Ice Mile Dilemmas – IX – Safety Is Everything

The Average Person?

As a responsible extreme cold water swimming promoting organisation, it’s frustrating that the IISA doesn’t seem to appreciate its responsibility in promoting safety and reducing risk. The three-article critique on the IISA rules comprehensively illustrate many of the inherent problems, omissions and contradictions. The concerns of my correspondents and myself with Ice Mile swimming are not a reflection of the fact that many of the existing Ice Mile swimmers are extremely capable, experienced and cold-hardened individuals. Instead, we are concerned that the IISA is not doing enough to uphold its own existing rules, and even less to protect the safety of less experienced individuals who may try an Ice Mile in the future.

The IISA can’t wash its hands by saying that people who aren’t experienced enough shouldn’t attempt an Ice Mile. They must have explicit rules about this. The point about safety planning is not to just say “I’ve swum x Ice Miles, you can tooas members of the IISA board are wont to do, but to actually plan.

One should be taking all that cumulative knowledge and experience of such a dangerous pursuit and putting it at the service of the people they are trying to motivate. The IISA currently assumes that everyone who will attempt an Ice Mile will be an experienced cold water swimmer, but it does nothing to ensure this will be the case.

*

A couple of months ago, just mere days after I started writing the fourth part of this series, I received an email from a journalist with Outside Online, the online outlet of Outside magazine, one of the biggest of all adventure or outdoor sports magazines. He wanted to ask some questions for an article he was researching about Ice Mile swimming. I tried to give a pretty comprehensive response to the various questions as I had no idea which part, if any, of my response would be used in the final article, nor did I know with whom else they were talking. One question leaped out at me and I spent a few days deciding how to respond.

What are some insider tips for completing an Ice Mile that the average reader wouldn’t think of?1

That question startled me. It indicates to me that one Ice Mile friend (who I mentioned in the rules aspects of this discussion) who asserted that there’s no rush to swim an Ice Mile may not be correct. It also conveys to me that even a journal like Outside doesn’t comprehend the danger or risk of an Ice Mile. If the IISA doesn’t communicate this, then Outside or many others can’t be blamed. Once a pursuit is featured in Outside, one can guess that the numbers desiring to take on any particular challenge will increase. The Outside Online article is here. (The description of my Ice Mile that opens the article is derived by the article author from my blog article). In my interview I concentrated on the safety and danger aspects. It is now doubly ironic that the other person featured is one of the IISA founders, Ram Barkai.

This is exactly the scenario of which I and so many others are afraid and why the IISA must think ahead and more broadly. The Outside Online article and consequent exposure is likely to be a good thing for the IISA’s desire to increase the Ice Mile profile in their goal to have an Ice Mile included in future winter Olympics (which I think is ridiculous given their current inadequate state). Worryingly this question seems to imply that there might be some trick to completing an Ice Mile, in case “the average reader” might consider it. This question is the thin end of a wedge and has been on my mind almost the entire duration of these articles.

Promoting extreme events should require extreme attention to detail and safety. The CS&PF, SBCSA, CCSA, CSA, ILDSA, ACNEG and more all do so. Even local swim organisations such as Sandycove Island Swimming Club seem to have a greater appreciation for and attention to swimmer safety than the IISA.

The IISA does use a recurring excuse: That they are a very new organisation. But that’s only true to a little extent, and it’s disingenuous camouflage. No resources are required to initiate discussion, as I’ve done. They’ve existed for over five years, and count as members many very experienced cold water swimmers around the world whose cumulative knowledge and experience is quite considerable. It also uses International in its name and must live up to such an appellation, not forget those core objectives that it has espoused and then ignored, as demonstrated previously. The IISA has had more time and resources than I have, and yet with my contacts and a bit of time I can demonstrate the extensive omissions and contradictions in how the IISA operates and also what it endorses. If a section of the IISA membership can illustrate so many problems and if they spoke with me then two pertinent questions must be asked:

  1. What is wrong with the IISA and its communications with members that some members expressed these concerns to me and why is the IISA resistant to engage in discussion with its members?
  2. If some members can point out the problems, contradictions and omissions, why has the IISA failed to so do?

The IISA has it in its own hands to direct its future. It must think far more seriously than it apparently has previously about its stated objectives. Until it places swimmer safety and adherence to rules at its core, its ethos is debatable and its future is and should be at risk.

I honestly believe that the IISA still doesn’t understand this discussion. It’s not just about rules. Sure, where they are wrong or inadequate they must be improved. But the IISA must foster a public face in support of open and shared knowledge and experience that will improve safety for all, ESPECIALLY aspirants and those with less experience.

The IISA says: “The fact that IISA hasn’t got a detailed guideline for every eventuality and possible risk, doesn’t take the responsibility away from the swimmer. It is the individual responsibility to study and understand the risks before one embarks on an attempt in water of 5C to swim a mile. We will help and publish knowledge and experience but we will never be able to avoid stupidity or recklessness through pi[l]e of manuals”.

This is both entirely true and yet diversionary. Swimmers should and must be responsible for themselves, as I have always promoted by trying to share whatever I’ve learned. We learn this responsibility through experience and the teaching of others. But since the IISA places itself as the ratifying organisation it must establish consistent guidelines, to assist in this process of teaching and learning. Once again I repeat, the IISA cannot both promote and ratify Ice Miles, yet ignore the associated responsibility.

I am clear that my concern is less for the tiny few who have already repeated an Ice Mile, but more for those with less experience, and I believe the IISA has been negligent in encouraging Ice Mile swimming without adequate safety or medical guidelines or even a clarification of the actual dangers.

