Cold water has always attracted me. It starts during my university years when I spend many long days taking my bicycle to one of the lakes or rivers around my hometown. I enjoy the physical exercise, the sensation of sweat dripping from my face in the summer heat before submerging myself in the cold waters of Austria’s mountainous nature. On some days, I bring my lecture notes with me, my brain bending from studying complicated formulas or mathematical theorems, interrupted only by another short swim every half an hour or so.
I even buy a bathtub thermometer which becomes a fixture in my bicycle bag to check the water temperature of the places I visit. Salzburg is lucky enough to have many small lakes and streams outside the city. There’s also Almkanal, a three-meter-long canal that brings cold water from Königssee to Salzburg. In summer, its temperature is around 14 to 16 degrees, considerably colder than the larger lakes that draw most visitors. People enjoy sunbathing on its banks and take only a few short dips. I’m the exception; I come for a swim.
The water is cold at first, but I can stay in for quite a while as long as I keep moving, and the discomfort turns into a pleasant relaxation. Like long-distance running, it teaches me to focus on the task at hand. Put one foot in front of the other and repeat, one breaststroke at a time, pedalling on my bicycle for hours on end. On a basic level, it’s all the same. The rhythm calms my mind, and my thoughts drift somewhere else or, if I’m lucky, I stop thinking altogether.
My grandparents have a house in Seeham, a small lakeside town of around 2000 people today and a lot less when they’ve built there in the 1960s. It’s 20 km outside of Salzburg and where we spend a large portion of our childhood. Our parents put us in the car every Friday after school to embark on the 30-40 minute journey and only return on Sunday night. Similarly, we spend every school holiday there, almost in its entirety. As children, my siblings and I do not understand this. “Why can’t we stay at home?” we enquire. “Or meet our friends from school?” Again, the benefits only manifest themselves in hindsight.
At its narrowest part, the lake is about 1 km wide. Using a steady-paced breaststroke, I can cross it in 20 minutes. The rhythm of my head dipping under the smooth surface of the lake commands the rhythm of my breath. The monotony has a calming nature, and it’s a good workout too. As the small chapel on the other side of the lake comes into view, I’ll speed up a little to ensure the right amount of exhaustion after the last few meters. The muscles in my arms burn when I crumble out of the water. I sit on the pebble beach for a few minutes taking in the views. Then I turn back.
There’s a church on the Seeham side of the lake. I use its tower as a landmark during my return. Slowly but steadily, it comes closer with every stroke. There’s rarely anyone else in the middle of the lake. Only about 50 meters from the shore. A few bright orange buoys and two wooden floats mark my return to civilisation.
One summer, I do 25 such crossings. One day, the wind creates a small current, making it harder to get back. I swim hard for about five minutes but don’t make considerable progress. I decide to turn around and rest more. I try again, but it doesn’t make a difference. It feels as if the wind just got stronger. Worried that I might run out of energy halfway across the lake if I push on, I turn back. My brother, working as a lifeguard that year, has been watching my struggles through his binoculars. My grandparents take off in their car to find me. They figured I would start walking back home, and they could pick me up somewhere along the road. Little did they know that I, forever the free-spirited madman, decide to walk back the other, considerably longer, direction around the lake. It must have been at least two hours later when I finally get back, barefoot and wearing nothing more than my swimsuit, my feet equally burnt from the concrete road as my skin from the sun. Reflecting on the experience, the precarious nature of my swimming treks sinks in. I ponder getting a swimming help, maybe one of those orange Baywatch floats, and drag it behind me just in case, but my subconscious mind has other plans. I never cross the lake alone again.
There are two swimming events in Seeham each year. One is held in late September by the local water rescue. Locals and visitors (usually from other clubs across Austria and Germany) suit up in neoprene suits and make the crossing by boat. Then everyone swims back together and has a party afterwards. Some already start the party on the water, bringing some self-built floating device that holds a box of beers.
I join this event a few times. Amongst everyone dressed up in warm, waterproof neoprene suits, there are usually one or two “idiots” wearing nothing more than a swimsuit. One of them is me. The water temperature in late September varies. It depends on how cold the first weeks of autumn are and how much the lake cools down from its regular 20-25 degrees summer temperature. One year, autumn is already going strong; it’s raining and cold. The thermometer outside our house shows 8 degrees. The morning before the swim, I head to the lake to measure the water temperature, a chilly 14 degrees. A moderator interviews some locals as they step out of the water. “Why have you been swimming so fast?” he wants to know while sticking a microphone in my face. “Because it’s cold” is all I could mutter before rushing off to get changed. The hot shower after this swim was one of the most delightful sensations.
