The Big Chill

Story by Breena Kerr. Photo by Matt McDonald

I moved to Maui from San Francisco so I wouldn’t have to think about cold.

After years of living in the fog, it’s as if the chill of that city got into my very bones. I can’t tolerate cold showers, never mind dips in mountain lakes or unheated pools. The idea of snorkeling on a cloudy day makes me grumpy. So when I heard about a couple offering ice-bath training in north Maui, I figured some professional help couldn’t hurt.

Ember and Olaf Behrendt’s home in balmy Huelo is a far cry from the snowy Colorado landscape where they trained in the cold-immersion techniques of Dutch endurance marvel Wim Hof, a.k.a. “The Iceman.” Among his feats, Hof has remained in ice baths for nearly two hours, run half-marathons above the Arctic Circle in nothing but shorts and swum beneath the ice of a frozen lake. “I do not only endure the cold, I love the cold,” Hof proclaims in a Vice documentary. He claims that the ability to survive cold also translates into an ability to better handle pain and illness, and there have been studies that back him up. (Disclaimer: There also have been allegations of people dying while attempting Hof’s techniques, so definitely don’t try this at home.)

On the day of the workshop, I walk into the couple’s airy home amid hibiscus and palms with a knot in my stomach and several layers of warm clothing furtively stashed in my bag, just in case. They introduce me to the other workshop participants. We’re an eclectic mix in age and ailment, looking for help with everything from hypoglycemia and anxiety to knee injuries. For my part, I hope that I’ll emerge with a new perspective on cold: if not loving it, then at least tolerating it.

We start the training by lying on our backs and learning Hof’s breathing method, which involves patterns of long, deep inhalations and short, explosive exhalations meant to oxygenate our blood. Lightheadedness ensues. Then we meander over to an industrial cooler and plunge our hands into ice water that’s just above freezing—preparation for our impending full immersion. A dull ache starts around my knuckles and increases until it genuinely hurts. My mind tells me to pull my hands out, but I breathe deeply and keep them submerged anyway, trying to emulate Hof’s stoic concentration.

Soon it’s time for round two of the breathing. As we huff and puff our way through the minutes, I do notice an increasing sense of euphoria. Perhaps, I consider, this is the true draw of the Wim Hof method: the simple pleasures of hyperventilation. Once we’ve finished and recovered from the floating feeling, it’s time for our ice bath, which Olaf has been preparing outside with a fiendish grin.

When my turn comes I brace myself and climb into the tub fast, before I can second-guess. It’s less of a shock than I expected, but it takes all my concentration to keep my body beneath the water. Ice cubes bump my skin. I manage to stay in by focusing on deep breaths, and Ember coaches me through it as I approach my goal of ninety seconds, a magic number where supposed bodily regeneration begins. When I get there I feel a few moments of actual, bona fide satis-faction. This isn’t so bad, I think. That lasts for about another twenty seconds before the full-body ache begins to set in, and I maneuver my stiffening limbs to climb out.

Warming myself in the sun, I feel strangely renewed to the point where I even consider hopping in again. On my way home I receive a text from my girlfriend. “Do you feel like you conquered your fear of the cold?” she asks. “Yeah,” I reply. “From now on I can get in the pool for at least two minutes at a time.” HH