Waking up in a mountain hut. First, on the brink of consciousness, that relief of fresh air when someone finally opens a window, steam surely pouring unseen out into the cold morning. Then the hushed sound of zippers being zipped, sleeping bags being stuffed, bags being packed. Whispers on whispers and the gentle calls from the kitchen in all those languages, your breakfast is ready; I’ve made us coffee; where did you put the map? Mountain people, up early, especially with a big day ahead.
I slid out of my bunk and cleared some condensation from the window. Clear skies and sun, windblown snow lingering on the rocks above. If my cabin-mates were going to go for it, so was I. After a quick breakfast and loading up my gear, I set briskly out into the landscape. My pack, group gear undivided and 4×5 equipment stowed, was appallingly heavy, but I remained initially unfazed. I would grow stronger, I thought. Soreness is temporary. Tolerance through adversity.
Sheep grazed by the hot springs and snow still blanketed the mountains from the night before. I crossed through the lava fields, traversed the valley, and slowly, arduously, made my way up into the hills. At even a gentle incline, my entire body protested under the weight of my pack, leg muscles quivering from the start. I thought of my recent half-marathon and very little recovery time thereafter, and wondered for a moment what I was doing. Clouds of sulfurous steam poured from the craggy earth that grew increasingly vivid as I climbed; earthy oranges and reds gave way to gradients of pink, yellow and finally turquoise. As I crested a particularly pink hilltop, a fierce wind descended upon the trail. I was nearly knocked to the ground, skin stinging as snowflakes blasted into my eyes at gale-force speed. Only an hour or so into the hike, I already felt like my body was breaking, and now I could barely make forward progress against the wind. Yet the hillside was so colorful, so alluring, with the landscape below all hazy and blue in the snow. I had to make a picture, I thought. You’re only here once.
With a peculiar mixture of reluctance and determination, I set down my backpack, extracting my field camera and a waterproof bag of loaded film holders. I metered the light. Then the wind picked up, howling across the hilltop in hellish gusts. I lunged for the pack cover and film holder bag that were threatening to take flight, pinning them to the ground with my entire body as I wrestled with the the camera gear half-wedged into my raincoat. My bare hands were all but slaughtered by the blasting snow and, now, flying volcanic ash. At this particular moment, two hikers appeared, walking briskly past, staring in mild surprise as I writhed on the ground, attempting to control my camera gear. “You’re a tough woman,” one of them muttered through their raingear. I nearly burst into tears. YOU HAVE NO IDEA! I wanted to yell, but instead smiled a sort of “Haha, thanks,” and continued struggling on the ground. The picture got made.
I had greatly overestimated my ability to carry such a heavy load through such adverse conditions, or perhaps simply underestimated the weight of my gear. I would guess today that my pack probably weighed somewhere between 70 and 85 pounds, almost double what I would consider a healthy weight for a person of my stature to carry. I felt crushed under its burden, every step painful, but there was no turning back. This was an adventure, and the landscape was one of the most exotic I had ever seen. I’m suffering for my art! I told myself in a sort of wild delirium, dragging my aching body ever upwards in the raging gale. No pain, no gain! My characteristically positive outlook, however, was no match for Icelandic weather. In the presence of companions, suffering was a bonding experience and challenge to laugh about; alone, I was startled at how hard it was. Sometimes the wind was so strong I just laid down on the ground and let it pass. When I finally stopped to eat, I crouched on the ground behind the one and only boulder in view, immensely relieved to be able to cover my entire face with my mittens and hide from the treacherous wind.
After about six hours of this, I arrived, utterly depleted, at the Hrafntinnusker mountain hut. To think I had considered trying to make it to the next hut that day! I was greeted by a radiant, smiling hut warden, who welcomed me in and gave me a warm bunk on which to rest. Shakily, I heated a cup of hot chocolate and cooked up a steaming plate of meatballs with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, compliments of the “free food” cupboard. The hut was heaven. I laid motionless on my bunk for hours, trying to regain some semblance of strength.
The view from my bunk.
Despite the hardships the first half of the day had brought, the hut warden couldn’t stop raving about the nearby ice cave, under an hour’s walk away. Dead-set on making the most out of my situation, I emptied everything except my camera gear onto my bunk, and gingerly set foot outside. Miraculously, the wind had ceased, the landscape beckoning in a dizzying patchwork of snow, rock, and silver gradients of volcanic ash. Despite fatigue, I felt freed from the burden of my pack, and climbed quietly into the eerie, silent hills.
The ground up there was entirely comprised of shiny obsidian, black volcanic glass that glistened forebodingly in the afternoon light. It seemed the fabric of some other dimension, a dream world through which I wandered, dazed and alone. Eventually, the path led to a giant expanse of hardened snow, grey with a coating of ash. I glissaded down it into the next valley.
Lo and behold, a gargantuan ice cave came into view. Its size and presence overwhelmed all of my expectations; I felt as though I had stumbled into an extraterrestrial landscape from the Star Wars episodes of my youth. All was silent and still. I could see clouds of steam rising from hot springs at the base of the cave. After cautiously descending, I stood for a while by the bubbling water, absorbing the warmth that seeped into the air.
And of course, I explored the smaller ice caves at the base of the giant that loomed overhead.
Realizing the sky was beginning to darken, I turned back towards the hut. Blue light fell over the land, the obsidian ground reflecting brilliant indigo. The silence was deafening; the only signs of life anywhere were my own footprints in the snow. I experienced the bizarre sensation of encountering myself out there, wandering exhausted through the dusk. The time had come to get some rest.
A dense blue fog crept in for the night.