Austrian ‘Iceman’ diver chases records in the deep

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

Diver Christian Redl concentrates before attempting a 71m dive in the icy waters of the Weissensee in Austria on Friday last week.

It was not the way that Christian Redl’s latest deep-diving record attempt was meant to end: being hauled to the surface of Austria’s frozen Weissensee after losing consciousness in the icy waters.

Redl — dubbed the “Iceman” — experienced a blackout, something he sees as par for the course in his quest to break the record for the deepest dive under ice.

“For me, it’s not risky or dangerous. It just happened,” the 43-year-old said matter-of-factly after his unsuccessful record attempt on Friday last week.

The Austrian, who has had similar blackouts before, is part of a small group of freedivers in the world specializing in diving under ice.

His aim was to dive 71m deep into the Weissensee — itself covered in 30cm of ice — braving the 2°C water in just a wetsuit and fins.

However, exerting himself excessively on the way up resulted in a lack of oxygen to the brain, which caused a blackout.

He was dragged up by one of his six safety divers and pulled onto the ice where a waiting medical team sprang into action with an oxygen mask.

It is the latest chapter in a life dominated by a passion for diving that began at the age of six when Redl’s uncle gave him fins and a mask as a present.

They were put to use snorkeling on a Vienna Lake, before he started scuba diving at the age of 10.

Seven years later, he saw The Big Blue — French director Luc Besson’s film about the friendship and rivalry between two freedivers.

“This movie changed my life completely because my biggest dream was to become like Jean Reno in this movie, a world record holder,” Redl said.

However, work commitments meant that he only had the winter months to attempt records, which led to him to specialize in ice diving, earning him his “Iceman” moniker.

At 30, he quit his job as an investment banker to become a professional freediver, supporting himself with teaching and occasional acting work.

His ability to hold his breath under water for up to six minutes has given him a somewhat macabre niche of drowned corpse roles.

His first record came in 2003, a 90m horizontal distance dive under ice.

In preparation for his latest attempt — perhaps surprisingly — Redl only did one practice dive on the Weissensee itself, otherwise sticking to an indoor pool on the outskirts of Vienna.

“I do everything with my mental strength, so I really don’t care about the cold,” he said before the attempt on Friday.

New Zealand freediver and rival Ant Williams, the holder of the record Redl wanted to clinch, understands the challenges only too well.

“The water is not only freezing cold, it is pitch black and foreboding,” he said by e-mail.

“It is far more intimidating and uncomfortable than normal diving,” Williams said, adding that he regards his Austrian rival as “talented” and “more than capable of pushing the record deeper.”

As for his hardest dive to date, Redl said that came on Nepal’s Gokyo Lake at an altitude of 5,160m, requiring him to undertake six months of training to deal with the lack of oxygen.

“The first 10 doctors said ‘it is impossible, you will die,’” Redl said. “The 11th one said: ‘Yes, you will die, but it’s a cool project.’ So I concentrated on the second part of this sentence.”

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