Skaftafell: Glaciers, Blood, and Mathematicians

We awoke to the soft pattering of rain on the roof of the tent.  Morning in Iceland.  I rolled over and unzipped the door of the tent, peeking out at the lush, mossy green that blanketed the land.  Seagulls soared overhead.  I made breakfast; the rain stopped and the tent dried, just in time to pack it away.

Finally at an adequate distance from Reykjavik, Greg and I decided to attempt hitchhiking all the way to Skaftafell, the next stop on RAX’s list of must-photograph destinations.  It seemed somewhat ambitious, but hey – you never know.  Within half an hour of lingering by the roadside at Vik’s one and only gas station, a large Land Rover pulled over, its driver waving us over.  Excitedly, we approached the car.  Two smiling Icelandic men hopped out, enthusiastically rearranging their gear to accommodate our gigantic backpacks.  We were introduced to Einar and Tryggvi, two lifelong friends reunited for a weekend hiking trip.  Einar, it turned out, was a mathematician who had gone to MIT, spoke flawless English, and taught mathematics at a university in Scotland.  When I mentioned I lived in Rhode Island, he asked if I went to RISD.  The coincidences were numerous, and we felt no need to be on-guard or nervous in the backseat of their car.  They drove us all the way to Skaftafell, cheerfully wishing us a good trip.

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We arrived Skaftafell, naturally, in pouring rain.   “Maybe if we wait, like, 10 minutes, it will clear up!” I told Greg, who sort of laughed.  Forever optimistic, I took my time using the bathroom at the visitor’s center, eating a protein bar as slowly as possible, and lingering over a cup of coffee.  And you know what?  By the time I had run out of things to occupy my time, the rain had ceased.  We set up our nice, dry tent in a forested corner of the campsite, securing the rainfly just as the rain began to pour again.  Perfect, perfect timing.  We left camp in search of a glacier.

All the hikes we wanted to do that day were short and fulfilling, as spectacular views were all within a minimal distance of our campsite. In favor of a more intimate photographic view, we decided to approach the glacier from the front, instead of hiking above it to look down upon its vastness. The fog rolled across the landscape in thick, mysterious sheets; the vibrant green moss lining the path was bursting with purple flowers.  It was beautiful.

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We approached the glacier.  The trail ended in front of a wide, shallow river snaking its way over the moraine, but someone at the visitor’s center had told us that it was possible to get closer, if you were careful. I decided to ford the river and climb up the first, gentle slopes of glacier ice to get the perfect photograph. Greg decided to keep his feet dry and photograph the icebergs on the shore of the lake.

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In the folds of moraine and ice, I entered another planet. The tones of greys and blacks reflected the misty sky, glistening, sweeping around in formations unlike any I had ever seen. I climbed atop a hill of moraine, assembled my large-format gear, and laboriously made a photograph. It began to rain; I didn’t care. I slipped the camera back in my pack, carefully making my way down the slope to take one more picture.

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In that moment, something happened. A large rock, so deceptively stable underfoot, rolled from under me when I put my full weight on it. I shifted my weight to my trekking pole instead; the pole snapped under the impact. I tumbled down into the boulders, smashing into a crevice between two rocks, hitting my head – hard – on the cold glacial stone. Scrambling to my feet, panicked, I surveyed the scene. Camera intact. Rain jacket ripped where my arms and shoulder hit. I tugged my hat from my head and gingerly patted the back of my head – my hand returned covered in blood. Shit, I thought. What have you done now? 

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I couldn’t believe it had happened. I had survived 40 days of mountaineering in the Himalayas, the treachery of the Bomber Traverse, a plane crash, everything – completely unscathed. Now, on a gentle walk from a visitor’s center, I found myself all smashed up, alone on a glacier in Iceland. Greg was out of sight. Blood poured from my head; all I could do was anxiously recall the head injury part of the Wilderness First Responder course I’d taken a few years ago. Was I at risk for increasing intercranial pressure? Was I going to die? How far away was the nearest hospital? Shaking, I slowly made my way back to the river. Greg was a speck in the distance. The rain began to pour, but I eventually found him, and together we slowly walked back to the visitor’s center.

I was proclaimed fine by the Icelandic medical staff, to my infinite relief, but was nevertheless shaken. The blood crusted into my hair and filled the pristine white sink with angry red water when I went to go wash up. I laid down in the tent for a long time, feeling lucky to be alive, sleeping off the shock. We cooked dinner. It rained.

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Contemplating all the ways in which I needed to be more careful from then onI nevertheless decided that it was time to “get back on the horse” after dinner. As the sky grew dark, we set out for a mellow evening hike to Svartifoss, a legendary nearby waterfall. No one, it seemed, was equally interested in night hiking, and we were completely alone on the trail, wandering between twilight silence and the roar of rushing water. We stood for a long time, looking up at that explosion of force and moisture. The evening painted the world indigo. Once again, all was calm and peaceful. We returned to the tent and I slept like a bear in winter.

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