Julia ZAPPEI –
It was not the way Christian Redl’s latest deep-diving record attempt was meant to end: being hauled to the surface of Austria’s frozen Weissensee lake after losing consciousness in the icy waters.
Redl — dubbed “the iceman” — had suffered 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 last Friday.
The Austrian, who has had similar blackouts before, is part of a small group of free divers in the world specialising in diving under ice.
His aim was to dive 71 metres (233 feet) deep into the Weissensee — itself covered in 30 centimetres (12 inches) of ice — braving the two degree Celsius (35.6 degree Fahrenheit) water wearing just a wetsuit and fins.
But 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 sprung into action with an oxygen mask.
Drowned corpse roles
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 snorkelling on a Vienna lake, before he started scuba diving aged 10.
Seven years later he saw “The Big Blue”, French director Luc Besson’s film about the friendship and rivalry between two free divers.
“This movie changed my life completely because my biggest dream was to become like Jean Reno in this movie, a world record holder,” Redl says.
But work commitments meant he only had the winter months to attempt records, which led to him to specialise in ice diving, earning him his “iceman” moniker.
At 30 he quit his job as an investment banker to become a professional free diver, 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 90-metre 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 before the attempt on Friday.
New Zealand free diver 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 email.
“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”.
‘You will die’
As for his hardest dive to date, Redl says that came on Nepal’s Gokyo lake at an altitude of 5,160 metres, 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.”
Ernest Turnschek, who owns a diving school at Weissensee and has known Redl for more than 20 years, says an increasing number of “hard core” divers have been coming to the lake to try their hand at ice diving.
When he first considered teaching ice diving 30 years ago, many found it laughable.
“Now everyone is talking about it… They are fascinated by the hues under the water,” Turnschek says.
Redl also waxes lyrical about his chosen sport.
“The most incredible thing is when you swim back to the surface and you take the first breath, it’s like you are reborn. This is really amazing,” he says.
The urge to go ever deeper, to stay underwater for longer is “like you’re addicted”.
But Redl admits that the sport is not getting any easier for him.
“I feel as I get older and older that I need much more training than nine years ago, when I achieved the record the first time” — back then the dive was 61 metres.
Nevertheless, Redl has said he may not be able to resist another attempt to re-conquer the record. — AFP