As Sean Ashley stood shirtless on a boulder jutting into Lula Lake, a 3-foot-long icicle broke off of a cliff on the opposite side and plummeted into the frigid water below.
He braced himself with another deep breath and launched off. When his head bobbed back up to the surface, he was met with scattered cheers from a crowd of around 100 people watching from the shore as he made a beeline back to the land. He then clambered back onto the frozen rocks and pulled a blanket over his shoulders, joining a small, shivering group of people trying to dry and re-dress themselves.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance," Ashley said while trying to get his blood flowing again next to a fire. "I'm turning 40 this year and I thought I might as well start it off with a bang."
The "bang" that Ashley and several dozen other gluttons for punishment chose to kick off the new year was the second annual Lula Lake Polar Plunge. Members of the public are typically prohibited from swimming in the small lake on Lookout Mountain, but they got their masochistic chance to dive in on one of the coldest days of the year for $50.
Ticket sales from the event support the Lula Lake Land Trust, a private group that seeks to protect and preserve the area surrounding the lake. Participants also received all-you-can eat chili, bloody marys and spiked cider to warm up after their dip.
"I don't know that I'd ever do it again," Ashley said, shivering. "I like to kayak up in Nantahala, but I'm not good so I fall in the water a lot and the water up there can get pretty cold. That's nothing compared to what I just did."
"It takes your breath away."
Friends and family spectated atop rocks and stumps scattered along the hill face leading down to the water, where a handful of organizers called out groups. When it was their turn, participants threaded their way down to the boulder, stripped down to their bathing suits and considered whether they should simply jump off the rock or zipline into the water.
Each had their own reason for taking the plunge — some said it was a bucket list item while others said they were trying to wash away their experience of the last year.
"I did it because 2018 is going to be the year the world goes vegan," said Bret Brown. "It's a symbol of a new year — of dedication. It's an amazing Earth and we've got to save it."
Others were happy to watch people jump in but flat refused to do so themselves. Lindsey Hobbes sat 20 feet from the water on a log, holding an emergency thermal blanket at the ready for her friend, who was in line waiting for her turn.
"Honestly, I thought she was kidding when she said she wanted to do this. I looked at the weather, saw how cold it was going to be and tried to convince her to stay home. She wasn't having it," she said.
"She flipped it on me and tried to get me to join her, but I said, 'No thanks. I choose life.'"
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.