The Frozen Few: Ice Swimming in Vienna

Late last fall, as Vienna emerged from the throes of one lockdown, only to be confronted with the looming prospect of another, a curious occurrence could be witnessed along the banks of the Alte Donau. A throng of people plunged gleefully into the increasingly frigid waters, as if the summer had never gone away: this is ice swimming in Vienna.  

So it is each October, when a band of intrepid swimming enthusiasts gather every Sunday at 14:00 by the Kagraner Brücke on the Alte Donau to prolong the pleasures of swimming past summer’s end, even when the waters freeze over. Hence the term “ice swimming,” which usually refers to swimming in waters below 5 degrees Celsius.

But due to the many curfews and restrictions – where permitted outdoor activities had shrunk to the occasional stroll – what had been a niche pastime suddenly became commonplace. Most winter weekends bore witness to swimmers of all ages and backgrounds along the banks of the Alte and Neue Donau. Even the tabloids got in on the act, doing features on local celebrities flaunting their cold resistance.

However, ice swimming is by no means a new phenomenon – the Nordic regions have long been known for mid-winter saunas immediately followed by invigorating outdoor dips, and the Epiphany festivities of the Orthodox Church often involve submersion in icy waters. Even here in Vienna, the interwar period saw the “Verkühle dich täglich!” (Catch a cold daily!) swim club, which gained notoriety for their escapades in 1929, when the city was in the throes of an especially intense cold snap. Most recently, this activity has seen a large surge in popularity thanks to Wim Hof (“The Iceman”) and his eponymous method, which has its own share of fervent enthusiasts.

Propelled by curiosity and a desire to experience the pleasures of winter swimming, I decided to give it a go. Together with some friends, we headed down in early November, when the water was still relatively balmy, at least 10-11 degrees Celsius. 

With the first dip, the shock was immediate and harsh – my feet, hands, and forearms burned with cold, and it took all of my concentration to acclimatize to the piercing chill. But as I climbed out, a sense of exhilaration coursed through me, my shivering body working overtime to keep me warm. It was a reawakening. Still, you may be rightly wondering: Who would voluntarily subject themselves to this? 

Icy Thrills

Those who regularly indulge report glowingly of its invigorating nature and positive effects (myself included). The touted health benefits – such as mental well-being, reduced inflammation, a strengthened immune system – are largely anecdotal, and have yet to be empirically proven. And as Dr. Heather Massey points out in an article for the Outdoor Swimming Society: “The body does have some limited capacity to adapt to the cold. But we must warn about becoming too cold in pursuit of cold adaptation.” A researcher at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth and co-author of the 2017 paper “Cold Water Immersion: Kill or Cure?”, she warns that exhilarating though it may be, ice swimming must also be approached with an abundance of respect and caution. 

But if you haven’t been put off just yet, you should join those taking the plunge, like the calm, bearded man with a shaved head standing chest-deep in the frigid waters, all the while chatting away to all comers, dispensing advice and encouragement as needed. 

Josef Koberl in the Donaukanal, (C) Barbara Anderl

This remarkable figure is Josef Köberl, initiator of these Sunday gatherings. While his day job is at the Transport Ministry, he also holds all sorts of cold-related records: spending over two hours fully immersed in a vat of ice, or swimming a mile in an ice cave within a glacier, along with other nigh-on unbelievable feats of extreme endurance. Curious as to what is humanly possible, he has approached these ventures with a refreshingly matter-of-fact approach: “To try it out and see what happens.”

Over the next months, I did just that – while the thermometer steadily dropped, each weekly dip decreased the shock as the thrill of immersion increased, and I came to savor the joys of an outdoor swimming season that need never end. Curiously enough, once summer had rolled around again with its perfectly refreshing waters, I’d occasionally catch myself actually missing the tingling thrill of those midwinter dips. 

Indeed, ice swimming is wrought with mental and physical obstacles to overcome, but your reward is year-round aquatic delights, and a mid-winter bodily experience unlike any other.

Advice for Interested Beginners

Köberl has invaluable advice for interested beginners – which one would do well to heed, given the borderline nature of this activity. And while none can – nor should – be considered as medical advice, it draws on his ample personal experience with ice swimming:

  • If you have any form of respiratory or heart problems, high blood pressure, or circulatory issues, be exceedingly cautious, and consult a doctor first. In general, seeking the advice of a doctor familiar with your medical history is always recommended before ice-swimming.
  • Never go in alone, especially not at the beginning. Preferably go with someone experienced, who’ll also be joining and can help out if anything goes awry.
  • When entering, go slowly, breathe deeply, and listen to your body. Take a step into the water and get used to the temperature, taking deep, slow breaths all the while; when you’re ready, take a further step in, and repeat the process. If it’s too much to bear, take a step backwards. Your body will naturally dictate the pace at which you can immerse yourself.
  • Never let yourself get drawn into comparison and competition; we each have highly individual tolerances for cold water and how our bodies react, especially at the beginning.
  • What to wear: 
    • Earplugs to and prevent inflammation of the inner ear by keeping cold water out.
    • A swim cap if you’re planning to dip your head. 
    • Neoprene shoes and gloves for those who feel the cold in their extremities. 
    • A woolly hat, which makes for an absurd picture but a warm head.
  • If you’re far enough along to consider swimming, use a swimming buoy and stay close to the shore 
  • For afterwards: bring warm tea and extra layers of clothing to put on immediately; warm yourself up gradually. Shivering is part of this process; do not jump straight into your car and turn the heat up.

Of course, all this helpful guidance is best absorbed in person at the Sunday swim-meets, which are free of charge and open to all.