Whether I'm trying my best to not fall off an Icelandic glacier, or standing in an ice-cold stream in Austria, or watching a lioness snack on a zebra on the African plains, or (more often) just sitting at my desk overhearing 16-year-old girl gossip, every day's a holly-day for me.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Day 6-7: No Falling

Days 4 and 5 were all about waterfalls. Day 5 and 6 was all about NOT falling.

On Sunday, we arrived at our campsite at 5:30 or so and unloaded the bus and started setting up tents while Tota made dinner. We had stopped for fresh fish on the way in, and it smelled delicious as she was cooking, which motivated us to get finished quickly. Cathy and I helped each other set up our tents, with a little (ok, a lot) of assistance from Runnar, our driver. It went a little more smoothly than I anticipated, but was still somewhat comical, as this was the first time I’d ever set up a tent on my own that I recall. The kids slept two to a tent but Cathy and I each had our own tent, so we were living large.

We ate (it WAS delicious…amazing what she can do with a propane stove!), did the dishes and then one group went on a hike, one group went with Gianluca to learn time lapse photography and a few of us stayed at camp to edit/download pictures. I finally went to my tent around 10:45. Determined to stay warm for the night, I spent the next 20 minutes putting on layer after layer of clothing. I slithered into in my brand new, rated for 15 degrees REI sleeping bag and put one hand warmer heat pack at my feet and one under my back. I’ve been using my headphones and a “white noise” app to block out noise while I’m falling asleep, and for this night, I chose the sound of a crackling fire to trick my mind into thinking I was warm. Let’s just say…it worked. I fell asleep pretty quickly and within an hour, I was throwing off my sleeping bag cover and stripping off layers as if the fire from my phone app had materialized in my tent.

We got up bright and early on Monday, ate a quick breakfast and rushed to meet with our guides for our glacier climb. I wasn’t really “rushing” anywhere, as I was limping again AND my back was not happy with me about sleeping on the ground. I was a bit skeptical about the glacier climb. On my best day, the likelihood of me hurting myself somewhat is better than average. With a hurt foot, I put my odds at 80%. However, I didn’t want to miss this opportunity, so I hobbled on up for my hiking boot and crampons fitting. We then suited up in harnesses and helmets, and I quickly realized we weren’t just taking a leisurely stroll across the glacier. I was envisioning ice-skating in hiking boots…but that’s not really what it was at all. I felt sure I was going to have to be helicoptered out of the crevasse I knew I was going to fall into.

We loaded up in the van, drove to the edge of the glacier, got a quick safety lesson from our awesome guides, Tom and Sif, and set out. Before we even saw ice, we had to use a rope to walk down the side of a huge rock…don’t get me wrong, we weren’t REPELLING, but it did involve more skill and coordination than I expected from the first 30 seconds of our hike. We made it to the ice and were taught how to put on our crampons and use/hold our ice picks. We then practiced walking up a slope, down a slope and across a slope in our crampons. We tightened our helmet and went forth with Tom’s most genius advice: “avoid the holes, especially the really big ones.”

About five minutes into the hike, we had to walk across a ledge that had a crevasse on either side. It wasn’t particularly narrow, but intimidating enough to a beginner. Tom showed us to use our harness ropes and carabineers to clip on and off the rope. It took about 3-5 minutes for each person to cross and we basically had to go one at a time, so it took a while. I watched several people ahead of me and it seemed pretty straightforward. However, when I was actually doing it myself and looking down to my right at the “really big hole,” it was a little scarier. I just chose not to look down and got to the end without a problem.

A few minutes later, we came to another rope crossing that required more clipping on/clipping off. I was almost across when I came to a spot that had a small (about a foot wide and who knows how deep) crack in the glacier. I was supposed to go right, but I went left. Left was not a good choice. I stepped on melting ice and my leg went right through about two feet into the crack. Luckily, it was just slushy ice and not water, but I still managed to get my left leg wet. Thanks to my very expensive REI waterproof pants, I dried off pretty quickly and the only last effect was a really nice softball sized bruise on my calf the next day.

The rest of the climb was pretty uneventful, meaning no one fell off the glacier, including me. We had packed sandwiches before we left, so we literally sat on the glacier and ate lunch. Tom and Sif talked to us a bit about the formation of the glacier, its history and the rate at which its melting/disappearing. Towards the end of the hike, Erika suggested we each find a spot out on our own, away from everyone else to simply sit in contamplation for a few minutes. All of us found a spot, and we sat perfectly still and silent for 10 minutes to just take it all in. It was a very cool moment and many of the kids said it was the high point of their day. It was definitely the high point of mine. We headed back down the glacier and at the end of the trek, we stopped and filled up our water bottles in a clear stream that was flowing through the ice. It was the clearest, coldest, best tasting water I’ve ever had.

