Why We Go … Into the Cold

New England offers some surprisingly good surf
Icy peaks are calling you. Photography by Nick LaVecchia

What pushes us to wake up before sunrise to surf frozen waves in the Northern Atlantic on a snowy January day? Why does that frozen waterfall we see on our drive home each day call to us — begging us to grab our our ice axes and spend the day suspended and numb from its blue spires? Why does it bring us such satisfaction to dig into the snow pack and set up our 4-season tent, creating a shelter that defies the existence of every couch and tv filled living room around the world? 

A cozy setup on a wintry mountainside
NEMO’s Chogori™ is an steadfast 4-season shelter. Photography by François Kern

For those of us who love to challenge ourselves, winter offers no better playground.

Things are just harder to do in extreme cold; muscles tighten up, our blood thins, and the mind slows down. That is the beauty of it. There is no one is around, the environment is silent — you have the landscape or the ocean all to yourself. We toe the line between failure and performance, and we love those fleeting successes. 

When we are willing to put ourselves in the hands of challenge, we face our fear of failure. We learn and grow…

And sometimes, we dig a little deeper and overcome what seemed impossible — there is no greater sense of accomplishment. 

As an ex-pro snowboarder turned year-round New England surfer, and now obsessed bowhunter of whitetails, I know the allure of cold weather pursuits. So many reasons pop into my mind as to why I like to challenge Mother Nature’s wintry embrace. I’ve never experienced a winter mountaineering expedition, but I can imagine the strength, determination, and confidence mixed with a bit of audacity that it takes to be at that elevation for snowy week after snowy week, waiting for just the right conditions to complete the heroic goal you’ve set for yourself. But I have been dropped onto similarly frozen peaks around the world by helicopter, left to navigate my way down the steep mix of powdery cliffs and chutes with only a snowboard and an avalanche beacon.  I have floated for hours in a 36° Atlantic Ocean — with not a soul down the coast for as fas as I can see — waiting for perfect waves in complete and frozen solitude until my hands were too numb to even hold my board. And I have sat motionless for countless hours, 20 feet up a tree in single-digit temps, swaying silently as whistling North winds creaked my oak tree back and forth, while I waited patiently for a deer to sneak past. For me, these are the moments that fill my tank with joy, a sense of resilience, and a wealth of beauty.

If any of this peaks your interest, either as an observer or a participant, follow along as I explore some of the reasons we get inspired to go a little further … into the cold.


 

An unlikely commute of a snowy bike ride to the surf
For the brave, winter is a great time to play and the playground is usually empty. Photography by Nick LaVecchia

Physical positives

This part is probably the most obvious and can be applied to any adventure — basic to advanced. We all know being active greatly benefits our health. But add winter, a time when many of us feel our metabolism slowing and daylight hours decreasing as rapidly as our summer stoke, and the positive upswing of participating in our favorite adventures is tremendous.  

For starters, getting more light boosts levels of serotonin flowing in our brain which is a very potent for increasing positivity.

Focusing our minds on the tasks of a winter adventure helps relieve stress and defies the confinement we feel after so many hours we spend indoors. Doing what we love in our favorite place is joyful. When we attach a goal to it with some relative challenges — and then overcome them with strong focus — our brain releases dopamine and gives us a great sense of empowerment. If we take it a step further and challenge ourselves more, maybe even struggle a little, our body gets a shot of endorphins and a natural euphoria.

  1. Serotonin – Spending time outside in the sun causes your body to produce Vitamin D, which triggers the release of serotonin, one of the key hormones of happiness. Serotonin helps to regulate moods and prevents depression.
  2. Dopamine – Dopamine is a pleasure hormone that helps motivate you to work harder to achieve the satisfaction of striving for or reaching a goal, and helps keep you mentally alert for increased focus. 
  3. Endorphins – Endorphins are our body’s natural painkillers. Any exercise releases endorphins, but exercise with the added struggles of extreme cold creates a a stronger release.

In prehistoric ages, endorphins were very important for survival. They enabled our ancestors to push through pain and extreme difficulty. As we evolved into a modern civilization and face fewer challenging situations, anaerobic exercise is often the only time we release endorphins. Cold weather adventures might be a way to reclaim or reconnect with a more primitive version of ourselves. Even if for only a fleeting moment, this is can be a fulfilling reconnection for our body.

If you need some inspiration, watch this video of world champion free diver Stig Severinsen, as he takes a breath and plunges into ice cold water to attempt his final record, a 250 foot swim under ice.

You’ll probably release some endorphins just watching it.


 

Patterns of little white ice islands on a blue canvas
Alluring and beautiful, yet icy and relentlessly cold. Photography by Nick LaVecchia

Aesthetics

Solitude. Beauty. Incredible stillness.

That warm, magical light that paints the side of a ridgeline … the colors that only happen during the sun’s low angle of the winter months. That moment when you have been shivering all day, but then the wind dies down and you look up at a jagged peak drenched in pink and orange and you feel a rush of warmth and the awe of beauty.

