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Re-visiting Wim Hof to climb Mt Teide

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

Watching the sun rise from the top of the Teide at 3,718m is an unforgettable experience. To get the summit for sunrise requires either booking a spot at the refuge several months in advance or doing the 3.5 hours, 1,300m positive elevation climb by night. The main advantage of the latter option is to have more control over timing and the weather. For Karina and I, it was also the opportunity to do some night training ahead of the coming Transgrancanaria 2020 race early March. The main challenges with such a night climb are both potential altitude sickness above 2,500m and hypothermia as the temperature often drop well below zero Celsius and wind can blow above 80km/hr at the top.

In preparing for this endeavour, I thought of Wim Hof, who took groups of people he trained up Mt Kilimanjaro using no equipment, and wearing only shorts. One party he led included a cancer patient, someone with Crohn’s disease, a rheumatoid arthritis sufferer and a seventy-six year old man. They made it to the summit in two days (versus the recommended four) with no equipment, no supplements, no mountaineering training and wearing virtually no clothes.

I’ve been practising the Wim Hof technique for about three years since reading “What doesn’t kill us” from Scott Carney and, although it has been self-taught using Carney’s book and videos on You Tube, I have personally felt positive effects, such as staying in good health and being to recover faster from training. Why would alternating between hyperventilation (rapid deep breathing) and hypoventilation (breath holding) have such a powerful effect?

In short, the Wim Hof technique, based on the ancient Tummo breathing meditation, consists of taking thirty deep breaths in and natural releases out (the hyperventilation), then the final exhalation is released and the breath is held for as long as is comfortably possible. This round of hyperventilation to hypoventilation is repeated, three to five times (YouTube Video).

Several groups of scientists including doctors at the Radboud University Medical Center, Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and neuroscientists at Wayne State University, Detroit, have studied Wim Hof and his technique.

Doctors at the Radboud University found that using the Wim Hof method subjects experience increased in adrenalin and blood alkali levels, and also produced increased anti-inflammatory and less pro-inflammatory cytokines. The oxygenation of the blood supply seemed to trigger the body’s natural anti-inflammatory defences. Similarly, a recent study, published in December 2019 by doctors at the University of Amsterdam Medical School found that subjects suffering from spinal rheumatoid arthritis after using the technique had markedly lower inflammation rates compared to the control group. If hyperventilation lowers the carbon-dioxide in the blood, breath holding (hypoventilation) does the opposite. It reduces oxygen in the blood and pushes up carbon dioxide levels, which triggers further production HIF protein, which stimulates the growth of more blood vessels and more red blood cells. This mechanism likely explains the ability to climb Kilimanjaro and Everest without any prior acclimatisation.

Back to Teide’s climb – I experimented with 2 x 15min of Wim Hof’s technique the day prior and kept hyperventilating during the climb. The results were mixed. On the one hand, I found the 7hr, 21km hike, including the night climb, very easy with my HR staying well in the aerobic zone despite the altitude. I also didn’t experience any symptoms of altitude sickness. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine climbing naked wearing only a pair of shorts like Wim Hof & his party and it was only 3,718m vs 5,895m.

Wim Hof has demonstrated that he could switch on his autonomic system to produce adrenaline, fight off infections, pain or cold. Furthermore he has shown that he could train people to do the same. Although I’ve directly experienced key benefits from his technique using books and You Tube videos, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface and need to meet the “master” to reach the next level. Any takers? 🙂

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