We got back to camp by 4:00 or some of the kids started downloading/editing pictures with Gianluca and Erika, while others headed to the showers. I charged my laptop and camera in the vistors’ center and then went back to camp before dinner. Tota made spaghetti with meat sauce, again delicious. We were also celebrating Cindy’s birthday. We had noticed earlier in the day that a family across the way had brought an accordian and a guitar and the dad seemed to know how to play both pretty well. Peter invited them to dinner and asked him to bring his instruments. The family – Mangus, Annie, Mia and Richard – ate with us and then we sang Happy Birthday, accompanied by the accordian, to Cindy. We then listened to Mangus play several more songs and we visited with them about all kinds of topics. Mangus mentioned that Icelanders are generally very accepting of others and generally follow the “live and let live” theory. Annie asked me why so many Americans were opposed to gay marriage, as she has been seeing a lot about this topic in the news. She also asked me why the South (U.S.) was more conservative than the North. I laughed, and asked her how much time she had! We gave her a pretty basic answer, but when I mentioned the Civil War and the history of the US, she knew exactly what I was talking about, which surprised me and impressed me and actually, embarrassed me. Annie is German and knew more about our history than many Americans do. She also explained that in Germany, people are still very sensitive about anything relating to WWII and talk about it with the utmost “political correctness” (her words). Mangus, who is Icelandic, said the Germans are “way too uptight” (his words) and that Icelanders often come across as “insensitive asses” because of their “get over it” attitude. I talked to them for over an hour. When I travel to foreign countries, I always love talking to locals about topics like these, and I was especially happy that many of the students were there for the conversation as well. While we were talking, several of our students were playing with Mia and Richard, who were both well-behaved and adorable. 

By 9:30, I decided I need to head to the showers. The showers required a pre-paid card that allowed five minutes of water per card. I had two cards and was very much looking forward to a ten-minute hot shower after our day on the glacier. All three showers were full when I got to the building, and several people were waiting in line in front of me. After a 30-40 minute wait, it was finally my turn. I inserted the card, turned on the water and was thrilled to be able to just stand and soak in the hot water. After about two minutes, the water went from hot to warm. At the three minute mark, I was showering in water colder than the glacier water we drank earlier in the day. I turned off the water, one leg shaved, one not and dried off in the freezing cold bathroom with my 2’ by 2’ quick-dry towel. I got back to the tent as quickly as I could, got in my sleeping bag and turned on my fireplace app to convince myself I was warm. I woke up around midnight to the sound of cameras clicking and some oooohing and ahhhhing. I unzipped my tent to this site:

The fog had cleared and we were getting the midnight view of the mountain above the glacier. I took 70-something photos of the exact same thing, jusssst to make sure I was capturing the moment and went back to sleep.

On Tuesday, we got to sleep in…’til 7:30! We had to pack up our tents and our stuff, which turned out to be more of a fiasco than trying to get the tent up. First, I don’t know how I am ever going to get all my stuff packed back in my suitcase to get it home. A friend of the male persuasion helped me pack and I have NO IDEA how he got all my stuff in one bag and got it zipped. I am pretty sure I am going to have to leave my sleeping mat, a coat and a pair of brand new rubber boots here. Once I got my bag semi-packed (but not completely zipped!), I started on the tent take-down. Hilarious! I pretty much got trapped in the collapsed tent for 45 seconds or so trying to swim my way out of a sea of orange canvas. Managed to come out alive and finally get everything on the bus so we could set out for Hofn, population 2000. Before we left, Mia and Richard ran across from their campsite to tell us goodbye again and waved goodbye to the bus as we passed.

On the way to Hofn, we stopped for a zodiac boat tour of the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. It was my second best highlight of the trip so far, behind the glacier climb. We were all given very large, very insulated wet suits that made us look like firemen/astronauts/Icelandid Michelin men, then we rode over in a van to the glacier. As we were waiting to get in our wetsuits and as we drove in the van, hundreds of Arctic terns dive-bombed us and the van. It was a scene straight out of The Birds. The terns nest on the ground and this is nesting season, so we were walking and driving through and around their nests and their chicks. We also learned that the tern migrates further than any other bird species in the world, and over its lifetime, one tern will fly the equivalent of three round trips to the moon.

We split up and piled into two different rubber boats with a motor on the back, and sat on the side, holding on to ropes so we wouldn’t fall into the freezing cold lagoon. Once again, the them was NO FALLING! The lagoon sits at the base of the glacier, which is filled with icebergs and huge floating chunks of the glacier. Our very handsome captain, Astmar (which means “loves the sea”), explained that the lagoon doesn’t freeze because it is a mixture of glacier run-off (fresh water) and sea water, and the salt in the water keeps it from freezing. He also reminded us of a scene from Die Another Day where James Bond and his nemesis drive over the frozen lagoon and blow up a bunch of stuff and die a lot. Before the movie was filmed here, the government agreed to close the damn between the Atlantic and the lagoon so it would freeze over. Astmar drove us all around the lagoon so we could take pictures and stopped to pick up a chunk of an iceberg for the kids to hold. I was amazed at how BLUE parts of the icebergs were…bright turquoise blue swirled into pale blues and white everywhere we looked. We spent about an hour on the lagoon before heading back.

After the lagoon tour, we drove about 1000 yards across the way to the beach. We were literally at the point where the glacier meets the sea and it was fascinating to find ICEBERGS on the BEACH! We were standing on a black sand beach in June, looking at the Atlantic with huge chunks of ice on the beach and in the shoreline. The ice chunks break free from the lagoon and float into the sea and parts of them wash ashore. We took pictures on the beach for an hour or so and then had lunch near the bus before going on to Hofn.

Along the way, we saw reindeer on the side of the road and Runnar stopped so we could take some pictures.

We arrived to Hofn around 5:30 and got settled into our hostile, which is very nice. There’s a large community kitchen and dining area, basic rooms with bunk beds or two single beds and several private bathrooms in the hall. We walked to dinner, where I had a reindeer burger (really good!), then walked back home for editing/downloading time and our nightly meeting. I took my first hot shower in four days, so I was happy and warm going to sleep. NOT too happy about setting a 6:30 am alarm, but excited to see Hofn, lobster capital of Iceland! 

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