To Hell and Back

Hiking Hekla Volcano, Iceland June 2015

“Shit” I exclaimed, shivering in the whipping wind. I was on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t let him see me cry. “I guess we are in for a long night.”

It was at that point that I realized I might have been in over my head. Unprepared. Naive.  An over inflated ego. What ever you call it, I was feeling it as we both came to the same conclusion.

We had been hiking for over five hours now on Hekla, one of Iceland’s still active volcanoes, once thought to be the gateway to hell. Two days before the hike I had decided to hike Hekla by myself. After traveling in Iceland for 11 days with a friend, my last two days I was alone. This was the perfect time to try something new, adventurous, a bit crazy. I wanted to push myself and prove I could do it. Year of no fear, right?

The day before, without an exact location for the trail head, I decided to go and search out the volcano. From the main road it was a visible giant looming over life below. I thought I’d keep it in my sights while driving, and eventually with enough searching on dirt and gravel roads I’d find a sign that might point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, time and fuel passed by as I continued perseverating about hiking Hekla. By 3am I was still without a destination and running on fumes. About to give up and head back towards Reykjavik, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sign that said The Hekla Center. I quickly swerved into the driveway and realized it was an information center. An immediate feeling of relief came over me as I realized I could sleep in the car for the night and ask for directions to the trail head in the morning. I took one last look at Hekla’s summit as I curled up, exhausted, in back seat of the car.

The next morning, I inquired at the front desk at the information center as to the location of the trail head.

“Are you all by yourself?” the hostess questioned cautiously. “Will you be hiking by yourself?” again questioning with a nervous gaze.

“YEP!” I said with an overwhelming amount of confidence.

“Do you have the Iceland Emergency App?” she replied. I could tell she was trying to balance the fine line of being helpful while not deflating my enthusiasm.

This was not the first time someone had suggested this app. The day prior I was telling a gas station attendant my plans and he had asked the same question. I figured if the universe was telling me twice, then it was something to pay attention to. I asked about the app and she helped me download it to my phone.

“There have been a lot of people who go out on a hike and end up needing an emergency evacuation. Tourists keep emergency personnel busy this time of year,” she mentioned with a scornful grin.  Her words immediately reminded me of my mother, who told me not to die on my 21st birthday. I didn’t die but I was damn near close after getting my stomach pumped. She was putting negative thoughts out into the universe, and I didn’t want it to come back to haunt me. I thanked her for the app, got information about the trail head and headed to the car. Before I could leave the building a colorful poster caught my eye.

Copyright of this image belongs to Icelandic Civil Authorities (Almannavarnir).

Keeping the advice and warnings in mind, I made my way to the trail head. After turning off the main road, driving the single lane, winding and rugged dirt road through the ominously barren landscape was almost enough to make me turn around. Year of no fear, year of no fear, I kept thinking to myself. Finally, after a half hour of driving while debating if I should continue, I reached the starting point. Luckily, I wasn’t alone.

 

I pulled up to find one other brave soul parked next to the trail. We caught each others gaze for a split second, nodded and proceeded with our preparations. After peering at his gear, goggles, gloves, backpack, hiking boots, I felt a bit unprepared and nervous. I started to second guess my decision for wearing my Nikes and wool socks. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this?

When he started to hike, I decided to get rolling and stay near him. If anything happened, he would be close in proximity to help if needed. Upon further inspection the whole trail seemed to be covered in snow. I was regretting my decision to not buy hiking boots, but that thought wasn’t going to help me now.  I trudged on.

The trail itself was narrow, steep, and slippery, iced-over from the repeated thawing and refreezing. My Nikes weren’t cutting it, I was slipping and having to catch myself every other step. My goal was to keep the other hiker in my vision, he was my carrot, my motivation. If he could do it, so could I. Hiking boots be damned.

There came a point when the trail plateaued, and the hiker stopped to catch a drink. I hurried my pace to catch up with him and I did. We introduced ourselves briefly and went on our way again. At first it seemed as if he had no interest in hiking together as he hurried along ahead of me. But to my surprise he turned to me and asked if I would mind trekking together. I was relieved, but kept it hidden and responded with a simple, “Sure.”

His name was Peter, a forestry service worker in Germany, located in small town outside of Berlin. He told me of the occupational hazards and moving up through the ranks. Once he almost cut off his foot with a chainsaw, but all he could think about was how expensive his boots were to replace. He has since become a driver, a far less dangerous position. Peter was also traveling around Iceland on his 4×4 vehicle. He had it shipped over from Germany for the trip so that he could get through all of the F roads (interior, gravel roads that are usually impassable by regular cars especially in the Winter and early Spring). We bonded over our adventures and love of the outdoors. He told me of his adventures in Norway and the Swiss Alps, and I shared with him my solo backpacking hike with my dog along the AT in Shenandoah. We also talked about the possible eruption, and the 30-80 minutes window to get off the mountain. We joked that if we experienced seismic activity, we’d be rolling down the mountain to escape.

