British endurance swimmer and environmental campaigner Lewis Gordon Pugh has become the first person to complete a long distance swim under the summit of Mount Everest, it was announced today (SUN).

Pugh completed the 1km swim in icy cold 2 degree waters across a glacial lake adjacent to the Khumbu Glacier in a time of 22 minutes and 51 seconds.  The Pumori Lake is situated at an altitude of 5,300 metres. He undertook the record-breaking swim to draw attention to the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas and the impact of declining water supplies in the region.

He swam in just a pair of Speedo swimming trunks, a cap and goggles after three days of test swims and continuing battles with altitude sickness.

Pugh said: “It’s one of the hardest swims I’ve ever undertaken.  When I swam in Antarctica and across the North Pole I swam with speed and aggression but on Mount Everest you can’t use the same tactics. Because of the altitude you need to swim very slowly and deliberately. Swimming 20 metres at full speed in the test swim, I felt I was going to drown. I was gasping for air and if I had swum any faster I would have gone under. I was deeply concerned that I wouldn’t make 1km and I’m delighted that I’ve finally achieved it.

“I learned that I had to respect this unique terrain and swim as slowly as possible – I had to swim breast stroke so that I could breathe more efficiently.  I had to find a delicate balance between going too fast (in which case I might drown due to hyperventilation) and going too slowly (in which case I might die of hypothermia).

“Even getting to the lake was an ordeal. We have been trekking for two weeks to get to our base camp at Gorak Shep (Place of the Ravens). From there to the glacial lake it was a lengthy scramble over rocks and boulders.

“All along the Khumbu Glacier I’ve seen pools of melted ice.  Millions of people rely on this water and preserving this water supply is vital to peace in the region. That is why I was so determined to draw attention to this critical issue by undertaking a “Swim for Peace” under the summit of Mount Everest.

“Before I set off for Mount Everest I watched the election debates in Britain with great interest. Climate change and the environment did not feature significantly.  I would urge leaders both in Britain and worldwide to put climate change at the very top of their agendas. I have seen glaciers in the Arctic, the Alps, Central Africa, Antarctica and the Himalayas – and it’s the same story everywhere. Most glaciers are melting away. The glaciers in the Himalayas are not just ice. They are a lifeline – they provide water to approximately two billion people.” 

Pugh has spent the past eight months preparing for this swim and set off on his journey on May 5th. Preparations included completing the first ever swim across Lake Imja en route to Mount Everest (altitude 5,010 metres). Lake Imja, which was first seen around 1958, is now over 2 kilometres long, due to the melting of the Imja Glacier.  

Michelle Rolfe