Another year, a local triathlete participating comes in just a few moments before me. She congratulates me on my breaststroke swimming, which should have been considerably slower than the freestyle crawling technique used in competitive triathlons. I consider taking up swimming as a more serious hobby for a short while. Maybe there’s be a niche for long-distance breaststroke competitions, I think. I also look up the list of successful crossings of the English Channel and learn that I would be the first Austrian to accomplish the task. If I was crazy enough to try it and be successful, of course. Like many other ideas, I soon tuck them away neatly in the maybe later box of my life.
To finally link all this back to the theme of this post, the second event held each year takes place on December 31st. A buoy is fixed about 20 meters offshore, and participants sprint into the ice-cold water, take a few strokes to reach the marker and hurry back.
With water temperatures around freezing and air temperatures below zero, this is a whole different level of cold exposure. The shock upon entering the water is intense, sharp pain like a thousand needles running through my body. A rush of adrenalin, the body’s fight or flight response, keeps everyone going. Moreover, you don’t have much choice once you’re in the water. Interestingly enough, after twenty to thirty seconds, the body adapts to the cold. Some swimmers even go for a second or third round. I have no such plans. I’m happy being out of the water, quickly change and drink some hot tea my grandmother brought along in a thermo-can. I accidentally pour some of it over my face. My skin is still numb from the cold, so I don’t feel anything right away. It’s only an hour later that I realise I’ve burnt my lip. The next day, we see our photo in the local newspaper: “30 brave ones at the New Year’s Eve Swimming”. Brave or crazy, it’s a fine line and all a matter of perspective.
I first learn about Wim Hof when I stumble upon an online documentary, “Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman”. It sounds awe-inspiring: the world record for the longest time submerged in ice, the longest dive under ice, running a half marathon barefoot on snow and ice, climbing Mount Everest dressed only in shorts (not to the top but still massively impressing). What resonates with me is the claim that everyone can do what he does or at least some form of it. His method is simple, built around breathwork and cold immersion. Starting on your journey is as easy as taking a cold shower every morning. I also like that he invites scientific studies to back up his claims and help him understand the physiological mechanisms at work. The human body works in mysterious ways. I don’t see a freak of nature, though, or someone genetically gifted. I see his method as a powerful tool and want to know if I can benefit myself.
I get an online course and practised the WHM (Wim Hof Method) for a while. I even considered joining Wim for his winter tours to Poland, where participants climb Mount Śnieżka in nothing but shorts. Again, the plans fell short. My limited days of leave were precious, and I have different priorities at the time.
I continue using some WMH breathing techniques and make it a habit to take cold showers after exercising but eventually, the whole thing fades from my conscious mind. Still, I’m an avid visitor of saunas and thermal baths. The most enjoyable part of it has always remained the cold water pool. A lot of people come out of the sauna, drenched in sweat, splash into those pools, make a lot of waves (and grunting sounds) before rushing back out. On the other hand, I like to sit in the cold water, forever forgetting the world around me.
Fast forward to 2018 and my arrival in Singapore. It takes my body a while to acclimatise to the weather. It’s summer all year round and a hot and extraordinarily humid one too. After half a year, I go back to Austria for the first time, realising that I’m no longer used to swimming in even slightly cooler lakes. On my way back, I stopover in Tokyo. Sitting in the pool of a local Onsen, I ponder how to incorporate cold water exposure into my new life in Singapore.
I find an Onsen close to our apartment and started visiting it regularly. The cold water pool isn’t icy, but it’s a start and a refreshing experience. By chance, I run into my chiropractor during one of these visits, and he mentions Wim Hof to me. “Yes, I know”, I reply, involuntarily cutting the conversation short. Somehow, it must have lingered in my mind, though. The next time I visit, I’m resting in the quiet area to which, in very Singaporean fashion, I bring my handphone along. When the thought of Wim Hof crosses my mind again, I pick it up and search for his method. It turns out his technique has picked up some pace, and there are significantly more events all over the world. To my great pleasure, there’s a local instructor in Singapore. I sign up for an introductory course right then and there.
I take a ridesharing car to a quiet neighbourhood in Singapore’s heartlands a few weeks later. Well maintained ground houses extend on both sides of the road, taller highrise buildings shoot into the sky behind. It’s here on the third-floor yoga room of a family home that I’ll embark on the next chapter of my journey into the depths of my body. Trying to understand my body on a more fundamental level through cold exposure, breathing and meditation. Or, to put it less boldly: to have some fun dipping in ice water.