Textured, Snow-Blind Iridescence: Day Two on the Laugavegur Trail

The first texture of the morning was the dust and water stained window out my top bunk. It had evidently rained that night, yet the mountains behind the glass showed no signs of being washed away. Here I was in Hrafntinnusker, the first mountain hut in our 6 day trek through Laugavegurinn, Iceland’s most famous trekking trail. I felt the muscles in my legs begging to be stretched, I lifted my hands high above me in the bunk and let out a huge yawn. I stared out the mountains and breathed then back in. I came to think that I couldn’t remember a time I slept more deeply. I think it had to do with the lingering clear air overhead, the giant natural phenomenon watching over me as I slept. One stretch led to another, and then the person off to a lower left bunk began to stretch. This created a chain reaction of yawns and stretches, a Jacob’s Ladder effect of people waking up in the morning. Judit on the bunk to my left slept soundly amid the rustling waterproof pants and coats being put on. Shoes were being laced, people chattering among themselves, people asking what in the world we would have for breakfast. I noticed that I had fallen asleep with my iPod by my side, it was lying down, nearly dead, as I remembered I had drifted away to the sound of Ólafur Arnalds through the speakers. I asked myself how my life could be so beautiful. I was ready for it to get even better.

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Our guide Svavar mentioned to the group that we couldn’t leave the huts until we had pronounced the name of the hut correctly, “Hrafntinnusker.” All eyes looked at me and I was instantly excluded by Svavar from partaking in this personally easy task. Rounds of “hraPtinnaskare,” “hraFtinnuskeer” trailed around, showcasing the daunting difficulty of the Icelandic pronunciation. I prided myself on my ability to see that the “fn” in hrafn was said more like a p with a nasal stop and a quick breath out the nose. (hear it here). I was getting good at this stuff.

And so our journey began once more. Clothes were packed back up, teeth were brushed (with much hesitation, as the toilets were not flushable and it smelled pretty horrible in the bathrooms. So much for mountainside resort luxury). We stopped at the map to see what our hike would be like today: the shallow ups and downs across crevasses in the earth, small valleys, a steep descent at the end, and then the beautiful lake Álftavatn (literally “swan water”) that was the location of our next hut. 12 more kilometers, alright, we could do this.

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We began across the valley, following the small thin line of a pair of bike tires as they streamed across the terrain. Mountains lifted their heads high above us, constantly watching us, making sure we were in our places, but never interfering. Mountains seem like the hiking deist’s dream: they create the landscape but play no part in directly dictating our lives after such the occurrence. But despite this, we let them impact us, we want them to, all but need them to, then need them to. And each and everyone one of us was looking afar in awe at the extremity of beauty surrounding us.

DSC_1226My favorite part about walking into each valley dip was the snow at the bottom. Often the valley was carved out with ice that covered some sort of stream. Once the stream caught enough momentum, it began to eat away at the ice, leaving these beautiful shelves of snow where the water couldn’t reach. The shelves hang there against the side of the valley for dear life, they look like solid clouds hovering over the hillside. I found this extreme urge to walk on all of them, but surely they would have crumbled out from underneath themselves, from underneath myself. The goal here was to tread lightly, impact as little and only let nature impact us in the way it wished to. There is this feeling one might get about which aspects of nature to impact. Some mountains look untouchable, preserved so peacefully and roughly that one intuitively wishes not to disrupt them. Others seem inviting, practically begging to be lain against. I picked my steps carefully, consciously. Yet even when unconsciously, my body still knew where to step. Some might interpret this as distinguishing danger from the less dangerous, but it happened that some of the least dangerous paths were the ones that I would have preserved, risking more of my life for the harsher terrain. It was just a matter of connecting with the mountain, understanding it, knowing the soft fragility of the earth’s skin.

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Our guide directed us away from the main trail and right to the foot of a lovely mountain glacier, Háskerðingur. If anyone thought the trail was tough up to this point, they quickly had to change their thinking. Rising up above us was a beautiful 1281 m peak of pure snow and sharp, cluttered rock, so called the summit with the most beautiful view in the area by our guide Svavar. The trip was voluntary, some decided to stay at the hot springs and vents at the foot of the glacier to explore the ice caves, while others set forth to conquer the snow-blind peak.

