Ice, Ice, baby

Yes, Provo River cold hydrotherapy is a thing

The popularity of outdoor cold-water exposure surges in the Heber Valley. Are you ready to take the plunge?

My history with intentional cold-water exposure began the summer of 2009 while growing up in Midway. My older sister and I would fill a 10-gallon bin with cold water from the hose in our backyard. We would squeeze into the container — squealing and giggling we’d stay in as long as we could stand it — we called this activity ‘cold bravery’. As I got older, my family and I continued to get in cold water wherever we could find it; in the Uinta Mountains, Zion National Park, Yosemite National Park, and in the Provo River here in Heber Valley. I knew that these experiences connected me to nature and generally felt great but beyond that I never thought much of it. That is, until I began to notice people in the Heber Valley community mindfully and regularly swimming, standing, sitting, and dunking in the Provo River entrance across the street from Legacy Bridge.

I’ve discovered that quite a few community members take part in this activity year-round, especially during the winter months. Some go solo, others in pairs, and many in large groups of fifteen or more people. These cold-water experiences range from frantic polar plunges to mindful, meditative dips. The practice of the latter initially piqued my curiosity. As it turns out, a calm dip in cold winter water is not an uncommon or new phenomenon for humans. According to Heber Valley resident, Yoga Therapist and meditation teacher, Elise Jones; calmly submerging oneself in a frozen body of water and slowing the breath is an ancient yogic practice, modernly referred to as ‘cold hydrotherapy’. For many people, myself included, mindful, outdoor cold hydrotherapy has become a ritual, and an important component in maintaining physical, mental, and spiritual health. I spoke to a few residents about how they started and what keeps them coming back.

Cindy Eggertz is a nine-year resident of Heber Valley, and an avid enthusiast of outdoor cold-water exposure. It wasn’t a health article or Instagram post that instigated her first river dip, but a prompting from God. “I have always struggled with depression, but around January of 2019, the thought of living seemed impossible. I prayed to God again and again, asking for this burden to be lifted. One night, I was kneeling there listening, and God told me I needed to get in the river.”

Without any prior knowledge of cold hydrotherapy, this felt like a strange answer to Eggertz. But she promptly reached out to her circle of girlfriends. With deep snow on the riverbank, this group of women timidly plunged in the cold winter waters of the Provo River. This first experience consisted of getting in and out of the water as fast as possible, shrieking, giggling, and running back to the comfort of blasting car heaters — a common response to one’s first polar plunge experience. After a few more frenzied attempts, the group of women considered the benefits of taking a slower, more mindful approach. Among this group was Sheena Jibson, who continues to practice consistent river dips. Jibson shared that these experiences have profoundly deepened her connection with her friends, nature, and herself. She has also experienced a newfound sense of steadiness. “When you’re in that situation and you’re in freezing cold water and it’s taking the breath out of your body, you have to focus on your breath, and then you settle down your body and mind and realize you are okay. I try to apply that to everyday life, coming back to my breath and finding that ‘okayness’ within.”

Cold water meditation has become popularized in recent years by a Dutch man named Wim Hof, a motivational speaker also known as “The Iceman”. He is best known for calmly withstanding extreme cold temperatures and developing the Wim Hof Method, a meditation technique characterized by specific breath patterning, cold water exposure, and mindful focus. Hof asserts that increased energy, better sleep, a stronger immune system, reduced stress levels, heightened focus, and increased mental control are benefits of meditative cold hydrotherapy1.

“Something about the cold water resets my system, and I just feel clear again every single time.”

In developing a consistent practice of this ritual, Wasatch County river-goers have chiefly experienced the mental benefits. Eggertz shared what three-years of consistent cold water hydrotherapy has done for her: “It pulled me from the darkness. Something about the cold water resets my system, and I just feel clear again every single time.”

Scott Whitaker, Heber Valley resident of 32 years, gets in rivers all around the valley. He immerses himself weekly and has noticed clarity of thought and heightened physical sensations that make him crave the cold water.

For me [Elle Taylor] personally; Both my mother, Joni Taylor, and I have found consistent river dipping to be an anchor through the challenges of life and a connective force to nature and each other. My mother, Joni, explained, “I have noticed a significant difference in my reactivity, there is something about having to control my response and knowing that I can get through something difficult over and over.” She and I, like Whitaker, feel a physical and mental craving for the river, and have engaged in this ritual dozens of times in the past year.

Jibson described a kind of post-river euphoria, marked by an intense sensation of heat and exhilaration. It turns out the science behind cold water exposure supports this description. When getting in extremely cold water, the initial cold shock releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, kicking on the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. As the shock subsides, the body then releases endorphins and serotonin; chemicals that stabilize mood and increase feelings of happiness. The recommended time frame to stay in extremely cold winter water is between 5-10 minutes. This range is considered to be an adequate amount of time for these processes to safely occur. These chemical releases lead to the post-river euphoria and craving, similar to the rush one feels after intense exercise2.

Mindful, outdoor cold hydrotherapy has become a ritual, and an important component in maintaining physical, mental, and spiritual health.

For Whitaker, getting in water outdoors has always felt instinctual. “Growing up, if there was water, I was gonna get in it,” said Whitaker. He has translated this mindset into his relationship with his wife and three boys, and considers water to be a central piece of their memories together. “Water is a great teacher, and it teaches you something new each time you get in.”

Our biological need for water innately connects us to it, but these days, we are not all instinctually connected to natural water like Whitaker and his family. According to the 2021 Valuing Water Initiative, “Our profligate use of water as a resource, along with our technological membrane that separates us from the outdoors, keeps us out of touch with the deep connections available to us in nature. Across countless religions and cultures globally, humans have historically held ritualistic, spiritual relationships with bodies of water3.” Mindful, intentional outdoor cold-water experiences have the potential to reconnect people with the sacredness humans have previously found in relationship to water and nature.

The overwhelming consensus, among the Heber Valley river-goers I spoke with, was that there is something special and important about breathing through things that we naturally resist. Whitaker describes each river dip as a “mini-death,” and feels empowered by the feelings of overcoming such a thing. Jibson has come to see the presence of discomfort in our lives as fundamental stating that, “Everything in our lives right now is so comfortable. In the winter, we can sit in our houses by the fire, turn up the heat, put our socks on — and I do. But it’s in uncomfortable moments that you feel alive, and I think we’re meant to feel alive.”

1 Wim Hof Method, n.d.   2 Straight Line Swimming, n.d.   3https://valuingwatrinitiative.com)