The Guy Who Stayed Out in the Cold

OTHER THAN BEING among the moneyed elite, what do Gwyneth Paltrow, Joe Rogan, and Laird Hamilton have in common? To various degrees, they all espouse the teachings of Wim Hof, a jolly Dutchman better known as “The Iceman” for feats like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro shirtless, running a half marathon barefoot across ice and snow, running a full marathon across the Namibian desert without breaking for water, and generally exhorting the public to understand that wearing a T-shirt out in winter while saying you just don’t get cold is more than manboy behavior. For Hof, it’s the secret to the good life. He holds twenty-six world records for his extreme ventures but evangelizes whenever possible that his fortitude is not extraordinary. Through his business, Innerfire, he leads workshops and “expeditions” to prove it: for about $2,600, you too can ascend a Polish mountain in your shorts (“The driven snow and pure, crystal air will bring out the power of your natural instincts”) or scamper off to the Spanish Pyrenees to alternate between ice baths and white-water rafting (“The rivers, woods, rocks, sounds and smells will bring out the power of your natural instincts”). Hof claims that his method—a combination of intentional exposure to the cold, focus, and breathing exercises that cherry-pick aspects of Tummo meditation and yogic breathwork—can heal a host of illnesses and disorders, even allowing practitioners to manipulate their immune systems. (The scientific community is generally more skeptical.) The main idea—less “will to power” than willpower—is that by facing and overriding the stress response brought on by the cold, anyone can hack their body to bypass the “primordial” desire for comfort, and thereby better manage other challenges and afflictions. As Emma Cline put it in her short story “The Iceman”: “You could get used to most anything was Wim Hof’s philosophy.”

Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof, season 1 trailer, 2022. Wim Hof. BBC One.
Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof, season 1 trailer, 2022. Wim Hof. BBC One.

Surveying the literature (plus the podcasts, Reddit posts, and one bracing episode of The Goop Lab), you’ll find that “Wim Hof saved my life” becomes a familiar refrain and that every firsthand account starts to sound the same. The tragic flipside is that it’s near impossible to read or watch anything about Hof without learning that he is haunted by the life he could not save. He met and fell in love with Olaya, his first wife, while squatting in a large, abandoned orphanage. Together they had four children, who all help run Innerfire today. One day in 1995, Olaya kissed the kids goodbye and jumped eight stories to her death. In the dark years that followed, Hof, who already had a habit of skinny-dipping in a pond at a local park, found that the only way to still his grief was to expose himself to the cold. It’s hardly a stretch to see Hof’s method, with its anguished beginnings, as an extreme version of two strategies Dialectical Behavior Therapy prescribes to interrupt emotional dysregulation: temperature change and paced breathing. This is the side of Hof’s practice that Torrey Peters emphasizes in the final chapter of her novel Detransition, Baby. Pondering Hof’s polar plunges from the comfort of anywhere else, one might think, as Gwyneth once put it, that they are triumphs of “mind over matter.” But it started the other way around: sometimes you just need to turn off your brain. 

To a significant extent, Hof’s story is his message. And as he once told Novak Djokovic (the tennis superstar who believes in the power of the mind to detoxify contaminated water): “It’s amazing and it’s an amazing story and it’s actually genius.” So it’s only natural that it has arrived in the industry of dramatizing lived events and living dramatically: a reality-TV show called Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof has just wrapped its season on BBC One, and a biopic tentatively titled The Iceman is scheduled to shoot this year, with Joseph Fiennes as star. “From a young age I have been drawn to storytelling,” Hof reflects in his book The Wim Hof Method, which is part memoir and part how-to manual, broken up by the short testimonials of those who have miraculously recovered from depression, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.

In The Wim Hof Method’s first chapter, as if its forthcoming one about Olaya were too grim to stand alone, Hof showboats a lesser-known (and highly adaptable) origin story. It all began in the moments before he was born—with a prophecy. Andre, Hof’s identical-twin brother, had been delivered. But the attending doctor was apparently unaware that Wim was waiting his turn in the womb. A mother, however, always knows. Hof’s, a devout Catholic, was eventually wheeled into emergency surgery to birth him, screaming, “Oh, God, let this child live! I will make him a missionary!” The child didn’t learn what his mission was until years after he had become a father himself, lost the love of his life, and developed his method. It all smacks of the divine: Hof’s epiphany came on the very day his mother died in 2008, when he received word from a Feinstein Institute researcher conducting the first scientific study of his techniques. The evidence showed, as Hof excitedly writes, that “the control I had shown over my vagus nerve was unprecedented.” While he likes to remark that the inherently circumspect scientific community moves “as fast as a slow turtle,” Hof believes that when the empirical method catches up with his eponymous one, the former will “serve to polish the diamond of the truth” that he preaches. Hoping that the Feinstein study’s evidence might mean that the sick and suffering could cure themselves, Hof decided that his “mission” was to bring his practice “to humankind.” To this end, he has proved a ready guinea pig over the years, during which the sedentary (and more ice-averse) Andre has come in handy for comparison. It bears repeating: Wim Hof, extreme athlete and scientific curiosity, has an identical twin. If his personal mythology weren’t already so outrageous, it would be easy to believe that the Iceman was grown in a lab to be studied in a lab.

Lizzy Harding is Bookforum’s associate editor.