Saturday, July 27, 2013

Trekking in Iceland

What's it all about?
Notes from the trail diary, North-east Iceland, July 2013

Day One

There's a remark attributed to Voltaire that it is more likely that we have multiple lives than that there is merely one. This is appealing for several trite reasons (who wants to disappear forever?) and for somewhat more profound reasons (just what is the epistemological "I" anyway?) In any event, I have always thought that in the next life, should it eventuate, that I'd like to be beautiful. And have a singing voice, and be able to ski, and suchlike things that are beyond the bounds of possibility in this present life.

But following this thought along, if we live multiple lives, why do we not have memories of those previous lives? For example, we could surely learn from earlier (if that's the right term; perhaps the effect is circular rather than linear) mistakes and successes.

It's when I come up close to tall mountains that I wonder whether I do have at least a lingering impression from a former life. I was born and raised on the oldest continent on earth, where the landscape is flat, worn to a concave dip in the centre. My home village was at the seaside, the 'mountains' - nostalgically named, perhaps - mere hillocks. Nevertheless, upon first seeing real mountains (the Swiss Alps, as it happened) my reaction was certainly awe, some overwhelm, and a tinge of 'rightness'; feelings of affinity not expected from inanimate rock. Some of this is explained by the visual beauty of such mountains. But as I now gaze at the snowy peaks of north-east Iceland, the sense of a home-coming is strangely uppermost.

You'll recall that I'm a non-skier. Nor am I a mountain-climber. But perhaps in another life?

Somewhere in north-east Iceland.
Day Two

When you're amongst the last in a group that's hiking together, you eventually catch up with the faster people, who will wait for you now and then, chilling out and resting beside the trail. Just as you join them, they'll greet you cheerfully then don their packs and move on, leaving you to either fall behind again, or trudge on unrested. You can never get ahead, or even up to speed. Recently someone used this as an illustration of why affirmative action is necessary, and I found it apt.

The hiking crocodile.
I have a love/hate relationship with hiking; or rather, less dramatically, a like/dislike relationship. At its best hiking gives me joy, is soothing, uplifting, calming, producing a sense of achievement and - cliché, but true - communion with Nature. At its worst, it's a long slog of pain and discomfort, generating irritation if not outright distress.

Talking a hike that's too strenuous for me is obviously a mistake. But how to tell, for sure? Sometimes 15 kms goes well, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes my feet perform, sometimes they object. I've learnt that hitting my own pace is vital - get over that competitive urge to keep up, and that childish wish not to appear weak and wimpish. Take rests when I need to. Actually, some of my most sublime moments in the wilderness have been spent on a quiet rock, utterly alone - at least for a time.

Today Iceland rewarded with some wonderful views. A rather plain drag up a hill led eventually, after many enthusiasm-sapping false summits, to a spectacular pass overlooking an exquisite valley, green and lush. Waterfalls, rivers, patches of snow, framed by grey peaks. Even the trek down, rather long, was enlivened by the scenery.

Yep, you're in Iceland. Check.
Views to enjoy.
Day Three

Finding the sweet spot in a group of 22 trekkers is hit and miss. There was one moment, a precious few minutes, when I could see no-one behind me or ahead. I came to a junction - did they go ahead, or left? The little, trivial really, frisson engendered by the possibility of making a mistake was oddly enjoyable. Of course there was no danger at all, but one could pretend.

Walking in a crocodile is not ideal. One has to pace along with the crowd, Sometimes their pace matches yours and you get in the flow, in the slipstream, and all is well. At other times your companions become loquacious and your "trekking thoughts" are interrupted with small talk. On still other times you want nothing more than to share your irrelevant thoughts with anyone who will listen. As I said, hit and miss.

The ideal is to be somewhere in between groups, alone (or perhaps with a companion on your wave length), with sufficient distance between you and the rest of the trekkers that it is as if you have the mountain or the valley to yourself. Walking last can achieve this too, but usually a guide feels it professionally incumbent upon them to act as sweep, destroying your solitude. If this all sounds stand-offish, it is. Crowds are for cities; solitude is for hiking.

Enjoying the solitude.

Reaching the hut: home for the night.
Day Four

Today I hiked through dramatic high peaks patched with snow, decorated with small lakes and waterfalls, with blue sky and fluffy clouds as a backdrop. I acknowledged their beauty, but I didn't respond to it. Where was the joy? Swamped by a bad case of irritation, that's where. How can this be? Why? I could list half-a-dozen incidents or circumstances (sore feet would rate a mention), but even to me, writing just a few hours hence, these so-called 'reasons' appear trivial and petty. They are.

My perspective changed as soon as I pulled off my boots and let my tired and aching feet rest. It seems that sore feet are a dreaded curse that can affect one's sense of proportion, not to mention mood. Now I feel regret for getting into a childish snit - regret for behaving badly amongst my companions, and for allowing irritation to somehow eclipse what should have been the joy.

In the hut, one friend assured me that I didn't need to apologise for anything; and another laughed at the memory of a similar snit to which I'd succumbed in the past, making a joke of it. So then I remembered why I'd come on this trek. The mountains are beautiful, but the company of good friends is very special.
Getting by with a little help from our friends.
There when you need them.
Iceland. Ahhh....!

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