So much to describe and share and so little time to find the words. Days are passing here like the wind, very rapidly and measured in meters per second, both the speed of the wind and our experiences on the Iceland’s ring road. We traveled from the Golden Circle to the base of Hvannadalshnukur in a day filled with waterfalls, sea stacks, and glacial river outflows, arriving just in time for the climb’s briefing.
We were surprised to learn that the group numbered seven climbers, five from Canada and two from the US. The morning’s forecast was excellent but perhaps changing for the worst in the late afternoon. We got kitted out with crampons, harnesses, and ice axes and were reminded to bring plenty of snacks for the climb could last as long as 15 hours. Ice tools in hand, we drove up to the Bolti Guesthouse which had a commanding view of the glacier and its outwash delta. The owner joined us at sunset for a photographic fest of evening light. We packed for the climb and headed to bed early.
The alarm rang at 4:00 am. I jumped into action getting breakfast ready, thermos filled with hot coffee, water bottles filled with hot chocolate, duffels to the car. We jumped into the car and rolled down the hill to meet the group. The morning was perfect. Not a breeze. Lovely temperature. A fine morning to climb. We drove to the base of the mountain and began to climb.
When I was on my college wilderness orientation program, I promised myself I would never have to climb uphill again. I almost made that promise again when we first set out. As always, when I first start climbing and my body is not yet warmed up, a climb of any height seems impossible. The first 400 meters were to be the steepest of the day and surprisingly; they passed quickly…almost three Signal Hills done before our first break. We refilled our water bottles with famous Iceland water from a glacier fed stream and began to climb along a ridge. Another 350 meters (two Signal Hills) brought us to the snowline and sunrise. The warm glow produced marvelous shadows as we cruised up the snow. It was hard enough to traverse without snowshoes and the going was very good.
Another 300 meters of gain delivered us to the edge of the glacier and dropping temperatures. We took a quick break, got harnesses and snowshoes on, tied into the rope, and chilled considerably in 15 minutes of standing still. Walking in unison on a rope is such a Buddhist activity for me. I have to stay grounded in the present moment so that I keep just the right amount of tension/slack in the rope. Climb too quickly and a dangerous loop of slack develops. Climb too slowly and the person in front of me (on this day Marian) is jerked to a stop or has to pull me along. I’m aiming for the “middle way” between too fast and too slow.
The rope team, as a whole, must also find a pace that works for each individual as well as the group. On Denali, I remember having first sense of “Being both alone and together” as I spent 26 days climbing on a rope team. On Hvannadalshnukur, I was reminded of this teaching once again, because as you climb, you are a distance from each of your teammates on the rope, you cannot really converse so you on your own but travelling intimately as a team at the same time. No one goes unless the whole teams goes. No one gets left behind. We all go together, up together, down together, tied together both literally and figuratively.
The snow slope steepened and we gradually made our way up. The clouds snuck up behind us arriving earlier than forecasted. With the clouds soon came wind. With the wind, came snow. Before long, we were climbing in a complete whiteout, almost a blizzard. The day had transformed from “the best of times to the worst of times.” Our guide, Gisla, had said it was the best morning he’d ever been on the mountain. By the end of the day, he said it was the worst weather, he’d ever been in on Hvannadalshnukur.
Another 600 meters (four Signal Hills) of elevation gain brought us to the long traverse, five kilometers across the glacier plateau to the base of the final 300 meter climb to the summit. The wind continued to pick up and the snow pelted us harder and harder. Gilsa was navigating entirely by GPS as the visibility was never more than 10 meters. The going was slow and somewhat disorienting in the storm. My teammates, in front of me on the rope, provided the only oasis of colour in the wind whipped white world. Any stoppage of moving dropped our bodies temperatures quickly so we never stopped long.
At about 1:00 pm in the afternoon, we reached the base of the final steep pitch to the summit. The wind was continuing to build. We took refuge in the Bothie Bag shelter that Gisla had brought along for just such an occasion and discussed our situation. Given the building fury of the storm, it was time to turn back as the summit would require another four hours or so out in the storm and some were already dangerously cold. It was a sad moment of heading down but absolutely the right call for the conditions. Heading down, the wind was now in our faces, pelting us for all it was worth. We laboured to make headway into the wind and rime ice clung to anything it could get a hold off.
We took no breaks as we climbed down for the next five hours until we finally dropped below the storm and into the rain. We stayed roped up, even once the glacier danger was past because visibility was so poor. I was grateful for my goggles and balaclava as they made the epic conditions quite bearable. The last hour the rain finally eased and we arrived back at the van, thirteen hours richer in experience. The mountain had hammered us like a blacksmith tempering iron. We were stronger now at 7:00 pm than we were at
We’d been out for an “epic day.” The mountain tested us and our equipment. Epic days teach us about ourselves and how we react to crises and hard times. They help us practice for even harder days and allow us a chance to observe where we need to build more strength and skill. The tough moments offer a mirror in which to see a different reflection of how we are in the world. Though I’m sad and disappointed that the weather denied us the final 300 meters (two Signal Hills) to the summit, I’m grateful for a chance to look at myself in the blinding white light of a mountain blizzard and I was pleased, for the most part, of what I saw.
I love the picture I took of Marian and I when we reached the parking lot once more. I see two happy folks who’d just had an amazing 13 hour day on Hvannadalshnukur climbing 1850 meters and then descending 1850 meters and still having lots of energy left. Our training had paid off-the summit would have been ours in the weather had cooperated. I’m darn proud of us.