Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Last Day


Dateline: July, 2013. Location: Somewhere in North-East Iceland.

I really should write this down before the memories are changed, as they soon will be, and already begin to be, by the curious prism of time.

The last day began with a serious talking-to by our guides. We had a plane to catch later in the day, and there’d be no lingering please. The first part of the last day took us out of our cosy hut and along the beach of the fjord at 7 a.m.; then up grassy and mossy banks, steep but with a rough sheep-track to follow. Innumerable small streams, easy to step over or through, sliced up the hillside on their descent to become ribbon-like waterfalls. We’d seen the falls from the opposite side of the fjord on the previous day.

At the shore at 7 AM
Moss, grass and water spread out into high meadows as we completed the first few hundred metres of the ascent. We had over 500 metres ASL to go today, then down from the high pass to the waiting bus, the airport, and the end of six days of hiking in north-eastern Iceland. 

Crossing the meadows was calm, picturesque, easy, punctuated only by yet more streams to cross and decisions about how slippery the rocks looked, how deep the water. But after the numberless small brooks, and a few wider rivers, of the past few days, the decisions came automatically now. Iceland seemed an unconscionably wet place. There was a summer thaw - the snows were late melting this year. We squished along. A memorable mis-step led to knee-deep mud and the almost-loss of one boot. The next stream washed off the mud, though the wet socks remained. 

Late snow could have some benefits, though dubious. A wide stream was encountered. On the one hand, we were prepared to wade. On the other hand, the stream was rushing past full of snow-melt, and would have been difficult and dangerous to ford. But there was a snow bridge still intact across the stream, about one metre thick - was it solid? This was tested by a guide bravely venturing across while someone watched from the side to see if cracks formed. A crude procedure, you’d think - what if they had formed, with the guide on the other side? Or worse, in mid-crossing? Still, one by one all 24 of us crossed the snow bridge.

Plenty of stream crossings
Close to the high point of the pass, I was at the tail end of our straggly group of 22 trekkers and two guides. I waved on the others and paused behind a cairn of grey volcanic rocks to, as they say, ‘use the facilities’. Before catching up with the group I took a moment or two to gaze around me - 360 degrees of pristine mountain wilderness, dramatic, empty except for a bird or two on the wing. Not even any of the ubiquitous Icelandic sheep up here. The black-sided mountains were patched with wide swathes of snow. Quite a lot of snow. The sky was a clear blue with prettily scudding clouds, the weather benign, the day and the place quite beautiful.

Crossing a snow bridge.
A moment of meditation, a surge of gratitude at finding myself in this time and place; then I was prodded on by thoughts of the plane, and the ignominy of being ‘last again’.

A few more rocky inclines, a few more small patches of snow to cross, and there was the group ahead, chilling out with lunch sandwiches and a dramatic view dropping across a magnificent fjord and mountain range. The high point had been reached in good time. There was space to munch, to contemplate, to chat, to lie in the sun (if you had no objection to lying on rocks). But betimes we were heaving on our daypacks and heading...downwards.

Snow crossing.
Our guide led us across quite a wide patch of snow that covered the faint trail. Unaccustomed to snow, despite crossing quite a few small patches in the last few days, I moved gingerly, placing each boot carefully in the footprints of bolder souls, like the boy following Good King Wenceslas. 

Safely across that one, I thought. Then another stream. Wider. Safely across that one. More snow, a bigger field of it, on a steeper slope. Eventually, safely across that, gratefully clutching guide Guđjon’s arm. What else was this wet, black and white landscape going to ask of me? Soon we stood at the top of a huge, steep slope of snow, washing spectacularly down and across a magnificent cirque of mountains, like a scooped-out watermelon or an emptied bowl of ice cream. The angle of the slope was, to my inexperienced eyes, seriously perilous. Others - those from snowy countries or with a passion for skiing - were fortunately less daunted. Several, led by the guide, forged a zig-zag trail through the white obstacle, traversing the slope to lessen the angle of descent. 

The steep descent.
I looked down at this and made an effort to conquer fear - rather a lot of insistent fear - with logic and reason. Others had done it. In fact a few seemed to be enjoying it. That was one point. Secondly, there was no other option. It had to be done. However, reason is all very well but it cannot alone confer a sense of balance and surefooted-ness. Possibly I’d still be standing on that mountainside reasoning away madly, if it hadn’t been for the kindness of friends - in this case, specifically, Vera, a veteran skier. 

Stepping carefully in Vera’s footsteps, and clutching rather pathetically to her backpack, I descended, the left foot placed about 60 cm lower than the right, on account of the slope. That, it seemed, was the recommended technique, explained carefully, calmly and cheerfully by Linda, following behind and helping another person from a snow-free country. It was a case of the north helping the south. In a feeble effort to keep up the pretense that all was jolly, I offered to give tips on swimming in the shark-infested waters of Sydney Harbour, should the northerners ever need help in that regard. No-one really laughed.

