu Glacier on Mount Everest, at an altitude of 5300 meters, to draw attention to the melting of the Asian glaciers. He completed the swim -- the highest any person has undertaken -- in less than 23 minutes. "Glaciers are not just ice: they are a lifeline, they provide water to 2 billion people, and we need to protect them," he says.

More profile about the speaker
Lewis Pugh | Speaker | TED.com