For centuries, bathing in sub-zero temperatures has been considered by some as a means of strengthening the immune system – even Goethe is said to have enjoyed regular dips in the icy waters of the Ilm. With winter swimming enjoying surprising popularity at the moment, our author joined the lads from Munich Hot Springs to give it a try.
It is winter. The temperature is zero degrees and the snow is knee-deep on the pavement. It’s the kind of day I should spend curled up on the sofa by the radiator, nursing a cup of coffee and playing on the Playsta... I mean reading a book. What I’m doing instead is heading out to meet the lads from Hot Spring Munich. Samuel and Franz meet here every Friday for a spot of ice bathing, and anyone with the inclination is welcome to join them.
Thinking about it, I absolutely don’t have that inclination: I get frostbite just from watching Disney’s “Frozen” on screen. I even use warm water when I’m brushing my teeth. And now – in the middle of January – I’m planning to jump into a river in beachwear? What possessed me?! I’ll catch my death! At breakfast this morning I downed Actimel by the litre, hoping to boost my immune system – I have no idea what good that will do, but at least my gut flora should be in peak condition now.
I pack my rucksack. Samuel wrote to me on Instagram to tell me what to bring: loose trousers because it might be difficult to wriggle into jeans when I am freezing after my swim. Two hand towels – one for drying off and the other to use as underlay to make sure my clothes don’t get wet in the snow. Dry underwear, swimwear and, if I want, a hat. But I don’t want a hat. I mean, if I’m going to be jumping into a river almost naked in sub-zero temperatures, I don’t think my earlobes being a bit cold is going to make the difference.
"I get frostbite just from watching Disney’s ‘Frozen’ on screen. I even use warm water when I’m brushing my teeth. And now – in the middle of January – I’m planning to jump into a river in beachwear?"
While ice bathing is an age-old tradition in the Scandinavian countries and in Russia, Goethe is also said to have cut through the ice of the Ilm river, here in Germany, for a cold-water dip. There has even been an ice swimming world championship since 1999 – the Winter Swimming World Championships. More than 1,000 athletes travelled to Slovenia last year to swim through the bitterly cold waters of Lake Bled for the event, and the 1,000-metre freestyle champion completed the race in just 15 minutes. That wouldn’t be for me. I can’t even do front crawl; I still get by with the froglike paddling moves I learned in swimming class when I was six. It’s a great way to avoid getting chlorine in your eyes, but if I used that technique in freezing-cold water I’d turn to ice halfway through my first length.
Samuel moved to Munich from London four years ago, and got to know Franz through doing sports. They are two friendly guys in their mid-thirties, and they really seem quite normal. It started with them both always taking a cold shower after training. Then at some point that wouldn’t do it, so they jumped into the cold water instead. Naturally. I also hate that I can’t make the water any colder when I’m having my morning shower...
“I doubt I’m going to find this very relaxing. But I’ll give it a try. I close my eyes and take a breath.
This is it, I think to myself. I breathe out. I’m going to freeze, I think.”
Over the years, the pair have attracted more and more like-minded unfreezables – sometimes as many as 24 people turn up at a group meet to jump into the frigid waters. But it’s just me and the two guys here today, which is maybe for the best. It means fewer people to hear my screams when I’m in the water – it’ll probably sound like someone has trodden on the wings of a Disney fairy. I ask myself: Why would anyone choose to do this to themselves? “Because it strengthens your immune system,” says Samuel. “It also causes your body to burn calories, and is good for relieving stress.”
“Let’s do a few breathing exercises first,” says Franz. “We’ll take about thirty deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth, to relax the body. Then we whip off our clothes and get in the water.”
I doubt I’m going to find this very relaxing. But I’ll give it a try. I close my eyes and take a breath.
This is it, I think to myself.
I breathe out.
I’m going to freeze, I think.
I breathe in.
My lifeless body will end up floating along the river, I think.
I breathe out.
All the way to Oberföhring, I think.
