Last week I did something kind of crazy. Ok, more than ‘kind of’ – I’d put it up there on the top 10 list of ‘things I maybe didn’t think all the way through.’ Specifically, I took off almost all of my clothes and stepped into a room that was colder than Antarctica – by a huge margin.
As a Canadian, I’ve seen some cold in my time. In addition to the daily -30 C slog I have to deal with during a typically Montreal winter, I’ve also headed up past the Arctic Circle and braved -57 C nights (and that’s before wind-chill). Still, nothing I had ever experienced before could have prepared me for what I was to experience in that 8×8-foot room at the Sparkling Hill Resort near Vernon, British Columbia.
That’s not a typo. One hundred and ten degrees below zero Celsius, or more impressively, -166 Fahrenheit. Sparkling Hill is the only place in North American that operates a full-body ‘cold sauna,’ which in layman’s terms is a prison cell where your body is subjected to the kind of bone-chilling cold so brutal that there’s not a single natural environment on the planet that can come close.
Coldest Spot On Earth
Don’t believe me? The coldest recorded temperature ever observed on Earth was -89.2 C at Vostok Station in Siberia in the early 80s. A few years ago, a satellite picked up what looked like -93.2 C temperatures in ‘East Antarctica,’ although those readings were never confirmed by ground measurements. You know why? Because that’s absolutely insane weather that no human being should ever be subjected to.
And it’s still 20 degrees warmer than what was waiting for me in that claustrophobic freezer in B.C.
By now you’re probably asking yourself why any resort would build the kind of torture chamber seemingly lifted from a Marvel movie on the grounds of a health spa. Apparently, in Europe ‘cold spas’ are used to treat a variety of illnesses ranging from arthritis to multiple sclerosis. The science behind the spa is somewhat opaque to me – something about provoking a deep-healing response in human tissue – but to tell the truth, when I heard about the facility I was more intrigued by the novelty of the extreme temperature than anything else.
They Try To Prepare You, But, No
When I booked my appointment at the resort, I was given a brief explanation of what to expect, a list of activities to avoid beforehand (no hot drinks, no muscular exertion), and the scariest liability waiver I have ever been asked to sign. I was also told that the session would last only three minutes – which should have been my first warning.
I was then asked to show up a few minutes before hand to wait in the ‘tea room,’ a relaxing spot in the hotel’s enormous health complex where I was strictly forbidden to drink any tea. After a short grace period I was led to the cold spa area of the facility, which consisted of a pair of intimidating steel airlocks concealing a three-room chamber cold enough to simulate a lunar landing.
The rules were simple: take off everything except my shorts, put on the slippers, the headband, and the mittens (to protect my extremities from frostbite), and then, after my blood pressure had been taken and my breathing mask was on, it was time to be guided into the first chamber.
I should mention two things at this point. One is that they pipe music into the cold spa while you are in there – in my case, Bob Marley’s ‘One Love,’ because apparently reggae offers the perfect rhythm for moving around in the cold at the level required to not, you know, die.
Next is that you are never alone in the chamber itself. A spa worker – in my case, a woman in her mid-40s who was wearing not a parka but rather short-sleeved nurses garb – accompanies you at all times, just in case you experience any of the crazy list of perils detailed by the waiver you had to acknowledge. She told me that she goes in about five times a day. Every day.
The Deep Freeze
As we walked up to the entrance to the cold spa – one of the two imposing metallic vault doors that dominated the room – the other airlock on the far side was pointed out to me. It was explained that this was the emergency exit, and that they hoped they wouldn’t have to use it because it would take many hours to return the chamber to its soul-crushing chill. I was also told they’d never had to open it before, but it was there just in case. Oh, and don’t lick any of the doors, they said, because, well, -110 C.
I think that last one was spa humor.
To access the coldest part of the cold spa, I’d first have to pass through two preliminary challenges. The first was room #1, which was kept at a balmy -12 C (10 F), which lead to the adjoining room #2 and its five-times-as-cold -50 C (-58 F) environment. I was told that after passing through each of these rooms my body would be better acclimated to the upcoming shock of -110 C.
This was a terrible, terrible lie.
