by Dalton McGee
The Dutchman Wim Hof holds nine World Records for sub-zero related athletic feats.
| 2008: At the Rubin Museum in New York City, a plexiglass container, sizable enough for a full grown man to stand comfortably, holds several feet of ice cubes as camera crews from around the world video and take snapshots. Well, not of the container itself, but what lies within, what maintains a smile: a man. A man with a white sweatband clinging to his short, brown hair. A man has been confined here for fifty minutes. The man is forty-seven year old, Dutchman: Wim Hof.
Back to 2007: Wim stands nearly naked, nothing but a black pair of skin-tight shorts and a hiking bag. Around him the wind whips across his pinking body and snow sticks to his bare hands and bare feet as he continues to pull himself up the sun-reflected ice of his challenge. In his company are many men, sherpas mainly, dressed for the weather. Thick coats made of different hides, the brims of their hoods lined with furs of indigenous animals. High above the
crew, clouds gather and circle the uppermost point of a mammoth cliff face.
Not even to Base Camp, he continues to trudge through the negative temperatures like so many have before him; hundreds before attempted, some failed, some succeeded like the great Edmund Hillary, first man to reach the summit of this icy realm, Mount Everest, but none have done so in what some call idiotic, some perverse, but no one can doubt, incredible.
“You’re crazy!” a fellow climber calls back to Wim, but he laughs at death and in a stoic manner continues his ascent. He’s not too far along, a mere thirteen thousand feet, but he is determined to scale to the fierce peak. What should be a fight, but isn’t, carries on.
“This is nothing,” he finally replies after a few moments. This bear of man—thick black hair covers his head, face and chest—claims not to feel the cold, it doesn’t bother him, and he proves it again and again.
Back to 1999: A burly Wim Hof runs, pacing himself as his feet flap against the ice. Again, he is clothed in nothing but a black pair of skin-tight shorts, no shoes, no hats, no scarves. Monitoring him is a crew of men: doctors, spectators, Guinness World Record judges. Several miles into a thirteen mile run and the Iceman shows no signs of quitting, no signs of hypothermia, no signs of death. Not many people brave the frigid northern cold, let alone onehundred miles above the arctic circle, and no one, no one runs in what may as well amount to stark nudity.
A man, presumably in a car (again, no one runs in this weather), sticks his head out the window. He pulls down the thick cloth that covers his mouth. His goggles stick to his face. Frozen? Maybe. A hood shelters his head and keeps in the necessary warmth. “You doing okay? You want to stop?” Wim waves them away. He’s doing fine. He’s going to make it.
Wim’s feet continue to pound the permafrost, though they don’t make a dent. His arms, angled at fifty degrees, swing soundless through the arctic air; loose fists almost hit him in the face, then immediately reel back to this waist, never losing their angle. His breathing doesn’t waver.
Several hours later the same man yells out at Wim, “That’s it.” Wim runs on. He screams louder, over the crushing wind. “That’s it, you’re done.” It’s another day in the life of Mr. Hof, a new World Record set: no one capable of breaking it except himself.
Fact: When your body cools it begins to redirect blood flow from the extremities—fingers and toes, hands and feet, nose and ears—to the internal organs, the important ones, the ones that keep you alive—liver, kidneys, lungs—to keep your core body temperature up. If it persists, this is called frostbite. If your heart can’t keep your core temperature up, this is called hypothermia. This is called death.
Forward to 2007: Wim has taken a few breaks to catch his breath, but that’s just natural. As he climbs higher, air thins and it becomes tough to breathe, but Wim refuses to let anything stop him. He nears the fifteen thousand foot mark, still not to Base Camp, which lies 17,388 feet above sea level, only about 12,000 feet below the crest of the mount. Between these two points there are four more camps, places for a person to rest, to gather resources and to gather his wits. They lie at 20,013 feet, 21,325 feet, 25,919 feet, and again at 25,919 feet. Between camps III and IV jagged peaks jut into the sky and chutes disappear into a void, chutes that will kill anyone, even Bear Grylles (at one time the youngest man to climb to the top of Everest). They require ropes and ice picks and ladders to conquer.
The climb continues, they can’t stop until they reach Base Camp. Not a spot gives relief to the team until weary-eyed, they wander into the small village-like clearing, specked with discarded oxygen tanks and broken climber’s tools. At sixteen thousand feet the wind picks up and the men, all but Wim, tighten their coats and pull on the drawstrings of their hoods. Fierce, thickening snowfall deadens their eyesight and lashes across the little skin visible, causing wind burn. Wim continues forward, or what he thinks is forward, as the only way to tell is the angle of the hill. He doesn’t cover up. He doesn’t complain. His bare skin takes the brutal winds and his body temperature remains steady.