Eventually we reached the base of this daunting slope and took refuge on a patch of rocky mountainside exposed in the snowfield. Some of our group had wandered off like snow-hobbits into the cirque. They re-grouped on the rocky patch. We watched other snow-virgins being led gingerly down the awful slope by friends and the two guides, who by now were working very hard. They were having a busy day at the office. The two of them ran up and down the slope (how do they do that?) several times to escort the unconfident.

Then the guides began circling around us and peering rather anxiously below. It soon became clear that we were seriously off-piste. The unusual quantity of July snow had obliterated the trail.

Following the guides, the unwieldy group inched its way further down the mountain, picking out a do-able route. In time we found ourselves deposited on another rocky patch close to a wide river which was rushing in a ridiculously head-strong cascade down the mountain. At this pace, the river could have powered a small hydro-electric plant. The energy was loud, fierce, beautiful and edgy. However, it was also a trek-stopper. We needed to be on the other side of that stream.

Below us was another snow bridge but it looked unstable. Even if it held, the opposite bank was covered in deep snow, showing cracks in its surface. Unstable too - and of course no sign of the putative path. I sat on a low rock and decided that I would wait to see what was going to be required of me, and then ask for help to do it. Progress without help seemed unlikely. This was a plan of sorts, and I held that thought.

The guides herded us together like toddlers and asked us to ‘stay’. Their anxiety - surely they were anxious? - was apparent only in the speed with which they darted this way and that, racing up to this rocky crag, or down to that viewpoint, looking for the most feasible exit route off this beautiful if damned mountainside. They had some strong trekkers in the group, but they also had me. At one point I saw Maria many metres below, perched and surveying from a place she had reached in just a few minutes. It would take us an hour to get down there.

Considering the way ahead.
And so we inched forward again, along the most likely route, which proved to be an alarmingly steep slope treacherous with slimy mud and slippery moss. There were as always trickles, brooks and rocky stream beds to navigate across every few metres; and very little foliage against which to steady one’s steps. The stronger were helping the weaker all across that slope. It was like a war zone evacuation - the Kokoda track with snow. 

Shortly, Maria appeared at my side, pausing to ask how I was doing. ‘I don’t feel very confident on this ground,’ I said, which she and I both knew really meant ‘I’m scared out of my fucking wits. Please help me.’ She did. Holding her arm I inched across the slope. Where it cruelly fell into yet another rocky streamlet, I slipped. Maria jabbed her shortened trekking poles into the ground and my right thigh thudded into this barrier - balance, such as it was, lost, but at least there was no roll down the muddy slope to oblivion. In lieu of struggling up, and all dignity long since abandoned, I slid across the stream on my butt.

Still the muddy slope went on. The strong continued their stalwart efforts to assist those who needed assistance. In rough tussocky ground I followed a small group behind Charles, who was picking out a trail and making decisions about the safest and most possible route, pointing out obstacles. The slope here was pocked with loose rocks and holes where you could step knee-deep or maybe break an ankle.

Across the slimy mud-face Alex walked below me, holding my right arm and shielding the hideous vision of oblivion below. Clearly looking down was to be avoided, and I did. He hung on with me all the way down to the stream, not only providing physical support but also verbal encouragement. Though I didn’t wholly buy his assertion that all I lacked was confidence (a sense of balance would have helped too), it was soothing to pretend for a time. 

At the stream, still rushing un-fordably headlong, we found another snow bridge. Our guide Guđjon was jumping on it to test its strength. The thought of what the scene might resemble should the bridge prove too weak for this treatment was far too nightmarish to occupy more than a fleeting mental vision. One by one we all walked daintily across the snow bridge. I scrambled up a small tussocky slope on the other side, and there at last was the elusive path. ‘I need a short rest,’ I said to Alex, understating the matter considerably. ‘With or without chardonnay?’ he enquired.

The path regained, a moment to re-group
With the path regained, things looked brighter. Only an hour’s hike across meadows and foothills to go. Except for John, who now struggled up the slope to meet us, supported by Guđjon and Maria, and limping severely. A twisted ankle, we thought. It later turned out to be broken - that slope had claimed a victim, as it always seemed to intend. Half-a-dozen of our best and strongest stayed to help him limp painfully along the remaining trail - there were no other options -  while the rest of us moved out as quickly as we could. Mostly it was a narrow sheep path between tussocky grass, and I’ve never been so glad to see such an unprepossessing trail.

The bus looked rather prosaic when finally espied in the distance. Apart from unlucky John, we all got by, with a little help from our friends. But I hope Guđjon and Maria enjoy adrenalin rushes because they worked hard that day. Back from the wilds, off-piste and snow-bound, but they never lost a man. Or woman. 

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