The way everything slows down and we feel more alive.

The color of ocean water on ice makes for some incredible blues
A frozen coastline makes for the tropical looking waters of a white sand beach — minus the umbrellas and margaritas. Photography by Nick LaVecchia

Nick LaVecchia, Professional Surf Photographer 

“I love living in a place that experiences all 4 seasons to their fullest. As soon as I’m feeling like I’ve fully explored the colors and light I’ve been viewing through my camera for a couple of months, everything around us starts to change.  

I truly get waves of excitement with the first signs of Winter.  There’s something about the cold, raw, and extreme weather we get here in New England that I just love.  There is nothing like gearing up and going out when everyone else is hunkered down in front of the fire. The landscapes and seascapes take on a whole new look. Beaches are empty and blanketed in white. Trees and branches hang low with the weight of fresh snow. I am hooked on capturing these environments as studies of color and texture. Going out and sitting and waiting until the scene feels right … only making an image when that happens. And swimming and surfing during these months is really an amazing rush.  It’s incredible to experience something different — an environment most will never know — even if it is a bit painful. I know the next season’s evolution is just around the corner, so why not soak it up?”


 

Two Chogori tents connected for extra space and comfort
There is great joy — and comfort — in a winter shelter. Photography by François Kern

Defiance

For those who love to stand among the harsh elements, setting up a formidable shelter is one of our greatest primal endeavors.

We create an unlikely comfort and defy the confinement of winter. We go to the extreme and experience a deeper sense of winter.

The colder the weather, the cozier the shelter. A symbol of comfort and strength, deep in the backcountry.

We take great pleasure in putting the warmth and technology of our equipment up against the cold winds. And testing our own mettle. 

We love to defy natural logic of what our bodies can survive.

It reminds us of who we are and what we’re made of. It’s in our DNA. It connects us back to a time in our evolution, where we truly lived in this harsh environment. We are wired for this adventure and our favorite gear makes it more comfortable and more enjoyable.

Snow blankets the shore on the North Atlantic
When the beach gets a blanket of snow, very few feel the call to venture far enough to experience its beauty. Photography by Nick LaVecchia

Colin Boyd, Freeride World Tour Medalist

Cold water sits still… waiting, watching — always present. 

For some, maybe it’s just a beautiful view or a space to walk past daily. For some of us, it is a menacing and constant taunting… a challenge that is always present.

“Come. Submerge yourself in an icy bath. You know you will be better for it.” 

Personifying water may sound mad but that is what goes through my head most times I am within its frigid presence. Most days I don’t go. I choose not to listen to the taunt inside my head. I choose not to take the plunge. However – when I choose to defy my own fear and do it, my inner resilience and confidence is re-born. The challenges I face in my day-to-day life become are easier to overcome. 


 

The summit through our vestibule door
The destination looms overhead, and beckons us to persist. Photography by François Kern

Challenge

Adventures are much harder in the cold. Equipment jams up and our muscles grow tighter.

It requires presence, mindfulness, and concentration.

You must have the ability to slow your breath, slow your movements … your actions and steps … and make them more deliberate.

These experiences empower us. They build our resilience and our connection to the environment.


 

Frozen lines on the mountain and ocean
Alaskan waves on an icy afternoon. Photography by Nick LaVecchia

Flow State

All of this; the challenge, the exhilaration, the shivers of fear and adrenaline, the mantras of confidence all comes together puts us in that flow state where time slows and our movement is flawless. That excitement energizes our brain and we feel the empowerment of being far from civilization, doing what we love in a place we love.

This is the place we seek. And it can be achieved where ever we seek it — be it the at the summit of a Himalayan giant or at the top of a tree in forest behind your home. Adventure is all around us, and we can be challenged anywhere. 


Essential Gear to keep you warm

  • Chogori™ – This four-season tent delivers the first big innovation in mountaineering tents in decades. The integrated fly and external pole structure allows for set-up in half the time and trims weight by 25%.
  • Tenshi™ – The Tenshi’s™ unique Sleep Tight Anchor Transfer™ system allows security on narrow ledges. When your adventures take you to the ends of the earth, you’ll want a tent like Tenshi™ to keep you secure and comfortable from the glacier to the summit.
  • Canon™ – With a full suite of technical features and materials, the Canon™ -40 degree bag has set the standard for extreme conditions gear that is designed to deliver the best experience possible for your expeditions.
  • Sonic™ – The Backpacker Editor’s Choice Award Winning Sonic™ has been praised as the only bag you really need from -20 to 40 degrees. The premium suite of fabrics and 850 fill power down is complemented by adjustable Thermo Gills™, which regulate temperature without letting cold drafts in.
  • Tensor™ Insulated – The Tensor™ insulated sleeping pad is the minimalist’s best friend, offering 3” of back-saving, cushioned sleep with a paltry weight and pack size. NEMO Spaceframe™ baffles are an ingenious invention that allow for a quieter, more stable sleeping experience.