Spending your days meditating half naked in ice is the sort of thing you'd expect to see in the pages of a Marvel comic, or a cutaway in a superhero film. But it's nothing out of the ordinary for Wim Hof, a 57-year-old Dutchman better known for being a real life Iceman.
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While Hof can't literally manipulate the water vapour around him like Stan Lee's fictional creation, the Duthcman's ability to withstand the extreme cold has been well documented. In 2007 he climbed Mount Everest in spandex shorts and boots, but had to abandon the climb due to a recurring foot injury that he got running barefoot in the Arctic Circle. A couple of years later, he took a group up to Gilman's Point on Mount Kilimanjaro, nearly 6 kilometres above sea level.
Stuff that would kill most people doesn't faze Hof. Here's a small snippet of his outstanding feats, absolutely none of which any sane person should attempt:
- The record for running the fastest half marathon barefoot on ice or snow, which is 2:16:34, approximately 2:16:33 longer than I enjoy being barefoot in an airconditioned office, let alone the Arctic.
- Completing a 41km marathon in the Namibian desert without water or food, which saw him lose around 6kg.
- He previously held the world record for being in direct contact with ice, spending an hour and 52 minutes submerged up to his neck. (Hof's record was broken in 2014 by China's Jin Songhao, who stayed submerged for 1:53:10.)
- He swam more than 57 metres under ice with only trunks and a pair of goggles. And if that doesn't sound like much, look at how exhausted Hof is when he's pulled out of the ice.
- Hanging his body by a single finger off a hook for almost half a minute. I probably wouldn't have a finger left if I tried that.
Most people would go into shock, hypothermia, hysteria, pain, or any of the usual responses humans experience whenever their body experiences extreme cold. The body starts shutting down the extremities, like fingers and toes, to redirect blood to the core of the body.
But Hof's body temperature doesn't drop. In 2008, scientists at the University of Minnesota rigged Hof up to temperature and heart rate monitors while submerging him in an tank of extremely cold water. "What you're seeing basically is a situation in which the usual response to a shock or a cold was completely obliterated," Dr. Larry Wittmers, one of the scientists observing Hof, told America's ABC News.
A few years after that, the US TV show Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files put the Iceman in a tank of ice against a member of the show's crew. After 20 minutes, a heat camera showed that Hof's body temperature remained unchanged while the crew member's temperature dropped by about 4oC. He also did a similar experiment as part of a TEDx talk in Amsterdam, demonstrating his capacity to keep his core temperature from dropping.
Like any good mutant or superhero, Hof's story was also marked by tragedy. His wife committed suicide in 1995, leaving him to bring up his four children at the time. "Sadness is a deep trigger," he told VICE in a documentary. "Where I get peace was in these breathing exercises, swimming outside in the cold."
"I had to be there for my children," he said in a separate documentary. "It's a black hole within yourself, it breaks your heart and you don't know why, but the train of a daily life is going on ... my children made me survive in that time, but nature healed my wounds. The cold gave me direct understanding of deeper breathing, and how to heal a broken heart."
It's something straight out of a comic book or a superhero movie.
Hof insists that regular sedentary humans can benefit from his techniques, and there's some scientific basis for that. Researchers from Radboud University's Nijmegen Medical Centre even injected Hof's body with bacterial endotoxins, which triggers the body's immune system, and found that his immune response, compared to previous subjects, was 50 percent less than subjects in previous studies.
But while Hof's techniques might have some utility in our day-to-day life, the reality is most people won't have the willpower or fortitude to push themselves as much as the real life Iceman, who runs up Mount Everest in shorts and runs barefoot in the freezing cold for fun.