Towards the end of September, when plane tickets, general living, and fun outings were starting to eat into my summer savings, I adopted a policy of “say yes!” whenever a work opportunity came my way. This wasn’t a bad policy, wallet-wise, and so I decided, when considering all of the new things that were on my horizon, that I would try to stick with this ethos when unusual life opportunities came my way.
Which is how, dear readers, Mark and I ended up standing on a glacier this weekend, in the rain, preparing ourselves to climb a vertical ice wall. Segðu já! (Full photos here.)
I got an email from my editor at the end of last week which said, basically, “The Grapevine is going ice climbing–send your shoe size!” Very few details were known about what this work outing would entail, but we were being affirmative, so I dutifully sent along my shoe size and Mark’s (as an active contributor, he was able to come, too, which was very nice.)
As the time of the outing got closer, it was determined that we’d need warm clothes (that seemed like a no-brainer), rain gear, and our swimsuits (for a post-climb trip to the pool, naturally). Word was going around that a former contributor who was sent on this kind of adventure described it as being really hard on the arms, which made me begin dreaming up horrific gym school scenarios in which I’m hanging at the bottom of a rope while an angry woman with a whistle yells at me to “Climb! Climb Already! Climb!” But never mind all that—according to the Icelandic Mountain Guides website, ice climbing on Sólheimajökull rates as “easy,” or a 2 on a scale to 5.
The plan was to meet at Grapevine HQ on Friday morning, and to leave at 9:00 AM. (This departure time later got pushed back to 9:30, and the last year in Iceland should have really led me to anticipate this. But although I am chronically behind schedule, I do hate being the one person on a group outing who holds everyone up, so we made an effort to get there at 8:45ish, the better to let the other non-Icelanders up to the office for a cup of coffee while we waited.)
It was about a 2.5 hour trip out to the glacier, not counting a stop at the Bónus in Selfoss to buy all the usual fixings for a post-glacier walk lunch: pre-made sandwiches, Kókó mjólk, Pepsi, kókosbollur, Cool American Doritos, and chocolate covered biscuits. (What else would you want after glacier hiking, I ask you, than chocolate milk?) We were running behind, but still made pretty good time out there. Then the very nice guides who were waiting to meet us, fit us all out with big, heavy plastic-covered boots (like ski boots or roller blades, minus the wheels, of course), crampons (metal foot-claws which fit over the bottom of the boots), ice axes, and helmets. There was even extra rain gear and gloves for people who don’t have these (we did) because these hiking guys are like the boy scouts, times fifty.
We fortified ourselves with chocolate biscuits and fit our helmets over our knitted hats, just as it began to rain in earnest. The sky was getting grayer, but that glacier wasn’t going to climb itself, so off we went. The walk from the parking area to Sólheimajökull, we’re told by our guides, has gotten longer over the years.
Break for Fun Facts we learned on our (five minute) walk to the base of the glacier:
- What differentiates a glacier from a snow-covered, ice-mountain is that a glacier moves
- Sólheimajökull is the fastest moving glacier in Iceland, but it is also melting the most quickly. So even though it keeps moving south at a rather quick pace, it is actually receding. Only 13 years ago, the glacier was basically in the parking lot. Now the guides say, “we just have to keep going further in.” (I don’t know how far it has actually receded, which makes this a less impressive anecdote, but trust me—it has moved a whole lot in a very short time.)
- Sólheimajökull is an extremely high-traffic glacier. There are people hiking it, ice climbing on it, probably riding ski mobiles somewhere…basically, if you show up on the glacier on any given day, you’ll find whole packs of people just hanging out.
We got to the base of the glacier and stopped to put our crampons on and learn how to walk properly in them, the better to not trip or stab our femoral arteries or such like. It basically comes down to walking like John Wayne on ice, which is, I might add, a bit hard to get used to. We were also instructed on how to hold our ice axes (by the head), and told to walk in a straight line, one behind the other, so as to not slip and fall into the various drain holes that are all over the surface of the glacier.
Because the glacier melts so quickly, its surface changes dramatically over very short periods of time. So each new outing, we’re told, is a bit different from the last, and the guides have to explore around a bit to find a really good spot for climbing. We trudged up the glacier looking for a good spot, and man, let me just say, that being a not-fast walker under normal circumstances, I am a really slow walker when you then plop me on a glacier in heavy boots and foot claws and direct me upwards. Sadly, I am always a back-of-the-pack hiker, I think, and while I didn’t fall too very far behind everyone, I was definitely bringing up the rear. Which was a trifle nerve-wracking, given that this walk was just preamble to the actual ice climbing.
