This Tahoe man is halfway through his quest to swim in the freezing lake for 365 consecutive days

Thursday was all dark clouds and rain in Lake Tahoe. It was the kind of awful day that strips any lingering motivation one might have to be outside, in the mountains. A sharp, persistent wind cut across the water. Small, rough waves rolled to shore. The whole lake seemed to be bracing itself for the incoming storm.

As Nicholas Mitchell walked out to the end of a pier in Tahoe City, dark rain drops started to show up on the planks of wood. Mitchell held a white-and-green striped towel under his arm and carried a thermos of hot rooibos tea in his other hand.

Rain, shine or snow, Nicholas Mitchell swims in Lake Tahoe every day, no matter what the elements may bring.

Ryan Salm/Special to SFGATE

When he reached the end of the pier, Mitchell grinned. Then he kicked off his snow boots. Unzipped his ski jacket. Stepped out of his ski pants. Peeled off one sock, and the other, until he was standing in the bitter cold in a Speedo and a beanie.

He didn’t waste any time. Mitchell stepped down a metal workman’s ladder that was roped to the edge of the pier and — without any hesitation, nor any evidence of cold-water shock on his face — he slipped into Lake Tahoe’s frigid 42-degree waters.

“I’m always nervous,” Mitchell said, calling up to me. I was on the pier, holding my breath and remembering the full-body convulsions I feel when I swim in Lake Tahoe. The squeeze of my lungs, the instinct to get out as fast as possible. Mitchell, on the other hand, was just treading water and still smiling. “It takes about 30 seconds to get used to it.”

Then he swam out toward the storm.

Mitchell climbs down a ladder to get into Lake Tahoe. He never jumps into the lake. He always walks in gradually to ease into the freezing cold water.

Mitchell climbs down a ladder to get into Lake Tahoe. He never jumps into the lake. He always walks in gradually to ease into the freezing cold water.

Ryan Salm/Special to SFGATE

Every single day for six months, Mitchell has gone swimming in Lake Tahoe. He is on a personal quest to swim in the lake for 365 consecutive days. Rain or shine, or blizzard, gale-force wind, single-digit temperature, sleet, hail, Sierra cement — no matter what the elements present, he swims. Along the way, he is raising money for an international NGO, called Cecily’s Fund, which was founded in the memory of his childhood friend.

Beyond swimming on the daily, Mitchell has a couple of rules: no wetsuits or booties. (A beanie is allowed, which he says makes a big difference to keep the heat in his body.) And he must be in the water for three minutes, an arbitrary number, but enough time so his body can fully experience the cold water. Three minutes also keeps him safe. Any longer and he says he’ll shiver uncontrollably.

“By going in every day, just doing it every day, I have taught my brain that I’ll be okay,” Mitchell told me a couple days earlier. “I still feel really cold. The cold is definitely still there. But I guess that I’ve done it so many times now, my brain knows it’s all OK. It doesn’t go into shock mode.”

The water still feels cold, but Mitchell says he doesn't experience the shock of the freezing temperatures anymore.

The water still feels cold, but Mitchell says he doesn’t experience the shock of the freezing temperatures anymore.

Ryan Salm/Special to SFGATE

So you must be wondering why Mitchell is doing this seemingly wild challenge. And maybe you’ve already pegged him as one of those cold water fanatics. But on the pier, when photographer Ryan Salm asked if he’s into Wim Hof and the breathing techniques of cold water submersion, Mitchell shrugged and shook his head. Of course Mitchell has heard of Wim Hof, the extreme athlete who has records for things like running up Kilimanjaro in board shorts and running a marathon in the Arctic barefoot. But Mitchell says he’s not an avid follower of  the “Wim Hof Method.”

Really, Mitchell is just a guy who lost his job in the pandemic and needed something to keep him sane.

“Part of the reason why I’m doing it, is just all the common madness that’s descended on society,” Mitchell said. “It was something to distract me from that and give me a focus every day to do something challenging and fulfilling.”

Mitchell has lived in Tahoe for almost 20 years. His story is similar to most people who wind up here. He’s from the U.K. originally, and when he was considering a move to Colorado to ski, a friend told him to move to Tahoe, instead. When he told Salm and I that story, the three of us smiled knowingly. Aspiring skiers always think they’ll move to Tahoe for just one season and 20 years later, they’re still here. It’s a familiar tale. And also, living in Tahoe, as opposed to Colorado, you get the mountains and the lake.

To support the Tahoe lifestyle, Mitchell did what many Tahoe locals have done. He worked a medley of jobs at restaurants with hours that catered to skiing. He even spent a couple seasons in Alaska, working in the kitchen at a heli-ski operation. He didn’t make much money, but he did get to go heli-skiing. Mitchell got married. He has two young boys, ages 7 and 4. He found a more “regular” job at a Tahoe-based travel agency that specializes in small ship cruises. And then the pandemic hit. Mitchell was laid off last April.

Over the past year, Mitchell embraced the role of a stay-at-home dad, caring for his sons and helping them with schoolwork and lessons. His wife works full-time from home. The idea to swim in Lake Tahoe every day began as a means for him to keep a routine, to go outside, to feel like himself.

“Nick is a guy that likes adventure,” said Jenna Granger, a friend of Mitchell’s. “He needed an outlet to get out and have an experience every day. And every day is an experience. With COVID and being at home with our families, we are getting in these same patterns every day and by jumping in the lake, it’s never the same.”

Mitchell decided to swim in Lake Tahoe this year as a means to stay sane in the pandemic. He was laid off from his job last April.

