Some of you might remember the story of my epic frostbite failure in the pursuit of Tindfjallajökull glacier. I just remembered that my little mishap there had an equally adventurous sequel, as well as something to learn from it. Also there were some crazy Icelandic dogs.
After we returned to our indestructible Mitsubishi, my first goal was to find a beer. I was alive and I wanted to celebrate that fact. Unfortunately, they were mostly frozen, and one had partially exploded. Sorry Ásgeir. So I would have to wait for my little relaxer. But we did soak in some thermal pools and get pizza.
We spent the night on a farm somewhere in the Western Fjords. Bjarni tells me that in the morning, we will hike an easy pass that he did when he was four. Awesome, I will indeed make it out of Iceland alive.
Or Will I…
In the morning, for some odd reason, I am given an ice ax and crampons as we get out of the SUV. Something was lost in translation. And when you’re rolling with badasses in Iceland who think “falling in glacial crevices is fun,” it’s a bit of a cause for worry. So I ask Bjarni why we need this gear for such an easy pass.
“Oh, there is too much snow there. We’re going to climb to this peak instead,” he says, pointing at an incredibly ominous mountain. Two dogs ran up to us from the adjacent farm. I patted one on the head contemplatively.
The mountain was Rauðkollur, and it was covered in snow and ice. I’m in northern Iceland in January; why wouldn’t it be, I guess. My stomach dropped into the bottom of my feet, which were already starting to go numb again.
Well, fuck, I couldn’t help but think. Don’t get me wrong, I love mountaineering, but I had just suffered a massive blow to my ego the day before, and I was frankly ready to relax until I jumped on a plane back to Sweden. Instead of doing that, I began to approach the mountain with the rest of the gang, dogs in tow.
The guys briefed me on how to stop myself with my ice ax in case I fell and slid into the gorge below, where executions apparently used to be held. As if to put a period at the end of this factoid, one of our canine companions dug a bone out of the snow, and rolled around with it a bit. It all seemed simple enough.
“Oh shit!” I exclaimed not five minutes later as I fell and slid uncontrollably. It was the most helpless I’ve ever felt in my life. I rose to a kneel, slid again, pushed with my feet, but kept sliding. Finally, I did with my ax what I was taught, and it may have saved my life.
My adrenaline was racing like never before and fear absolutely froze me to that spot for a few seconds. I watched the dogs jump around in the snow with their bone like jolly jackasses. Finally, I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, with my ice ax vigilantly at the ready in my hand.
It was crampon time. Actually, I thought it was half-past crampon time, crampon time being when I slid and almost fell to my death. This was a first for me, and I think the fact that I even needed them terrified me more than anything. In my mind, crampons equaled extreme. There’s some shit ahead.
(Crampons are the spikes you strap to your boots so you can walk on ice.)
I let Ásgeir enjoy the task of attaching my crampons. This was not a time to try to even act like I knew what I was doing. I wiggled them around a bit, and they seemed stable.
The first few steps were terrifying. I walked with a straddled stance with my feet pointing outward, basically the opposite of a skiing “pizza.” Step, step, ice ax. Step, step, ice ax. Eventually, I started to trust them a bit more. Eventually, I started enjoying myself.
I was still close to scared shitless, but in a good way, if that makes sense. After I started moving, the adventurer in me gained more psychological ground over the I-would-pay-$50-just-to-be-chilling-in-a-coffee-shop-instead-of-dying guy.
Although watching the dogs jump effortlessly around on the ice while I needed metal spikes attached to my feet was starting to piss me off.
About five different times I thought we were just about to summit. Nope, still plenty more of Rauðkollur to go. It was okay. I had developed a nice rhythm with my crampons. It’s not like I had to be anywhere.
Finally, a large blast of icy wind threatened my balance as I raised myself up onto a plateau of crunchy ice that was reaching outward, frozen in the direction the wind had chosen to blow that day. In the center, someone had made a small cairn, or pyramid of large stones to mark a summit. The dogs were sitting as if they had been waiting for quite a while. It was the summit!
I yelled something in celebration, whatever it was I can’t remember. The wind was some really powerful stuff. It was an appropriate time to don my face mask, but unfortunately I had to remove my gloves to do so. I shit you not, my fingers were painfully numb within five seconds.
Numb or not, a group picture was obligatory. As I sat huddled against that pile of rocks, I felt that I had redeemed myself after suffering defeat on Tindfjallajökull. Granted, I was still stupid for using the same equipment in the same conditions. But I felt alive!
Fear, the Spice of Life
My comfort zone was effectively nuked in this experience of mine. In the end, it was a good thing. When I made it to the summit, I felt that I had truly accomplished something great. To this day, I feel almost as proud of making it up that mountain as I do about surviving four years of college.
I realized that the fear made the experience more interesting, and the summit more pleasurable. The fear was like some sort of ambient discordia, undulating in the background alongside the rhythm of my footfalls. Making it to the summit was a joyful climax, and learning to walk downhill with crampons brought the same fear back. It was the emotional composition of a Sigur Rós song, which I think was appropriate.
If fear is what separates me from someone at home that’s eating Doritos and watching Survivor, then I welcome and embrace it. I can live with it, and recognize that it comes with the experiences that I wanted to get out of living an unconventional lifestyle in the first place.
Screw safety (not in the mountaineering sense, please be safe out there). If you want to have some type of revelation or epiphany, then do something that terrifies you. To experience fear, while keeping our forward momentum, tests us. When we conquer it, we enjoy a parfait of emotions, endorphins, and adrenaline that is truly exquisite.
That’s why I believe that a little bit of fear can truly add some much-needed spice to my otherwise comfortable Western life.