Photo: Stefan Andrews, Ocean Imaging
Kiki Bosch is a Dutch ice freediver who uses the Wim Hof method of cold water tolerance to dive in extreme temperatures. Kiki specialises in ice dives without a wetsuit and (incredibly) has freedived in sub-zero temperatures – including in the Arctic – wearing only a swimsuit.
Here, Kiki explains how the cold water brought her peace after a traumatic event, and how it feels to freedive in extremely low temperatures without a wetsuit. She also shares a fascinating insight into managing her body and its cold water response.
Do not try this at home!
Can you tell me a little bit about your background – how did you get into freediving?
Ever since I was a kid I loved the water, I couldn’t get enough of swimming. The water was always my ‘happy place’, and I became a junior open water scuba diver at the age of 12, but quit diving during High School and University. When I was 20, I started travelling. A few months into my trip though Latin-America I ended up in Cartagena, Colombia. Here, I wanted to do my Rescue diving course. While I was doing this, I saw a big poster of a freediver. Immediately intrigued by the look of it, I gave it a shot and fell in love with the sport! I have been freediving for over 3 years now specialising in cold water freediving for over a year.
How did you discover the Wim Hof method and did this lead into your interest in ice freediving?
I was living in Australia for a year and had some very hard times dealing with a recent trauma. One day I saw a video of Wim Hof saying, “This method can make you happy, healthy and strong” – at that moment there was nothing I wanted more than that. I wanted to get my life back on track and to live again. So I tried; I took cold showers and went swimming in the ocean during the winter times.
In the water I realised that it became quiet in my head for the first time in months. This became a feeling I held onto very dearly. I started going in cold waters more and more. During a trip in Iceland we sat in the beautiful waters of Thingvellir National Park. I felt the urge to dive in almost the moment we sat in that water, so I took my freediving gear and just went for it!
How long ago did you move into ice freediving? And were you nervous at first?
Through my training in the cold I really felt prepared. But being out in nature is so much different. I was a little nervous because the car was quite a walk away and I knew that I really had to rely on my “inner fire” in order to keep me warm. But once submerged between the tectonic plates of America and Europe, it all faded away. It became a moment of peace and serenity where fear had no place.
Can you explain a bit about what the Wim Hof method is and what it involves?
The Wim Hof Method is a scientific-based method to influence your own autonomic nervous system. It is made out of three pillars, Breathing, Mindset and Cold Exposure. The breathing is focused around something called ‘over-ventilation’ followed by an outbreath and holding of the breath. This you do for multiple rounds. Through this your physiology shifts! To find more about this I would recommend your readers to visit the Wim Hof website.
Did you find cold water immersion difficult at first?
For me it became a place of peace, so I never had fear attached to it. It forced me to be purely in the moment and let go of negative thoughts and patterns. For me there is nothing more beautiful than that.
Can you remember your first ice dive and how it felt?
The first time I visited Iceland was one of my most exciting and memorable trips so far. It was my first experience freediving in such cold temperatures and there is no better place to do this than swimming between the tectonic plates, having a visibility that can’t even be put in numbers… It was such a great feeling, I felt one with the water, one with the planet and every being on it. Besides that, cold is part of the Icelandic culture and while I was there I met a lot of amazing people who found great benefits in the cold. It was meeting these people that made the trip truly remarkable.
You’ve dived in the Arctic alongside icebergs. Can you talk through this experience?
When I did my first dive in the Arctic water in Greenland it was -3°C. It was so immensely cold. Even after months of training for it, it was still a big shock to me. The fact that the water was sub-zero was a game-changer. It felt like nothing I had ever experienced.
But out there, swimming in between massive icebergs, there was literally no time or space to doubt myself and my capabilities. When I submerged my head, I could hear the cracking of icebergs, even miles away. You could hear whale noises coming up from the darkness underneath. This whole experience was so magical that it was really hard for me to focus on my body and my physiology. I remember just thinking how unreal and beautiful the moment was.
What happens to your body after you’ve been in such extreme cold temperatures?
Once I got out of the water, it was incredibly hard for me to get warm. I was experiencing after-drop. The body is very smart and keeps your core and vital organs warm for quite a while, even if you’re in extreme conditions. After-drop is when the cold blood from your extremities mixes back up with the warm blood of your core. This mixing of blood can drop your overall core temperature even more than the original exposure and your body goes through yet another challenge. At this point the cold blood in your chest can be quite painful. During these moments it’s crucial that my team know their roles and keep safety the biggest priority. It is for this reason I never recommend anybody to just jump into cold water without proper training or supervision.
What’s the pain like when you ice dive and where do you feel it?
The first sign of the cold is the tingling or stinging feeling you have at the start. This is, for most people, a sign to get out as quickly as possible. But once you push through this, your body accepts the cold and protects the vital organs by keeping your core warm. This is when you have to tune into more subtle cues. For me, the first thing that gets cold to the bone is my right pinky finger, and after a certain amount of time in the water, I am unable to move it.
This is the start of a whole cascade of events unfolding within me. I can feel a warm rush through my body, which means that my veins are dilating and the core is no longer protected from the cold, which could quickly lead to hypothermia. At this stage focus is crucial; I focus on my vision, because this is something that I start to lose when I’m getting too cold. Before I go into the water I pick something I can focus on, like a rock, the boat, or a landmark that is roughly 20-30 metres away. When I am no longer able to focus on this object, or it gets blurry, I know it’s time to get out and focus on regaining warmth within myself through meditation and focus.
