Episode 4

Cold Water Immersion with Team ETA


Cold Water Immersion

Featuring Dan Karl, Vic Ventura, and Gwen Forti

As humans, we are tropical creatures by our most original nature. Our wellbeing requires a consistent maintenance of 98.6 degrees.

Even in the age of down jackets and electrically warmed gloves, there are no shortage of natural environments that are particularly adept at making it very challenging to maintain that consistent temperature. In fact, more often than not it’s unexpected hypothermia in a non-winter environment that accounts for rescues and even deaths of recreational adventurers.

If even with all of our modern clothing and equipment we seem so ill fit to handle the cold, then it’s a fair question to ask how we as a species managed to do so before we had any such things? Regardless of what particular version of history you subscribe to, there is no denying that our ancestors adapted to the cold somewhere along the line. This is especially true if your ancestors are of northern European origins like mine.

I genuinely love the winter. To get after whatever your pursuit of choice is amongst the dead of winter, you have to want it that extra bit, not to mention that with winter the winter setting comes a silence so loud that you can hear it. Yet all the love in the world for the cold never stopped my hands and feet from turning to blocks of ice on long days of ice climbing.

So when I was exposed to the idea that by intentionally yet measurably exposing one’s body to the cold could begin to build not only its resilience to cold, but its circulation and immunity to boot, I couldn’t look the other way.

These are not my ideas, as much as I wish I could claim that they were. I read, as many have, about the “Iceman” Wim Hof, and his long history of demonstrating these abilities. I decided very quickly that any man disciplined enough to swim under the arctic sea ice had some lessons that I needed to learn for myself.

I’m also fortunate enough to count several other masochists as some of my closest friends. So with very little convincing, myself and Vic were very soon confusing the hell out of the lifeguards and other members of our gym by going outside into the snow directly after climbing out of the hot tub or sauna. Before long, it evolved into laying in the river behind the gym each morning. At a cool 32 degrees, it became the standard morning wake-up.

After a weekend of ice climbing in the Adirondack High Peaks, Vic, Gwen, Dan, and I decided to test our practice in a true winter setting. Since the northeastern U.S. is shy on glaciers, we settled instead for bashing our way through a hole in the ice of the Boquet River, and taking turns sitting in the frigid water while focused on our breathing.

Consistent cold exposure training has the benefit of increasing white blood cell count, which leads to a strong immune system. It increases brown fat stores, a specific type of fast burning fat used for warmth, and often found in high concentration in infants and hibernating mammals. And when practiced in conjunction with breathing over time, builds literal muscle-memory into the microscopic muscle tissue of the capillaries, allowing a literal mind muscle connection just like curls would develop with one’s biceps. Over time, one can actually exert physical influence over the blood flow in their body.

The trade-off? The willingness to suffer the temperatures of frigid water on a daily basis, much like our ancestors. The only difference was it was the simple, daily exposure to their environment that kept them conditioned. For the modern human, we must seek this struggle voluntarily in an increasingly comfortable world. This, I find, is where we as a collective species all to often stumble.

Very often it is our perception of suffering that far exceeds the actuality of the experience. If we can simply learn to stop our perception from running amok, then often we find that what we are able to adjust to very quickly begins to exceed our expectations. Adjustment becomes endurance. Endurance becomes enjoyment.

And before you realize it, you find yourself craving the thing that once seemed unthinkable. Like looking forward to the coldest day of the year to take a swim.