The first step is not the most difficult.
It’s the next step, and then the one after, and so on as the freezing lake water crawls up the legs and begins biting the skin.
Adrenaline surges, the heart rate spikes and the fight-or-flight response kicks in as the body asks the crucial question the brain has seemingly overlooked: Why are we doing this?
And then, after the body completely submerges and rises before stepping back onto the beach on a January morning before dawn, heat swells from the core and the moment ends in a kind of euphoria.
This is what Hitesh Kumar does for fun.
“Once you are in that freezing cold and your body is going into frenzy mode, the adrenaline is off the charts, you can’t think of the future,” Kumar says.
Kumar, 30, works as a ferry engineer, volunteers as a firefighter, sleeps only three hours a night, was once nearly killed in an illegal drag race, is training for a Tough Mudder race, plans to swim with sharks and run ultramarathons, and says things like “mind over matter, everything is doable.”
He also likes to start his day at 5:20 in the morning with a head-to-toe dunk in Kootenay Lake, followed by another two hours later and, if he isn’t working, yet another later in the day.
His passion for cold water has also drawn in a small group of dedicated dippers.
In December, Randolph Seibold was sitting in the Nelson and District Community Complex sauna contemplating the coming year when he began chatting with Kumar. The subject of cold water dips came up and two days later Seibold was in the water.
“I loathe soft, complacent, overly cautious Western culture, so it was easy to meet a guy who was just ready to get cold,” said Seibold.
Kumar’s group currently has 10 to 15 rotating “Hofers,” nicknamed after cold-water enthusiast Wim Hof. The Dutchman is internationally known for his resilience to extreme temperatures — one of Hof’s 26 world records is from nearly summiting Mount Everest wearing just shorts and shoes — and he’s made a business-cum-lifestyle out of his breathing techniques and belief in the health benefits of chilly dips.
Cold-water plunges aren’t unique to Nelson. Polar-bear swims, triathlons, and even religious ceremonies such as the Orthodox Christian celebration of Epiphany all take part in freezing bodies of water.
For Kumar, the dip is partly a spiritual act. He was born in India near the city of Haridwar, where Hindus gather to dip in the Ganges River.
“There’s something about older Indian culture that if you want to follow a spiritual lifestyle, you get up early in the morning before sunrise and go for a dip. That starts your day,” he says.
Kumar’s family immigrated to Ottawa when he was a child. Five years ago he went on a ski trip to Mont-Tremblant, Que., and was dared by friends to jump into a nearly frozen lake. He obliged. “Absolutely screamed and yelled my ass off,” he says.
But when he got out, he realized he felt fine and wondered why he wasn’t cold. While his friends ran back to warmth, Kumar stayed behind for another dip and noticed he was breathing heavily.
That led him to Hof, who uses deep breathing to induce a stress response in his brain.
A study released last year by Wayne State University’s School of Medicine in Detroit found Hof’s breathing boosted energy consumption in the intercostal muscles around the ribs, which it turn generates heat. It also activates pain inhibitors in the brain, which release dopamine and serotonin that gives dippers the aforementioned feeling of euphoria.
Meanwhile, blood vessels in the skin constrict to decrease heat loss and keep warm blood flowing around vital organs, which is why essentially expendable extremities become cold first.
It’s also why Kumar says dippers should be confident in their training before they dunk all the way under the surface.
“The head is the final frontier, because you lose a lot of heat from your head. You really have to be mentally ready.”
Kumar moved to Nelson three years ago, but didn’t start drawing in other dippers until last fall after a friend reached out to him for advice.
Eric Wilcox said he needed about a month of personal research prior to his first dip to convince him recreational freezing wasn’t entirely insane. Now Wilcox goes for a dip once a day.
“There’s that — no pun intended — ice barrier you have to get by the first couple days and then you start to feel great,” says Wilcox, who added he needs less sleep than he used to despite working 12-hour days.
“I just feel better. It’s good for your cardiovascular system. It’s good mentally.”
Talia Mucha, another local dipper, says the activity helps alleviate inflammation. She also doesn’t let a cold keep her out of the water.
“It’s funny because I’m sick but I know it’s not going to make me more sick and I know it’s not why I got sick in the first place,” says Mucha. “It actually helps shock the body.”
For his part, Kumar values the commitment required to trek down to the water every morning. Because commitment, he opines, takes work. Resolutions are forgotten. Gym memberships expire. Relationships fail before they can begin.
“It’s the discipline of doing it every day,” he says. “It’s forcing myself out of that comfy, warm bed every morning, no matter what time I go to bed, no matter what happens, no matter if it is a snowstorm outside. I have to get up, I have to get up.”
Because the water is always waiting for him to return.