 

As we got closer to the top, our conversation was interjected with breaks to catch our breath, drink some water, take in the view and scout out the best route. By this time the trail was covered under feet of snow and we were improvising our way to the top. We were now looking out for signs of loose snow, hidden fissure and unstable footing. In order to get any kind of footing, we were both digging our shoes into the snow and using all four of our extremities to get to the next spot.

After about an hour of digging and climbing, we reached the summit! It was exhilarating to catch a peek at the surrounding landscape through the fog, knowing what it took to get here. Peter knelt down to touch the ground. It was warm. We took some summit selfies and bragged about how fast we got to the top. It only took us about 2 hours to reach the summit when the guidebooks said it would take about 3-4. The hard part was over. Or so we thought.

Orienting ourselves on Peter’s map proved more difficult to do. The fog was pretty thick, and it was hard to identify the surrounding features below us. He had a GPS, but it wasn’t working. We looked around for our tracks leading back down the mountain. A snow covered trail meant we had to rely on keeping our original footprints in sight to get back to the cars. We decided on the direction and picked points on the slope as our guide. Quickly, I realized this was going to be the most challenging part of the trek.

Even though we could see footprints, we were second guessing if they were ours. At one point, Peter and I were torn on whether to head the left around some crags or stay right down the slope. I had this gut feeling to stay left, but I trusted his judgement so we went right. About an hour on this path and we realized right wasn’t right at all. We took out his map, tried to orient ourselves again, picked a point to the left and trudged on. A half hour later we came to red markers and we followed them down the mountain. I was comforted to be back on a marked trail. But Peter wasn’t convinced this was the way back to the cars. He convinced me that it was a trail to the main road and that we should head to the right, up over some hills and we would catch the trail to the cars there. Against my better judgement, I followed.

In the distance, we could see a trail marker, a long white stick protruding out of the snow. Despite being exhausted and cold, this marker gave me added energy knowing that once we reached that marker it was an easy path down. By this time, Peter and I were silent. I was trying to calm my breathing and keep my thoughts positive. We stopped about 100 yards from the supposed “trail marker” only to find that the reflection and shadows at a far enough distance deceived us. I started to think about that lady at the information center and the Iceland emergency app. Goddamn foreshadowing or law of attraction, which ever it was didn’t matter and wasn’t going to help me now. I debated whether to send out an emergency signal with the app. My stubbornness prevented me. I didn’t want to become one of “those tourists” the woman had talked about with disdain. That was going to be my last resort.

Now, the sky was indistinct due to the heavy fog setting in and the wind was picking up. A light rain started to fall and panic set in. The wind penetrated my layers and my toes were starting to go numb. Peter took out the map one last time in hopes of orienting ourselves with some possibility of recovering the trail. After about fives minutes of deliberation, he suggested we start hiking towards the main road. It was the safest bet, instead of wasting more energy to find the trail. We could see the main road far off in the distance. At this point I knew that this day hike was going to turn into an overnight “adventure.”

“Shit” I exclaimed, shivering in the whipping wind. I was on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t let him see me cry. “I guess we are in for a long night.” It was at that point that I realized I might have been in over my head. Unprepared. Naive.  An over inflated ego. What ever you call it, I was feeling it as we both came to the same conclusion. We had been hiking for over fives hours now. I was mentally and physically exhausted but I knew I had to prepare myself and accept my fate for the evening.

We lumbered on silently. In my head I let out a little prayer to get us back safely and efficiently. We had now been hiking Hekla for six hours. As we stumbled up over a little hill, I saw the red trail markers. We agreed to follow it down, as we had originally thought it would lead us to the main road. Now the road was our new destination. We walked down around the hill and to our amazement we could see a car. My heart fluttered a bit. The car didn’t belong to either of us, but it gave us hope. We pushed further around another hill and there in front of us were our cars.

I jumped for joy while letting out a sigh of relief. We were both so excited that we hugged each other. It didn’t matter how cramped, or achy or cold my body was, I could see the end of this hike in sight and I was oh so relieved to see it. Peter and I looked like little kids skipping down the mountain. A few times we almost rolled down as we forgot, nor didn’t care about the icy trail. Within 30 minutes of finding the red trail markers we were back at the car. In total, we were on Hekla for 6.5 hours.

Peter and I said our goodbyes and wished each other safe travels. I was extremely glad I found him on the trail, as I could have experienced the possibility of being lost and alone on the volcano. I had planned this hike with the expectation of adventure for my last day in Iceland. Man, did I get it and more.

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