The IISA has relied to date on the aspirants being experienced cold water swimmers, but without taking any steps to ensure such. I am asking; what if the aspirants aren’t experienced?

Recommendations

If we look back over this series one can see that there are a range of possible recommendations, some of which are urgent.

  • Ice Mile swimming should immediately be suspended until the IISA updates its safety rules to place swimmer safety at the centre of its ethos.
  • Swimmer safety to be the core IISA value.
  • People with a history of cardiac problems should be immediately precluded from attempting an Ice Mile.
  • The IISA must publicly update any changes it makes in the future. (Bizarrely, it has told me it doesn’t plan to so do!)
  • Raise the minimum age limit to 18 immediately, pending published expert medical guidelines.
  • All Ice Mile aspirants should be required to first join the IISA. This will ensure better safety, organised swims and better data from attempts, incidents, and data retention for all Ice Mile swims in line with the IISA’s own objectives.
  • All Ice Mile attempts should be pre-approved by the IISA.
  • Aspirants should be required to provide proven experience and references.
  • Publish medical guidelines for aspirants and organisers from hypothermia experts and academics outside the IISA.
  • Aspirants must be required to provide a medical certificate as part of their ratification application.
  • All Ice Mile swim organisers should have relevant cold water experience.
  • Create an IISA committee of experienced Ice Mile swim organisers to codify their Best Practices into an Ice Mile event guideline.
  • Separate the new safety rules in the constitution from the mostly irrelevant articles of incorporation and other matters not related to actual swims.
  • Make the safety rules easily downloadable, with revision dates and change log.
  • Allow any person to submit a swim appeal over a fraudulent swim.
  • Guarantee the confidentiality of any person submitting such an appeal.
  • Initiate and maintaining ongoing discussion by canvassing existing IISA members to discuss and improve rules and guidelines.

Everything Is Okay, Until It Isn’t

I’ve written these articles to:

  • Attempt a serious dissection of the current state of the IISA and Ice Mileing
  • Educate about the difficulty and dangers of Ice Mile swimming
  • Help extreme cold water swimmers
  • Improve the current utterly inadequate IISA rules and communications
  • And as a consequence of all this to improve the IISA
  • And more importantly to try to improve safety for any future Ice Mile Aspirants.

As I have said directly to the IISA:

I think that the lack of appropriate comprehensive guidelines and missing and contradictory rules by the IISA organisation is irresponsible, given it has had five years to learn, analyse and implement improvements”.

To not implement known best practices when lives are at risk and when medical professionals agree is, to use the words of one IISA founding member denying such, “deliberately reckless and careless.

I’d contrast this with Senior CS&PF Pilot Mike Oram, who repeatedly stresses that Channel swimming is an extreme and known lethal sport.

I believe everyone is entitled to make their own choice about their sporting pursuits regardless of danger. But I also believe that they should also have as much information as possible about the dangers and the necessary safety guidelines. A couple of correspondents have raised the comparison of Ice Mile with Himalayan mountain-climbing or Polar expeditions and correctly said that all extreme sports include extreme or even the ultimate risk. While this is true, neither Polar nor Himalayan expeditions came about because of a few people who call themselves the founding, organising and ratifying organisation. When you take on the responsibility to motivate, you should also take on the responsibility to educate and to protect and to do otherwise is wrong.

Since I started this series, members of the IISA have been unhappy with the articles. However , quite tellingly, neither they nor anyone else has said anything to refute the main (or any) points of these articles.

Nothing that I nor any of my correspondents have said here will increase the danger to Ice Mile aspirants, but failing to adapt the current IISA rules to reality will certainly so do.

Thought there are still subjects I couldn’t encompass, (such as the risks involved in training for an Ice Mile), let me finish (finally) with that powerful quotation from a respected Channel and Ice Mile swimmer that I used to open Part 5: “Something terrible is going to happen”.

Is, not might. Time is short, IISA. Act now.

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Related articles

The list of cold water swimming articles I’ve written over the years.

Ice Mile Dilemmas I – The Trap

Ice Mile Dilemmas II – Surprisingly Cold

Ice Mile Dilemmas III – Black Rain

Ice Mile Dilemmas IV – Local Context

Ice Mile Dilemmas V – Rule 1 – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

Ice Mile Dilemmas VI – Rules 2 – Safety and Experience

Ice Mile Dilemmas VII – Rules 3 – Failure To Apply Best Practice

Ice Mile Dilemmas VIII – The Dangers

1My full answer to the question was:

There are none. There are no tricks, no shortcuts, no way that doesn’t involve pain. It takes training, understanding and preparation and a rigorous adherence to safety and even then is still difficult and painful and dangerous.

In fact this question shows one of the biggest problems: This is a highly dangerous pursuit and most of the approximately 100 current Ice Milers in the entire world are very experienced. I thought long and hard about answering this. I was faced with a dilemma: answer and possibly encourage what is very dangerous pursuit which may kill you despite preparation or experience, or ignore it and be afraid the macho ideal would win out.

In the near future, less experienced people will try this without the requisite training, experience or confidence in themselves to abandon a swim if necessary. I believe, along with the majority of Ice Milers to whom I’ve spoken, which is about 20% of all Ice Milers, that a tragedy is increasingly a worrying probability. I believe the IISA needs to improve its criteria, safety recommendations and procedures. Attempts need to be more severely curtailed and only done by people who have prior permission from the IISA based on producing a verified training log, recognised experience, who are known to the organisers and have significant medical safety cover”.

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