After about 20 minutes of walking (maybe more, maybe less—I’m not totally sure), the guides scouted out a good spot for us to climb. In order to prepare it, one had to scale to the top of the wall to set up the ropes, and the other had to go carve out a trail for us down to the bottom of the wall. They apologized for how long this took, but really, it was only a matter of 10 minutes or so. Then we were all led down to the bottom of the wall (one of the guides helped each of us down one by one) and were given a quick lesson in ice climbing.
“One of the big misconceptions about this is that you have to be able to do 40 pull-ups in order to do it,” said one guide. “In reality, it was actually harder to walk out here to this spot than it will be to go up the wall.” (Huge sigh of relief from me.) He then showed us how to pick our crampons into the ice in such a way that, leaning back on our heels, we should be able to stand there, on the side of the wall, without even using the two big hooks that we were also given. It was all about balance, they said, not arm strength. And if we slipped or lost our grip, the rope that we were attached to—secured both at the top of the wall and by one of the guides below—would hold us quite safely. The most difficult bit would be coming back down the wall. In order to do this, you had to plant your feet flat on the wall, lean back with your arms away from your sides, and walk backwards down the wall. Scary, but seemed feasible enough.
So, one by one, my colleagues begin scaling the wall. At first, there is only one rope set up, and then the guides get two going. Some people shimmy up quite quickly, some people struggle a bit, but eventually make it to the top. The sun comes out, the sun goes away. It starts raining, it stops raining. People slip and start over again, but everyone is making it to the top, one way or another.
I won’t leave you in suspense here: I didn’t make it, guys. I made it about three feet off the ground. Mark did his utmost to take pictures of me in which I looked like I was Master and Commander of That Glacier Wall, but honestly, I’ve seen poodles leap higher than I climbed.
My Ice Fail was, as far as I can tell, a simple matter of incorrect technique. I couldn’t get a very good grip on the wall with my feet and kept sitting back so that all my weight was on my shrimpy little arms. So I’m exhausting myself and I’m only like, a foot off the ground. Also, I kept worrying that when I tried to pull the ice hooks out of the wall, I was going to yank one directly back into my face, which—being steel—would have done a fair bit of damage. So I gave it a first try, the guy brought me back down, and reexplained. I gave it a second try with similarly bad results. I could even tell what I was doing wrong, so I gave it a third try. Did a little better by this point, but I had like, a million miles left to go up that wall, and my arms felt like they were vibrating and 50 pounds each, and probably going to come out of the sockets (they weren’t, but still). So, I decided, I was just going to come back down and that would be it.
The guide was very nice, even though I actually fell backwards instead of repelling down like I was supposed to, and probably massively strained his back. He suggested that I try the other line and go up the wall a different way, that maybe “that one would feel more like home.” And I didn’t want to be the only person in the group who didn’t make it to the top—really. I wanted to be awesome and epic and sporty, and draw on some inner reserve of will-power and physical strength and get to the top of that ice wall.
But at the end of the day, I just really didn’t want to get to the top of that ice wall that badly. I wanted to not be embarrassed, but apparently, that is not actually enough of a motivator for me. (Not that anyone was giving me a hard time, I should add.) It was a little mope-inducing to sit at the bottom of the wall and imagine myself as being that one character in the space/horror/zombie movie who kicks the bucket because they can’t run fast enough or climb high enough, despite the encouragement and general help of all their fellow apocalypse survivors. In the movie version of this trip, I am the redshirt, swallowed by the tidal wave or buried in the landslide or devoured by vindictive wolves.
Luckily, Mark made it up the wall with great dexterity and skill (he would tell you otherwise, perhaps, but from where I was, he did great), and I was able to be vicariously awesome. And I got to spend a day on a glacier, with very nice people, watching them also be awesome. And then I got to eat my weight in Doritos and go to a new pool (the Selfoss pool is quite nice), and have tasty pizza, and beer, and enjoy good non-work related conversation with the people I will be spending a lot of time with in the next months.
So all in all, it was a very worthwhile day.