For much of North America, this winter has felt never-ending and particularly cruel. The Paper Of Record has compared it to "hell," and while their frustration is understandable, a river of fire seems like it'd be pretty nice right about now. Even though it's late February, much of the Midwest and East Coast will have to endure a few more weeks of this frigid reality. So, rather than booking the next flight to Cancun (fares aren't great, I checked), I sought the advice of someone who is professionally good at handling the cold. I called Christoph Hupe, an arctic SCUBA diver at the world's northernmost dive center.
Norway's Kongsfjord International SCUBA School is located at N 70° 43' 13.908". For the coordinately unengaged, here is a map for reference:
See that tropical-looking green area far to the south? That's northern Sweden and Finland.
When I spoke with Christoph, Kongsfjord was having a "mild" day. (Online weather services for the town reported a temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit). Christoph tells me the coast is kept warmer by the Gulf Stream, although the price you pay for these milder temperatures is the routine presence of winds that can reach "up to 200 miles per hour." He was upbeat but anxious—he had been stuck inside doing paperwork all day and wanted to go enjoy the weather.
Christoph works year-round taking divers into the Arctic Ocean for both commercial and research purposes and for recreational tours. The underwater environment is full of the biodiversity and brilliant color you'd expect to see in the Caribbean, not in water between Alta and the North Pole. Of course, you can't exactly enjoy a Mai Tai on the beach after touring Kongsfjord's depths.
According to Christoph, "The water can chill down here to about -1.8 degrees Celsius." As I checked Google to find that this converts to about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, he chimes in, "I know, that doesn't sound so bad." (I assure him that yes, it does indeed sound very bad.) "Water transports heat 25 times faster than air," he says, "when you multiply [that water temperature] by 25, then you get to somewhere between -40 and -50 degrees in equivalent air temperature."
Christoph wears a neoprene drysuit while diving in the winter. "The neoprene always holds a little bit of water," he tells me, "so I have found that when it's really cold and I come out of the sea, I stand a minute or two in the air and the entire suit starts crackling. That's always a bit of fun!"
The equipment is key, and being unprepared can be deadly. "Something can happen quick—you can have free flows in your regulator. If you have plastic fins, they can turn brittle." He knows divers who filmed in Antarctica for the BBC's Blue Planet specials, and they told him about their mistake of bringing plastic fins. He laughs, recalling that, when he watched the program, he saw their fins "brittling away...Soon they'd have just the boot on, no fin!" (Christoph uses rubber fins that "really do the trick...they have never let me down, even in the coldest conditions and when it's getting rough and tough.")
While diving in the Arctic is cold, your body ignores that fact pretty soon. "My experience is that it's not so bad. You go into the water and you get really cold and you get all these needles and pins, and it hurts for a couple seconds, but then it's numb and then it's fine!" For commercial dives, Christoph can be in the water for up to three hours at a time. "If you were just sport diving, bobbing in the water and sightseeing, you would last 20 minutes, half an hour, and then you would start getting cold and thinking of coming up and getting back out of the water. Whereas when you are working under the water, it is very different. You are active. You are moving, lifting heavy things—this keeps the blood circulating and makes you last much longer underwater."
I ask if he enjoys the cold. Christoph, who has been chipper and laughing throughout the call, pauses to think, and his tone approaches something akin to somberness for the first time. "Well," he sighs, "sometimes I wonder why I do this. Because of course I'm getting cold, and you know what it's like when you get cold: you get all the needles and pins and blah blah blah blah blah, and you wonder why on earth you are doing this." After cycling through that process mentally, he turns upbeat again, almost becoming spiritually numb to the pain. "On the other side," he says, "I keep telling myself this is a marvelous environment. It's not many people who have the chance to experience what I am allowed to experience. On the principle, I enjoy every second of it."
I soon find myself complaining about this particularly brutal winter to Christoph, and then add that everyone in America is also complaining, lest I come off as a wimp. I also mention that I am from Chicago, hoping to score some points from my cold weather brother. Still, I ask him for advice. The key, he says, is in his mindset—and it's not a case of mind over matter. "It's not important that you don't concentrate on the fact that you are cold," he says. "Don't try to ignore the thought, I am cold or Jaaaa, this is really cold. Take it as, OK, it's cold outside, I've dressed myself, now I go for a walk, or go to work, or whatever it is."
Embracing the cold is quite different from enjoying it, but, as humans with nervous systems that like to keep us informed about whether or not we're in the midst of freezing to death, sometimes there's only one thing you can do.
"When you're coming out of the living room, and you have been sitting there, watching TV, and you go out and you have to walk your dog, and it's really really cold outside, you usually say, 'Argh, that's miserable. That's grim,'" he says. "OK. Fine. On the other side, what I do is say, 'OK! It's cold outside. That's natural out here. I should dress warmly, and I take my dog, and I enjoy myself!' Me and my dog, we have a snowball chase, we roll around in the snow, we'll jump head-first in some snow drifts or whatever. It's the mindset!"
When people he takes on dives express worry about the freezing temperatures, Christoph asks them if they go skiing or ice skating, or have any other winter hobbies. He then tells them, "OK, what do you do when you go skiing? You're not skiing dressed in your swimsuit. You are dressed accordingly and have the according mindset. And then it becomes enjoyable! You just need to look at your own personal approach and your dress code to overcome the cold. And once it's overcome, you can start to see the beauty."
Even though Midtown Manhattan may lack Kamchatka Crabs or wolffish or the beautiful aquatic biodiversity of Kongsfjord, Christoph's enthusiasm and appreciation for the freezing world around him are contagious. By the time we are finishing our call, I yearn to take a walk outside, cold be damned. Christoph, on the other hand, is frustrated. "I can't stand this paperwork, I want to get out!" he cries. The cold and his dog will have to wait.