The door opened to the first chamber, and I stepped in with my naiveté fully intact. The first few seconds weren’t so bad, despite my lack of appropriate winter clothing, and I began to think that the entire experience would be similar: intriguing from an almost scientific perspective, a series of interesting observations that I would rationally collect throughout the process. A great adventure. After all, I was only in there for 3 minutes, total – and you can get through three minutes of anything, right?
It was then that the first door was sealed shut and the second door opened. ‘What about acclimating?’ I thought as I was ushered into the next room and felt the full brunt of its minus fifty-degree assault. The difference between -10 and -50 is, well enormous, and while I was still buoyed by a bizarre optimism it dawned on that the next room – mere seconds away – would be more than TWICE as cold.
It Felt Like Dying
There’s nothing that can prepare you for minus one hundred and ten. Zip. Zero. Nada. The promo literature makes a big deal about how the cold spa chamber is kept at zero percent humidity, and that the cold won’t ‘get into your bones’ like a typical winter’s day, but it’s a complete and utter smokescreen for the fact that human beings were never meant to survive this type of temperature.
As soon as the door opened to room #3 – and I mean IMMEDIATELY – I had a moment of panic. Gone was the charade of detached curiosity and in its place was every cell in my body crying out to my brain
‘WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?‘
‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?‘
‘THIS IS TOO COLD!‘
‘THIS IS TOO COLD!‘
It was a relentless mantra that repeated itself over and over as I experienced a tinge of what I assume was shock. The spa’s super-chilled air entered my body with such wanton disrespect for my core temperature that it felt like being crushed in a vise with each inhalation. I can only assume this is what it feels like to jump off a bridge. The landing part, I mean.
The lady at my side called out some encouraging words – ‘gotta keep moving, gotta keep moving,’ – and I began my zombie shuffle around the eight-foot wide cell, shaking my limbs to the surreal island tones of Bob Marley. The Wailers were never forced to experience the brutality visited on my body by the beyond ridiculous temperature the spa was subjecting me to. I tried to clear my mind and ask my companion questions, but it was a losing battle as my contact lenses completely occluded and ice began to build up on my breathing mask. I began to focus on the six inches directly in front of my face, my vision narrowing to a foggy tunnel that seemingly had no end no matter how many steps I took.
‘If your nipples get cold, you can cover them with your mittens!’ my nurse said to me cheerfully. Nipples were the least of my concerns. My mind was on fire, burned by the deep space touch of the impossible cold air around me, and I became aware of the fact that my upper arms and lower back had gone completely numb.
‘One minute, thirty seconds,’ called a voice from outside the room over a loudspeaker, and my spirit was destroyed a second time. How was it possible I still had half of the allotted three minutes left to go? I picked up the pace in the vain hope that by moving my body faster I could somehow trick time into assuming a similarly rapid pace. Who knew what laws of physics applied at these temperatures? Grimly, I held on for dear life, fighting off the thought of how many additional ticks on the clock past the three-minute mark it would take before I became a permanent part of the chamber itself, frozen in place in the corner as a cautionary tale of man’s hubris.
Then it happened. The 30-second announcement. From here everything happened much more quickly – a few more laps around the ice prison yard, one last ‘let’s get together and feel alright,’ and then the door to the -50 C room was cracked open. My escape! Never before had I welcomed, no, yearned for the embrace of such an inhospitable, yet frankly much more humane mercury reading than I did at that moment. A heartbeat or two and then it was back to -10 C, and then freedom, sweet freedom as I was released back into room temperature reality.
As I removed the headgear, mittens, and slippers, I basked in the glory of survival. The nurse told me that I might experience some euphoria in the next 20 minutes or so as I fully thawed out, but I can tell you that simply being alive after such a horrific experience was all the reward I would ever need. My body congratulated my mind on being clever enough to escape the terrible lockdown we had just endured by way of the blood returning to my most-exposed areas.
I can’t say I recommend following in my footsteps. A full cold spa treatment requires at least two 3-minute sessions a day, over the course of a 10 day period. Even thinking about that now from the warmth of my home casts a pall of dread over the entire room. If it’s a choice between sub-Antarctic torture or the gentle clatter of a ibuprofen bottle, I know which one I’d choose.