After hiking for 2 hours into the backcountry beyond Perisher Valley, the sun was well and truly setting when our group of 33 men found the icy mountain wind cutting through layers of clothing.
As we stripped down to our boardies and budgie smugglers I looked around and thought, ‘Are we really going to do this?’
Stepping through the snow in bare feet felt like thousands of tiny blades cutting into my lower limbs and the icy frozen lake couldn’t have been any more than about -4ºC. With a yell from our facilitators, “Don’t be the last one in. Do it for your brothers!” the group climbed over the sharp rocks that hid in the shallows and pushed into the deeper water. My chest felt like it was encased in concrete and burning at the same time.
As we formed a circle which felt like a scrum, the initial adrenalin rush very soon changed into a calmness which filled the icy waters.
Within a minute the water surface became as smooth as glass as our breathing and control took over.
For the next two minutes barely a sound was made.
New Levels Of Control
Breathing…it’s simple, right? Your chest expands, your lungs fill with air, you exhale carbon dioxide and you repeat the process, over and over again until you eventually die.
It turns out it’s not quite that simple at all.
Breathwork specialists and scientists have found a lot of us are over-breathing, causing our hearts to work overtime unnecessarily. This over-breathing can cause anxiety and a host of other stress-related symptoms.
I’ve been researching a pile of different practices and meeting individuals trained in some interesting systems on my journey to gain a broader understanding of mental health after the suicide of one of my closest buddies. It was on this journey I ran into Johannes Egberts from Breathless. Johannes had been trained by The Ice Man himself, Wim Hoff, a Dutch extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. Wim has set Guinness world records for swimming under ice and prolonged, full-body contact with ice, and still holds the record for a barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow. Wim has proven to science we have the ability to control aspects of our central nervous system that previously medicine didn’t believe possible.
I had done one of Johannes’ WIM Hoff classes, which was like a group meditation of sorts, except using specific breathing patterns over a 30-minute to 40-minute timeframe. About 15 minutes into the exercise I found myself thinking about previous experiences and challenges with a new perspective, clarity and openness I wasn’t expecting. By the time the session was over I felt amazing. I felt free and light as a bird. Almost euphoric. Within 10 minutes after that we were climbing into ice baths. At the end of the day, I felt alive like I hadn’t in quite a while.
There was definitely something in this Breathwork.
When Johannes shared that he was holding weekend expeditions in the Snowy Mountains in winter, I decided to join a men’s 3-day weekend retreat at Perisher. We would throw ourselves into frozen lakes, hike through the snow in boardies or budgie smugglers and abseil.
This adventure had my name written all over it…except for the budgie smugglers. I’m more of a boardies guy myself.
Arriving at Perisher and meeting the 30-odd blokes was a little intimidating. I tend to avoid large groups these days.
But soon we were in snowshoes and hiking through the mountains, and about 30 minutes in we were asked to stop, make a circle, and share something with the group about an experience in our lives. If anyone else in the group had had a similar experience, they had to step forward into the circle for a few seconds before stepping back.
Initially this was pretty straightforward, but before too long the level of sharing got real. Men with events and trauma slowly started to share, and amazing numbers of the group continued to step forward.
By the end of the exercise there was a bond and trust that would shape the days to come. The men who had bravely shared their experiences instantly knew they weren’t alone, and strangers became friends and brothers almost immediately.
As we walked on, I noticed the group repositioned itself so those with shared experiences could walk and talk with each other, and by the end of this first day a trust had developed I knew would continue well beyond the three-day expedition.
All For One
As I met the men on this trip it became clear we had a really broad mix, from construction, building, mining, arts and executives through to those running their own businesses. But despite the varied background, the underlying constant theme was a searching for connection, either with themselves or people in their lives.
Connection seemed to be the key, and cold-water immersion and cold-exposure therapy, along with some good old-fashioned adventure, had been the key to bringing these men together to connect and challenge themselves both physically and mentally. We didn’t have to wait too long before those challenges became very real and we found ourselves climbing into a -4ºC lake as the sun set over the Snowy Mountains, with a 1-hour hike back to our resort.
With no option of outside help or calling an Uber, we needed to rely on each other to make it through the day.
It was an exercise of trust.
It was one thing to climb into the frozen water for 3 minutes and tough it out, but climbing out of the water and finding your fingers and toes no longer worked provided a different challenge altogether.
I am very similar to other blokes. I wouldn’t say I like to rely on others. My ego and pride want me to be able to do everything on my own. But it’s those very same traits that cut us off from other men. I soon realised if I didn’t put my trust in another man I’d just met, I wasn’t going to survive the day.
Dusk had become night and we were freezing. Luckily our second group was on hand and soon found themselves helping us put on socks and layers to slowly warm up. By the end of that day, both groups had had their turn in the frozen lake and assisted the other in getting dry and warm before trudging back to the lodge in the dark. As I slowly warmed up on the hike and thought about the process I’d just been through, I couldn’t help but think of the level of trust that must exist in real life-and-death situations – like those of our armed forces and the things they face together and the trust they share.
Fear is a genuine emotion, and it changes the way our rational brain works.
Our activity for the second day was abseiling, and I felt my excitement turn to dread.
As we hiked the mountain, again in board shorts and speedos to experience the cold-exposure therapy process, my mind was filled with fear. I couldn’t help but find myself asking random questions like: ‘How high we will be?’ and, ‘Surely it can’t be too high?’
We arrived at the location of the abseil and a giant, finger-like rock stood tall off the side of a rocky outcrop. That meant the abseil would first require a short rock climb.
I was placed about halfway through the group and, before long, it was my turn to take the challenge. Our brilliant guide Ernie coaxed me off the rock ledge and I put my life in his hands to execute the skills we had been taught earlier that day. After the initial fear and panic I soon found my feet once more on the snow, and after a good 15 minutes or so my hands finally stopped shaking.
What I thought was going to be a Breathwork weekend with a few dips in cold water turned out to be what I can only describe as a life-changing event. The honesty, vulnerability and trust I saw develop and grow over the weekend was amazing, and I was even happier to hear and see this very same sentiment experienced by the other 32 guys that took part.
The daily Breathwork sessions provided something different for everyone I guess, but the connection and trust that was born will stay with me for a long time. As blokes, I think we get so focussed on being providers that we lose our connection and trust with other men, and I felt this weekend had redefined for me what it is to be a man. I’d forgotten the importance of real connection, communication and trust between us blokes.
To check out upcoming Breathless events go to @johannesegbertsWHM on Facebook.