Mitchell decided to swim in Lake Tahoe this year as a means to stay sane in the pandemic. He was laid off from his job last April.

Ryan Salm/Special to SFGATE

Granger heard about Mitchell’s mission to swim in Lake Tahoe every day and she decided to join him. She was several months postpartum, at home with her baby while her husband worked. And she was looking for a way to recover from the birth, for something she could do for herself. Swimming in Lake Tahoe’s cold water every day felt healing, she said.

“Going through pregnancy and birth, you’re in this really weird physical space where everything is different,” Granger said. “I felt like going in the water, being cold, it was like giving birth in a way. Your body contracts. You have to learn to relax it. You don’t want to sit there being cold, being frigid. If you relax, it gets better.”

Mitchell started his yearlong journey Sept. 18, 2020. He’s been recording all of his swims in a journal. On that first day, the air temperature was 55 degrees and the water was 64 degrees. Sept. 18 is also his wedding anniversary. “Seems like a good way to remember our anniversary next year,” he wrote in his journal.

His first journal entry continues: “I felt warmer after getting out than before I got in. Not at all painful, which is to be expected when the water is so warm. I wonder what it will be like when the water is in the low 50s and below. Here we go.”

Now, in March, Mitchell is at the halfway point of his yearlong challenge and the water temperature has dropped more than 20 degrees. He gets the lake’s temperature from buoys that are monitored by NASA. March was the hardest month, he says. But now, he feels like he’s on the other side of the hump and he’s confident he can meet his goal.

With that boost of confidence, and also because he was searching for a way to give his quest more meaning and purpose, he decided to turn his swims into a fundraiser for Cecily’s Fund. Cecily Eastwood was a friend of Mitchell’s who was volunteering in Zambia at 19 when she was killed in a car accident. Her family created the fund in her honor to support education for orphaned youth.

“I’d always wanted to raise money for her, or do something,” Mitchell said. Raising money has also helped Mitchell double-down on his goal. His friends are chipping in, too. So far, he’s raised more than $1,800 on his crowdfunding page. On some days, he dedicates swims to friends, calling them up and asking them to donate, and then positioning his phone so they can see him swim in the lake over the video call.

When he gets out of the water, Mitchell says that his body won't feel cold for a few minutes. Still, he wastes no time in getting dry and putting on layers to stay warm.

When he gets out of the water, Mitchell says that his body won’t feel cold for a few minutes. Still, he wastes no time in getting dry and putting on layers to stay warm.

Ryan Salm/Special to SFGATE

Mitchell was a swimmer before this yearlong challenge, competing in open-water races in Lake Tahoe. Before, he always had to wear a wetsuit; otherwise, he says he’d come out of the water blue and shivering. But he always admired swimmers who competed in these races and didn’t have to wear a wetsuit. He wondered if he could train his body to become tougher in the cold.

A month into his swims, on Oct. 18, Mitchell’s journal revealed a breaking point. He wrote down: “I have serious doubts about being able to see this through.” Swimming in Lake Tahoe isn’t just a feat of will and mental strength. It’s also a commitment in routine and scheduling. Mitchell was also dreading what lay ahead: the storms, the snow, winter.

In November, Granger joined him. She swam for 60 days total, including a stretch of 30 consecutive days.

Every day has been different. Mitchell and Granger swam on calm afternoons, or during the sunset when the lake was glassy and colorful. Granger described swimming in cold water like meditation, in the way you have to sit through the discomfort and get to the other side. They both said the cold water re-energized them. With a newborn baby, there were many days when Granger said she felt tired and groggy.

“Then you’d go jump in and it’s like a whole new day,” she said. “You’re ready again for life.”

Granger’s favorite days were the windiest. A light breeze can be excruciating, she said. But when the wind really blows, choppy waves roll across the lake and the experience is elevated.

“The waves, I get giddy. You’re just in there, this is so cool. There are big waves, you’re rolling in it, staying afloat,” she said. Christmas Day, Granger remembers, was particularly windy. “That was one of the best days. These big waves came in and we were just swimming out there.”

Mitchell says his thing is swimming at night under full moons.

“Every full moon since I started, I’ve been in the water as the full moon rises up over the mountains,” he said. Mitchell has also upped the ante on his swims by running down to the lake from his house or cross-country skiing. He never jumps in the lake. He always walks in gradually, whether it’s down a ladder on a pier or from the shore.

By swimming in freezing Lake Tahoe every day, Mitchell's body has adjusted to the impacts of cold water.

By swimming in freezing Lake Tahoe every day, Mitchell’s body has adjusted to the impacts of cold water.

Ryan Salm/Special to SFGATE

Then, in January, a massive snow storm aimed straight for the Sierra Nevada, burying the Lake Tahoe Basin beneath feet upon feet of snow. Lake Tahoe doesn’t freeze in the winter. When snow falls, the flakes dissolve into the deep water.

In the middle of a blizzard, Mitchell walked to the end of the pier in Tahoe City, which was covered in snow. The skin on his bare feet stuck to the icy ladder as he walked into the lake. On Jan. 27, the air was 28 degrees and the water was 43 degrees. In his journal he wrote: “This was the day I had been waiting for.”

“I had a lot of adrenaline pumping through me,” he says. “People talk about the euphoria you get when you go into cold water. And it was one of the most euphoric experiences that I have had. Just being in the lake, in this blizzard, thinking ‘Wow, I’m here. I’m doing it.’ And I’m fine. And then I got out and ran down the pier to a sheltered area. Got dressed. Got back in my car and went home.”