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And so we set off in a line, Svavar kicking his toes into the snow to create steps. Snow is more difficult to walk on than it looks. If your feet cant dig into the snow, you’re sent slip sliding on your ass across the surface. Luckily, it is quite easy to stop on snow: all you have to do is sit down. The most difficult part is the attempt to walk diagonally across it, where you aren’t quite walking straight up the peak but you aren’t walking down either. You have to lace each foot around in a straight line and hope the sides of your feet can hang on to the ice. It’s mentally daunting, looking below you at ice crevasses and rock with the false notion that you’ll slide right down the glassy surface.

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DSC_1255 copyOnce we reached near to the top, the snow was no longer. Instead we were walking on shards of rock, shattered and broken all over the surface of the mountain. When you stepped in between them, stones hit each other and rang out like a pile of interacting shattered plates. In fact, the field of rock felt like one big pile of shattered china, as if someone had gotten so mad as to throw her dishes across the kitchen floor. They mountain had gone through turmoil here, being broken and rolled over and broken some more. I like to think it was happy we were here to try and rearrange it.

Once we neared the top, my breath gave out beneath me as I beheld the view in front of myself. I was here, on this mountain, staring at fields of topology in patterns, distinct affects between competing peaks, rolling valleys. I fell even more in love with the summits of mountains. There is something ethereal about the stillness on top of them, this waiting, this lack of judgement, a nothingness in movement. Solaced in meditation was the mountain. We involuntarily joined in on its center of calm.

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After having lunch at the summit, we began the trek down. One thing they don’t tell you when you’re climbing up is that climbing down is much easier…if you’re sliding. When walking down snow, it seems much easier to lose balance and send yourself falling. Every few minutes walking down I could hear the flat impact of an ass to the snow, the frustrated groans from my trek mates as they tried to get back up, the digging of trekking poles back into the earth. At one point a friend Morgan fell and instantly started sliding across the snow towards the bottom. Another hit to the snow and there went another trek mate. It seemed like a good option, they were skiing on their asses in a much more effective way than stair-stepping. I free fell with my trekking poles in the air and propelled myself forward, waterproof pants breaking my wet, snowy descent. It was a bad idea to not have gloves on a this point, because to avoid sliding into Morgan I attempted to halt myself with my own hands. Skin hit harsh snow and together they scraped each other. Our group was a mess. What once began as neat foot imprints up the mountain ended as snow sloshed all over the place, indicating signs of misuse and imbalance. I heard the shouts of Morgan, “race you to the bottom!” and so it began. Luckily there weren’t ice crevasses along the way down, or this surely would have ended in trouble. And so we set off, using our hands and my trekking poles, unsuccessfully sliding down as the incline tapered off into a flatter space. I held my trekking poles at my sides and used them to ski along. We were trying all different methods, walking backwards, sliding backwards, running, moving our feet as if rollerblading through the snow. By the time we got to the bottom, we were in such a fit of excitement that I can’t remember who got there first. I sat down at the edge of the hot spring in a flurry of adrenaline, alive as ever. My body was content.

It was then that we set out to explore what our other trek mates had seen at the bottom of the glacier. Before us were small concave ice caves and rivers filled with the most beautiful orange textures. This is where the term “texture” resonated the most with me during the trip. Every step led to another burst of color and surface, from iridescent shards in the water, to bright orange rock and neon green algae feeding out of the mouth of the cave. Or rather, straight into it.

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I was surrounded by these pools of iridescence, these tiny houses void of initial life yet beaming with energetic hues. They all had significant emotions within them. I could stare into the crumpled bright orange and feel energy on all levels, I saw the hazy whispering of periwinkle mixed into sherbet orange and felt delicacy. Everything around me spoke, and with such individuality. Yet there was a system here, they collectively ran into each other and impacted one another. One color blended into the home of another, they played a game of tag around themselves until they understood fusion. My favorite pool of water was the one with small iridescent golden particles inside. I couldn’t explain what they were, but just that they pooled in areas and reminded me of small glittering shards of tinsel. When disrupted, they swirled around in a plume of excitement, like a celebration of sorts.