You’ve said previously that there always comes a time when you start questioning what you’re about to do before a dive. Is this fear of what could happen, or because it will be painful, or just an inner dialogue that you have to work through?
I think our bodies are made to avoid pain; this is the whole story of survival of our species. But this avoidance is something we can override. We can tell ourselves to do something even though our mind doesn’t want to do it. This ‘mental override’ is a strategy that is so powerful. If you know how to pull the switch in one area of your life you can translate it to so much more and become a more ‘in control’ person.
How do you prepare for a dive – do you do anything mentally or physically to prepare?
Before I get into the water I have thought about and visualised the dive many times. I go over all the possible scenarios of how things can go wrong and what to do in every one of those moments. This way, when I dive in, I feel like I am truly prepared for the worst. Of course, I have trained myself through ice baths and cold showers, but this is only a small part of the preparation. Most of it is mental, knowing how every single part of your body reacts and how to be mentally ready to go into a full survival mode.
Most people have a shock response when they put their face in cold water. How do you remain calm when it’s sub-zero temperatures?
I think this first shock is not something that you can avoid. It’s in our human nature to fear extreme environments. But after this first tensing of the muscles, you can make a conscious decision to relax, let go of the fear and stop fighting. Once you do that, you all of a sudden feel much more relaxed and the cold doesn’t hit you as hard anymore.
Have you had any scary moments ice diving?
During one dive the pressure was on, as we were shooting a short film and had only one evening left to shoot this particular clip. I’d already done four dives that day and noticed that I wasn’t warming up properly. But with the pressure of letting a whole team down, and knowing it was the last dive, I jumped in again. Once underwater I can only remember how beautiful the environment was – I was in awe of the place, colours and underwater landscape. I don’t know how or why, but I didn’t really realise I was underwater, I just kinda forgot. That’s how far gone my mind was. After a little while, I came up from the dive and I was fully functioning on autopilot; I wasn’t thinking anymore. After a few seconds I passed out. Luckily the team was very quick in handling the situation and got me on land before I even realised it.
On land I just remembered thinking how warm the pavement – which was truly cold! – felt. They rushed me back to the house where we were staying and put me under a lukewarm shower for at least 45 minutes. I can vividly remember how cold my core felt, how my heart was pumping cold blood and I could feel it in every part of my body. It took me a few hours to warm back up again.
What happens to your body during a dive in really icy water? How do you feel?
Even though some people think I can’t feel the cold anymore, I do. But I am focused on the warm parts of my body. Because there’s always something that is warm – your core, your head… By focusing on that, you can radiate this heat out, you can move the warmth, expand it, [and] grow it like a bright light around you.
How do you get warm again after a sub-zero swim? Can reacclimatising be dangerous?
When I get out of the water, there needs to be pure focus. I am focused on the warm parts of my body, and radiate the heat out from there. I sit and meditate, relax, and often protect myself with a Dryrobe just to keep the wind and cold out while I focus on keeping the heat in.
The most important part is to heat up slowly! To not rush into your warm clothes or exercise to get warm. You want your body to recover nice and slowly.
How has ice freediving and cold water immersion changed your life?
When I first got into the cold I was in a very depressed and anxious state in my life. I recently had gone through a trauma and didn’t really know how to cope with that. The cold really forced me to get out of my head and into my body. For the first time in months I forgot about my fears, doubts and my history. Over time, I was drawn back to the cold to really get back to myself and centre myself. When I started to do more and more cold exposure I started to realise that the traumatic moment in my past doesn’t have to define me, and I was able to let go of the blame and hurt I felt because of this experience. I realised that I am not my past and even though this moment in time definitely changed me, this doesn’t have to be in a negative way. The cold showed me that there is a primal resilience in all of us and when we tap into that, we are capable of doing much more than we thought we could.
You’re planning to freedive Everest’s highest lake – can you tell me more?
One of my next big challenges is raising awareness for the deterioration of one of the most treasured mountains in the world. Even the Giants are stressing under global warming, which is something that doesn’t draw much attention. But the fact that I would be able to climb the highest mountain in the world with my freediving gear and go for a dive, is something that is beyond most people’s imagination. This is the exact reason why I think it is important to do it, to visualise the hazards that come with this mountain slowly melting; the impact it has on the drinking water, tourism, and the population as a whole.
There are a few lakes that have recently been pumped out to prevent floods of the villages located near Everest. But this is not enough, we need to know what is going on, and protect the communities but also world heritage.
Where is your favourite place in the world to freedive?
Silfra, Iceland! By far. It was my first ice freedive and it marked such a big moment in my life.
Do you have any sponsors at the moment?
I am proud to be an ambassador for Dryrobe and Brain Effect. Dryrobe helps me hugely by supporting me with their gear to keep me warm before and after a dive, and Brain Effect supports me with their mental performance products to push me just that notch further!
Do you have any favourite items of kit for cold water immersion or freediving?
Definitely my Dryrobe, I seriously wouldn’t be able to do what I do without it. Having protection from the wind in extreme environments makes a big difference; it pushes me mentally to stay in the water longer because I know I am protected once I get out!