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Audio diary of a guided cold plunge into Donner Lake during a blizzard

A body of water lies past a snow bank, with snowy mountains visible in the background through gray stormy skies.
Autumn Novotny
Donner Lake in Truckee, Calif. during a blizzard, where Reynolds School of Journalism student Autumn Novotny went into the lake for a guided cold plunge on March 12, 2024.

In the midst of a Tahoe blizzard, Reynolds School of Journalism student Autumn Novotny participated in a guided cold plunge into Donner Lake, with the help of a Reiki master. Listen to her firsthand account of the experience.

During the worst blizzard of the winter season, I stood with Brooke Hailey, as we prepared for our cold plunge into Donner Lake.

We climbed over a mound of snow to get down to the beach. It felt intimidating as I looked out at the black trees on a white backdrop. The snow capped mountains in front of us looked mysterious as they disappeared into dense white clouds. The wind roared at 15 mph and carried pelts of snow with it, which blew into my face. The storm whipped the waves to shore in a choppy motion, making the scene loud and chaotic. The air was cold at 37 degrees and enigmatic, fueling my anxiety and worry-filled thoughts.

My heart was beating straight out of my chest as we stripped down to our bathing suits and sat on the small stretch of wet pebbled sand. We prepared our bodies to enter the 35 degree water through three different kinds of warming breathwork. The breathing seemed to bring me into the present atmosphere and further away from the mental and physical feeling of fear. Haley said we were ready to go into the lake and we stood up. She noticed my body trembling in nervousness and wrapped her arm around my shoulder.

Haley, a certified yoga instructor, has studied many yogi practices, earning degrees in yoga therapy. She is also a certified Reiki master, which is an energy healing science.

But on this day, Haley is my cold plunge guide.

She was introduced to cold plunges at a very young age and was always drawn to diving into cold water. Living in Lake Tahoe for many full moons, she loves having the beauty of the largest alpine lake in North America at her fingertips. For Haley, plunging is a deep spiritual experience that helps her become one with nature.

“When we do things with grace, like breath work or cold immersion, our body and our mind become much more equipped to handle other stressful or hard situations with ease and grace,” she said.

Every March, Haley does a tapas practice of self-discipline, used in yoga. Last year, she chose to do cold plunges every day for the practice and she said it was mighty powerful.

How often a person should do cold plunges depends on the individual, everyone is unique in their wellness journeys, she said.

She advises anyone starting a cold plunge practice to allow themselves time to figure out what will work best.

The most important thing to remember when going into a cold plunge is to go in calm because it enables you to respond to what happens next versus react, she said.

As we took slow steps into the water, we focused on the quick in and out motion of our breathing.

As each step continued to submerge my body, I became numb. We stopped when the water was at our stomachs and stayed there for two minutes. My mind went completely blank and silent, making me realize how loud it is in my head most of the time. Without being able to form any thoughts except for focusing on my breath, my mind was forced to focus on what was surrounding me. I noticed how beautiful the scenery was and felt myself connecting with the nature around me.

Walking out of the lake, my body started to feel strangely warm, even as I wrapped my robe around myself. The endorphins shot through my veins, making me feel energized with strength and happiness. I felt powerful. I felt like I could conquer anything and do anything.

I did sleep wonderfully and noticed I was more motivated throughout the day. I would definitely do a cold plunge again, but on a sunnier day.

Autumn Novotny is a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism. The story was produced in partnership with the school’s Lake Tahoe News Project.

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