He looks around and lines form on the crests of his eyes showing an aging man as he squints: it is hard to make out much but a faint silhouette in a snowstorm, but he trudges on, defiant of mother nature.
Later he will recall to interviewers: “It was quite easy,” referring to the snowstorm that could’ve ended his life. “I know my body, I know my mind, I know what I can do.”
But at this second, in the midst of a white death, Wim likely brims with a fear that ravages his unfreezable brain, the fear that all men feel in the midst of certain doom.
Back to about 1979: A twenty year old Wim walks through a park in Sittard, The Netherlands, with another man—a friend of his. The snow covered ground shimmers as the sunlight beats down on everything in sight. The two men stroll aimlessly as the snow reflects enough rays to cause sunburn. Off in the distance, not far from where they walk Wim catches sight of a pond, not frozen, but not far from it. The ripples reflect sunlight in all directions, blinding those who maintain a frozen stare. Wim stops and does just that. The water calls to him, it begs him to come, to enter what would kill the average man. His friend looks on, his head tilted like a dog who doesn’t understand his master’s command.
“What are you doing?” asks his friend, but Wim doesn’t answer. He walks to the bank of the water, steadily, unwavering.
Come here, it calls. Wim answers the request, stuck in a blank trance, no fear of death. He walks forward, snow crunching under his feet as he strips his shirt and shoes from himself. He keeps staring into the stalking water, watching and listening to the lake as he tears off his pants. Buck naked he steps into the shallow, polar-like water. He doesn’t test the water with a toe or retreat to his clothes; he steps forward, first an ankle, then a knee, then a thigh, then his waist,
then falling forward he smacks the water and wades out to a spot in the heart of the freezing body. He’s not cold, he’s not shivering—this is the beginning of the rest of his life.
Fact: If you climb a mountain like Everest without the aid of oxygen tanks or without proper protective gear—coats, boots, hats, gloves—it is unlikely you will make it, and if you decide to do so expect to come down with black, frostbitten limbs ready for the knife. This is called amputation.
Forward to 2009: In four days, Wim Hof did what many can’t do in a lifetime, again in nothing but shorts: he climbs to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and back to the bottom like it is a day hike in a National Forest. While not Everest, it is still a challenge that requires training.
Wim’s unbelievable survival remains a mystery to everyone including scientists. Some attribute it to Tummo.
Back to 1579: This is one year after the first Dalai Lama, Soman Gyatso, was given his title. Buddhist monks sit thousands of feet above Drepung Monastery at Mount Gephel in Tibet. Each one wears nothing but a cloth wrapped around his groin and upper thighs and a wet sheet draped over the shoulders and back. The climate is similar to what Wim will witness four hundred years later at Sittard, at Everest, at the Arctic Circle, at the Rubin Museum in New York.
The bleached mountain top rises into the clouds as the men meditate. As they sit motionless their sopping garb begins to dry up and the snow beneath their drying cloths melts, revealing hard, dead-brown grass beneath them. This is called Tummo.
Forward to 2007: The snowstorm was cake for Wim, he’s indestructible. He can’t be beat by winds a mere hundred miles per hour and blinding snowfall. That’s the way he sees it. At camp the guides refuel their supplies: oxygen tanks, food. They thaw their gloves around roaring fires built inside tents. The shelters erected side by side are nearly invisible from high above, but they are the life support system for dare devils and thrill seekers from around the globe. Wim Hof may be built to sustain the frost of the highest peaks on earth, the most northern spots on the globe, but he just does not contain the strength to mount the zenith of this enormous and spiny range. It’ll have to wait till another day. Unsure of the exact height he reaches, one can only sit back and admire the feat he crushed by merely reaching a height of seventeen thousand plus feet in nothing but shorts. Nothing short of fascinating.
Back to 2002: Wim Hof lifts his head out of the water. Every direction he looks there is only arctic shelf, soon to be melted to nothing due to rising global temperatures. He just swam twice the length of an olympic swimming pool—under the ice—and set another World Record. The people measuring the distance are in awe. Mouths drop. Hands clap.
Forward to 2008: After an hour and twelve minutes, the side door of a plexiglass chamber opens and ice pours out. A pink-skinned Wim Hof steps onto the what seems to him, warm concrete, all of this to roaring applause.
Later in an interview the man who kept track of Wim’s vitals, Dr. Ken Klamer will say, “Wim Hof was very calm, very comfortable the entire time he was immersed.” Another World Record broken. This is called death-defying.
Fact: A man holds nine world records, all involving near sub-zero temperatures. The average person would’ve died attempting what some call miracles. This is called the Iceman, Wim Hof.