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After pulling away from the small explosions below me, I followed the group towards the hut for the night, only a few miles away, which seemed like no big deal unit lee realized it was entirely downhill at quite a steep incline. I pressed on ahead and ended up far in front of the group, isolated enough to soak in each passing mountain alone, with my own uninfluenced contemplation. It was a moment when a trekker was neither in front of me or behind me, and I could finally intimately communicate with the landscape. I spoke to it silently, voicelessly, my mouth wasn’t moving but I pressed my hands into rocks and suddenly we were having conversations. My feet danced on its surface and it responded to me. The language with which we spoke wasn’t a voiced one, it was solely based on speaking in essences, energies. I shared my energy with the mountain and it responded with its own, a pure back and forth of frequencies. My foot pressed into one rock, I felt a response, foot gently into a different stone, another response. We were mirroring each other. It had the right rock to place under my feet and I had the right step to meet it. I had been staring at the ground for a long time until I realized I was leaving out the mountains beyond me, they wanted to speak to me as well. As soon as I looked up, there was the lake Álftavatn, in all its glory, waiting patiently for me.

Photo credit to Anushila Shaw

Photo credit to Anushila Shaw

Once we reached the huts, we collapsed in exhaustion, excited to see a place where we could finally lay down (bunk beds being only second best to a nice nap in Iceland moss!) It was then that we clambered into the kitchen and were all served a nice bowl of Kjötsúpa, an Icelandic lamb stew. Most people went to bed and the rest stayed up that night drinking and playing the American card game Go Fish! by the cabin heater. Svavar mentioned that perhaps we would be able to see the Northern Lights, and we stayed up with high hopes. The Northern Lights don’t usually come out in the summer, but it was nearing the end of August and the weather conditions were absolutely perfect: not a cloud in the sky, not a dash of wind or rain, no fog. The sky was open and waiting for us. We were waiting, patiently, all night for those damn northern lights.

It was nearing midnight and we still hadn’t seen them. We decided it would be best to sleep for the trek tomorrow, so some people went into the hut. We stayed in another hut and waited with cards and beer while a few hikers stood outside awaiting the lights. Around 1am we heard a giant yell from outside the cabin, “THEY’RE HERE, THEY’RE HERE!” shouted our trek mate Ido, “QUICK!” He had been drinking that whole night, so we all assumed he had been seeing things. We rushed out in a flurry of excitement and there they were, in all their brilliant lit glory, the northern lights.

Green streamed across the sky in slow moving waves, a collective of brilliance and translucency like a silky fabric. It felt less like the northern lights and more like a northern light, a singular strand radiating with a bright, sea foam aura. It danced above the lake, moving in and out of transparency, streaming across the entire sky like an arch over our heads. We all stood in awe, we were rising up to each other and going, “WOW! Look! The northern lights!” as if no one had actually seen them as we all stood on a platform outside of the cabin. “The northern lights! We did it! We saw them!” They started fading a bit, but still we waited. They faded in and out, indecisive, like a dimmer switch being toyed with by a young child. It was another ethereal moment of stillness, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Svavar, being Icelandic, had seen the Northern Lights plenty of times during his life. We asked him if he had ever felt desensitized to them, if he ever got tired of them or if they had lost their appeal. He said he likes being out with foreigners when the lights appear because within him is an excitement that is brought back. He feeds off of our surprise and enthusiasm at the natural phenomenon. It makes him remember what a rarity these are for those who cannot always access them. I think my whole trip up that point was part of an exploration of re-introducing native Icelanders to their own land. They see excitement in tourists and foreigners in general and it pushes them to see the own beauty in the land they grew up in. I think it is exquisite to give someone the ability to look at their consistent surroundings in a new light. I was happy in this moment, I was feeding right back off of Svavar’s awe, we were all feeding off of each other.

That night I slept soundly again, I fell asleep with the northern lights guiding me through my own dreamscape. I was endlessly in love.

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