Tendrils of steam curl up softly from the searing waters of Takhini Hot Pools, fed by a natural hot spring located just northwest of Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory. For decades, locals have taken to the mineral water there, high in calcium, magnesium and iron, for its therapeutic properties and warming capabilities, but more recently, Takhini has become the battleground for one of the world’s most hair-raising competitions.
Known as the International Hair Freezing Contest, the friendly tournament began as an extension of the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous, an annual festival held each February that celebrates winter sports like dog sledding and snowshoeing. Seeking a reprieve from achy muscles and the wrath of winter’s chill, athletes and spectators alike would soak together at Takhini. Noticing an opportunity, in 2011, a former manager challenged visitors to style their hair into frozen hairdos and take selfies. Employees would then select the wildest coiffure of the bunch.
Now in its ninth year, the competition is growing, just like hair itself. The contest now attracts several dozen participants.
“It was a pretty small affair up until 2015 [when we started getting some publicity],” says Andrew Umbrich, co-owner of Takhini Hot Pools. “Frozen hair was something that was occurring naturally when people would bathe in the hot springs during cold weather, so the manager at the time decided to make a competition out of it.”
Thanks to social media and word of mouth, Umbrich says it’s not surprising to receive photo submissions from contestants from all over the world who’ve made the long trek to Takhini specifically to compete. In recent years, there have been participants from Japan and all across Europe.
“I just had a woman from New York email me asking when would be the best time to come here to participate,” he says. “We get visitors from all over.”
To participate, competitors must sign a waiver on-site—to prove they’ve actually been there and aren’t taking the photo elsewhere—and submit a frozen-hair pic of themselves at the actual hot springs sometime in February or March. (Umbrich says that because of changes in climate, it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific day for the competition, since the ideal conditions are when the outside temperature reaches at most -4 degrees Farhenheit.) Because of the contest’s popularity, Umbrich and his wife, fellow co-owner Lauren O'Coffey, expanded the competition into four categories: best male, best female, best group and most creative. The winner in each category receives $750 plus a membership to Takhini that’s good for 30 soaks.
“Last year, we had a lady who managed to stick her hair out horizontally on either side, with each side measuring over two feet,” he says. “That was pretty impressive. Usually people will stick their hair straight up or spike it out, or men will style their beards and chest hair. We’ve never seen so much hair stand so horizontally straight before. She won the 'most creative' category.”
Umbrich says that he’s unaware of any similar contests taking place elsewhere around the world, and it’s easy to see why. The climate at Takhini lends itself to the perfect conditions for freezing hair without causing it to snap like an icicle.
“We’ve never had anyone damage or injure their hair,” he says. “What happens is you’re sitting in [roughly 110-degree Fahrenheit water] and there’s all this steam coming up [and mingling] with the outside cold air that’s opposing the hot water. All of this steam gathers on your hair and the air freezes it, but [not all of it]. You’re just creating a little frost shell, and once you take the photo you dip your head back underwater and it’s instantly fine again.”
And don’t dismay if you don’t have long hair or hair at all.
“Wigs are welcome,” he says. “We want to ensure a fair playing field, even for people without hair.”