I breathe in.
Some neoprene-clad poser is going to end up crashing into me with his surfboard, I think.
I breathe out.
My frozen corpse is going to end up being washed ashore, all bloated and pale... Actually, I’m already pale, I think.
I breathe in.
People will bend down to look me and one of the crowd will say: “What kind of a moron goes in the water in these temperatures?!” I breathe out and open my eyes.
“Ready?” asks Samuel.
Not at all!
“Ok,” I whimper.
Samuel and Franz begin taking off their clothes. My own hands tremble as I strip off my jeans – hard to say whether it’s because of the cold or the excitement. A couple of walkers stop to look at us, leaning down to address their children and probably say something like: “Look what those nutcases over there are doing, Marie-Valentina.”
Those nutcases are getting into the water now. Without giving it any further thought, I just get in. It helps a bit that there’s no beach, as it means you don’t have to gradually wade in deeper and deeper, overcoming your inhibitions anew at every step, as you do at a lake. Instead, you just hop in from the bank, and then you’re actually in the water.
“So I crouch there in the freezing-cold water and pant like an overworked bugler, trying to stabilise my pulse. You would be forgiven for thinking I was trying to birth a child.”
It is cold. But it’s not as cold as I had feared. I expected my body to go rigid with the shock and then start hyperventilating, but it’s really not that bad. Samuel explains that there’s not a big difference between the air temperature and the water temperature now, which limits the shock. And the two lads give me another tip too: I should crouch down so that the water comes up to my neck. That also helps the body to acclimatise. So I crouch there in the freezing-cold water and pant like an overworked bugler, trying to stabilise my pulse. You would be forgiven for thinking I was trying to birth a child.
After two minutes, I cannot stand the cold any longer, despite all the helpful hints. I climb out of the water – or rather, I try. But the bank is too high; I can’t get myself out of the icy water. Panic rises in me. The photographer has to put his camera down and pull me out of the river with both hands. It’s a good thing I didn’t start out with any dignity.
“My feet are numb. I feel like I have a thick pole stuck to the bottom of my soles and blocking my toes. I can’t bend them.”
I hurry over to my hand towel and dry off, then quickly slip into my warm tracksuit bottoms. My feet are numb. I feel like I have a thick pole stuck to the bottom of my soles and blocking my toes. I can’t bend them. There’s that feeling of panic again. I’ve seen photos of mountain climbers who have lost toes to frostbite. A rotten black toe guarantees that I’ll stay single for the rest of my life. No woman will want to play footsie with me under the covers. Samuel calms me down. From the river, he shouts that I should do a few gymnastics exercises and jump up and down to get the feeling back in my feet. Those lunatics are still in.
Cold has an extreme effect on the body. It constricts the arteries serving the hands and feet in order to ensure that the most vital organs are supplied with blood first. To put it another way, if my body is the Titanic sinking in icy waters, my heart and lungs are the women and children on board – and my feet are Leonardo DiCaprio. It is fascinating to experience how the body functions like a machine. Not like one of the machines for collecting returnable bottles at my local Rewe store though – a machine which only has one function and requires a technician’s visit when the slightest problem arises. The human body is an intelligent machine which can respond to a variety of situations – like the Terminator. Or my Roomba.
“I can definitely see what attracts so many people to ice bathing: it’s the challenge. The attempt to push your boundaries. Next time, I want to make it to three minutes.”
At the point when my feet are ensconced in warm shoes and I am back in my jumper and jacket, Franz and Samuel are just getting out of the river. Not that it’s a competition – fortunately. Maybe I’ll have another dip over the next few days and try to stay in a bit longer. I can definitely see what attracts many people to ice bathing: it’s the challenge. The attempt to push your boundaries. Next time, I want to make it to three minutes. Maybe then I will experience a euphoric feeling straight afterwards – a sensation which some ice swimmers apparently find more intense than sex. But right now, I’m off to sit on the sofa by the radiator and have a coffee.