Wim Hof, also known as the Ice Man, is a Dutch extreme athlete famed for his impressive ability to withstand freezing temperatures. So when the Guinness World Record champion announced his group travel expeditions—which focus on a combination of meditation, breathing, and exposure to the cold—many fitness and wellness advocates were ready to take on the challenge. Wim Hof invites attendees to the Karkonosze Biosphere in Poland—where he resides most of the year—for a coveted annual Winter Expedition. The programme is a five-day expedition of extensive, expert training in braving the freezing cold, guided by channelling the Wim Hof breathing techniques. Compare Retreats Expert, Catharine Nicol, flew to the tiny mountain village in Poland to join Wim Hof on the Winter Expedition. She returned home with a boosted immune system, a love of the cold and a renewed sense of purpose…
I’m poised on a rock, high above a freezing cold river, wearing nothing but bathers and surrounded by wintry forest in the mountains of Poland. It doesn’t pay to think too much at this point. So I launch myself into the air and a split second later I splash down into the depths of the freezing, bubbling, churning water. I surface, my body screaming out in protest, my lungs gasping from the cold. Every cell is intensely alive. It’s acutely shocking, but also spine-tinglingly, and breathtakingly exhilarating.
I’m on a Wim Hof Winter Expedition in the tiny mountain village of Przesieka, rustic and raw rather than luxurious. It’s me and around 100 others, mostly guys, who are here to meet Wim, 21 st century modern-day visionary.
About Wim Hof
A Guinness World Record holder more than 25 times over, the 60-year-old has hiked in just shorts and sandals up to 24,500 feet on Everest, run a half-
marathon above the Arctic circle in shorts and bare feet, summited the 19,341- feet of Kilimanjaro in just 31 hours 25 minutes, and swum 66 meters under ice. While these achievements are truly amazing, Wim’s ongoing legacy is that his body and mind are guinea pigs for science. He’s passionate about proving that by using the everyday phenomena in his Wim Hof Method of breathing, cold and mental focus, anyone and everyone can deeply connect with the body and mind, overcome physical and mental issues, strengthen the immune system, banish fear, and be inspired to live their best lives.
Braving The Cold & Setting Personal Goals
We all have different reasons to be feeling our feet turn into ice in this 2ºC water. Some are fighting autoimmunes, issues like high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, arthritis, COPD and asthma, whilst others are facing anxiety and depression or simply good old midlife stumbling blocks. I signed up to vanquish a life-long loathing for the cold, to fight my introvert tendencies, meet the man behind the vision and hike the snowy mountain in his backyard like he hiked Kilimanjaro and Everest—in minimal clothes with maximum resilience.
Divided into groups of 20, our instructor Leonardo Pelagotti started our days with breathing exercises. The classic Wim Hof breathing starts with rounds of 30-40 deep breaths (“Fully in!” shouts Wim, “then let it go!”). The breath-hold after the final exhale moves us from intense effort to meditative calm. And two to four minutes later, we breathe that delicious breath back in and immediately tense up for a 10-second total body activation.
Deep breathing (controlled hyperventilation) activates the lungs, alkalises the blood, oxygenates our cells for optimum function and boosts physical and mental resilience. During the breath holds, the body and mind find silence and space to mine deep emotions. Other types of breathing exercises include anti-inflammatory and power breathing and, when practiced for around just 20 minutes, they all create an incredible reboot and immune system boost first thing in the morning. The longer you practice, the deeper you journey into new layers of inner awareness.
Throughout the room there are tears, there is bliss, and every emotion in
between. Of course, you can practice breathing anywhere—I’m really here for the challenge of the cold. Out in the cold wintry air, first, we dip just our hands and feet—two of the most sensitive parts of the body—into the chilly river. Then we head to Wim’s home for three consecutive full-body dips in his small, unheated (of course) pool, alternating with sauna time. The moment we were looking forward to yet dreading, was the cold immersion in the wild.
First wading into a natural pool, breathing, focusing, meditating, and trying not to think of frozen feet. And then “the jump”. The adrenalin of launching into thin air was followed by Wim’s passionate and rebellious leadership in the water, f-bombs flying, laughter all around. Then 7.5 minutes later a clumsy climb up the rocks on those block-of-ice feet. Back on dry land we practiced circulation and heat-boosting exercises, stoking an adrenalin-fuelled, energy-filled, euphoric feeling that anything and everything is possible.
Afterwards, all 20 of us crammed into the sauna, listening as Wim extolled the benefits of the cold. The cold “takes out the garbage,” he explained. It boosts the cardiovascular system and detoxification, minimises inflammation and reduces pain, and can even help slow ageing. As cold increases, adrenalin rises but cortisol decreases, effectively minimising chronic stress. The body switches from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic, activating rest and digest, and we heal. It also helps us connect to our body with our mind, building mental resilience and patience within discomfort.
The final challenge is the three-hour hike up to the peak in Karkonoski Park Narodowy in shorts and boots (and bra tops for us girls). We pulled on micro-spikes to scrunch across ice and snow as we hiked up forest roads and tracks to the sunshiny peak. It may have been a “mild” -2ºC at the top, but thanks to our hiking breathing techniques and focus, plus the sense of achievement, group love and hot chocolate, I barely even felt the cold.
By the end of the week, I was loving our river jumps, the cold awakenings and euphoric payoffs increasing in power. Meeting Wim had been a treat. The cold was now a friend rather than a foe. And, last but not least, our group had bonded so strongly over the highs and lows, emotions, and challenges I literally didn’t want to tear myself away from them for the real world. Mission very much accomplished.
Back in Hong Kong I still practice the breathing, meditation and cold immersion (via cold showers) of the Wim Hof Method. His growing network of instructors around the world includes our instructor Leo who leads Wim Hof Method inspired courses in France, Italy and Switzerland. Nearer to Hong Kong, Alex Tsuk in Bali offers his own version of transformative workshops including ice bathing, breathing and mindset shift.
For more information about booking a Wim Hof Expedition, visit wimhofmethod.com.