Toronto man becomes 1st Canadian to swim across world’s highest navigable lake

Robert McGlashan has managed to do something nobody from this country has ever done.

Last weekend, according to the company that organized the crossing, he became the first Canadian to swim between two islands in Lake Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake in South America and the highest navigable body of water in the world.

On Saturday May 11, against a backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks, the Toronto lawyer spent two hours and 26 minutes crossing a 7.5-kilometre stretch in the middle of the famous waterway that straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia in the Andes mountain range.

“It was very fulfilling to reach the other side and know that I actually made it,” said McGlashan.

The journey began at Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) as McGlashan waded into 12 C water and began swimming to Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon). Both islands are located on the Bolivian side of the lake.

Altitude challenge

The distance might not seem like much, but it was challenging because of the inclement weather and the thin air due to the altitude —  3,810 metres above sea level.

“It’s cold and because of the lack of oxygen you feel the cold a little bit sooner than you normally would,” said McGlashan.

At high altitudes it can be difficult to take in the amount of oxygen the human body needs.

Health Canada says this can lead to decreased physical performance, lightheadedness and fatigue or more serious illnesses, including altitude sickness.

Staff with the company that organized the crossing, Patagonia Swim, measured McGlashan’s blood oxygen level before he entered the water. It measured 83 millimetres of mercury, placing him in danger of contracting hypoxia, a condition where the body is starved of oxygen.

Despite the challenge, McGlashan swam on.

“The first kilometre is the hardest because you’re trying to get used to the difficulty breathing and the difficulty of getting oxygen,” said McGlashan. “After that first kilometre [or] first kilometer and a half, you get used to it and your pace begins to even out.”

One of many big swims

McGlashan prepared for the conditions on Lake Titicaca by training in Lake Ontario during the frigid winter months.

“Lake Ontario was colder from November to March, and a lot cleaner” than Lake Titicaca, said McGlashan.

This isn’t the first time McGlashan has swum across a famous waterway, and it won’t be the last. Just under a month ago, he swam across the Strait of Magellan in southern Chile. Last year, he swam the Strait of Bonafacio from Sardinia to Corsica in Italy.

He said he’s motivated by the physical and mental challenge and the opportunity to promote open water swimming and the sustainable use of lakes and oceans.

Next month, McGlashan hopes to swim from the Italian island of Capri to Naples — a 36-kilometre swim where at least the water will be warmer.

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