Lessons Learned in Iceland

Back on one of the first days of summer, soon after I had returned from a global departmental strategy meeting in Reykjavík, I met up with a coworker.  He asked, “How was Iceland?”

“It was incredible!” I replied.  “I did something that I had never done before in my life.”

“Drive the speed limit?” he asked, sarcastically?

“Ha ha,” I retorted.  “No,” I continued, “It’s much more involved than that.”

Actually, if someone had told me before I got on the plane to Reykjavík that in a few days I would be in the middle of such an event, I would have told them that they were significantly mistaken.  The entire ordeal was unplanned and unlikely, and it taught me a great deal.  Read on if you’d like me to tell you about it…

(You can enlarge any photograph by clicking on it)

Iceland's Blue Lagoon

Icelandic Horses

The strategy meeting ran from Wednesday through Saturday in mid-June at a hotel in Reykjavík, and many of us were going to take advantage of the free day on Sunday to experience what Iceland had to offer.  On Friday, people began making plans to split off into small groups for whale watching, relaxing in the Blue Lagoon or sightseeing.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

Although I wanted to soak in the warm, milky, Carolina-colored waters of the Blue Lagoon, I didn’t want to expose my body in front of my co-workers.  That wasn’t an option.  Neither was whale watching, as I easily suffer from motion sickness.  What I really wanted to do was some sightseeing from the back of a sturdy Icelandic horse, but no one else wanted to try it. (Just as well, I suspect.  I haven’t been on a horse in decades.)

I overheard one of my European colleagues discussing his intentions for Sunday.  I’ll call him “M.”  He had come to Iceland with the plan of hiking to the top of a glacier-capped volcano in the western part of the country.

Not the volcano, mind you.  Not Eyjafjallajökull, the famous Icelandic volcano that erupted in April and May of this year and spewed enough ash into the atmosphere to severely disrupt air travel in and out of Europe.


Eyjafjallajökull Erupting, Spring 2010

No, this was a different volcano, one just as difficult to pronounce and just as famous.  It was Snæfellsjökull, the volcano that was the gateway to the interior of the planet in the Jules Vern novel Journey to the Center of the Earth and  M had done his homework about it.  He was an experienced rock climber and alpinist; he had brought his gear to Iceland with the plan to go to the top of Snæfellsjökull’s glacier-covered peak.

My ears perked up at the mention of the glacier.  I had long wished to see one, to gaze into a frozen crevasse, to set my feet on an expanse of living ice, a frozen river that is constantly growing and ebbing, spewing crushed rock and shedding ice boulders.  What better place to see the ice of a real glacier than in Iceland?

I stood by and listened to M as he talked. He was clearly charged by the thought of his upcoming adventure.  I was surprised to hear him explain that he was going to make this journey alone, and I thought, perhaps there would be room for me.

I piped up, “I would be interested in going, if you don’t mind a tag-along.”

“You would?” he asked, seeming surprised.

Iceland's Þingvellir National Park

“Well, I think so anyway.  What are we talking about here?  I don’t have climbing experience.”

“Oh, you won’t need climbing experience,” he replied.  “This is a fairly straightforward hike, with no climbing involved.  Do you have hiking boots?”

“I brought hiking shoes – they’re like boots but just don’t go over my ankles.”

“That will work,” he said.  “Do you have warm clothes?  You’ll need a warm hat and gloves.  And a waterproof jacket because it might be raining.”

I had just purchased a hat and gloves made of Icelandic wool during the half-day sightseeing tour that we had made by bus to Þingvellir National Park the previous afternoon, and I had packed a waterproof windbreaker and a fleece to layer underneath because I had seen before leaving home that the weather in Iceland called for rain. I felt that I was fairly well-equipped for a hike in chilly, wet weather.

Snaefellsness Peninsula

I asked M about the volcano.  I learned that Snæfellsjökull is on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula of western Iceland.  At 1446 meters in height (4744 feet), it occupies the western tip of the peninsula, its south-eastern slopes descending nearly to the waters of the Atlantic.  On a clear day, Snæfellsjökull can be seen from up to 75 miles away.

M pulled out a topographic map of the volcano to show me the routes to the top.  He tapped the map with his finger as he said, “This way, from the north-east, will be the easiest way up.  You see?  The paths are marked.  The mountain is rather flat there.  You see that the elevation lines are further apart on the north-eastern side.”

I squinted at the little blue contour lines of the map.  Having never done this sort of thing before, I had no concept of the reality that this map depicted, but “easiest way” and “flat” sounded good.

“We can drive up very close, on this road that runs up along the eastern side,” he said, tracing the thin brown line with his finger.  “Then we can hike this trail to the glacier and up to the top.”

“Will I need crampons to walk on the glacier?” I asked.

“You might,” he replied.

Boot with crampon for walking on ice

I didn’t have any, nor had I ever owned a pair.  I wasn’t discouraged though.  I had no intention of hiking to the top of the volcano. I only wanted to hike up to the glacier, see it, walk around on it a little bit and then go back down.  I was content to do some hiking and photography down below while M made his ascent.  After all, I reasoned, he had been planning to go to the top alone anyway.

Besides, I knew I would never make it to the top.  I had done hiking in college and grad school, but never anything with this level of difficulty.  In addition, I was not physically capable.  I was out of shape, still limping around on a sore ankle that I had sprained seven months prior, and was still dealing with the leftovers of a case of whiplash I experienced when some jackass on a flight to Philly tried to stow his suitcase in the overhead bin and dropped it squarely on my head.  There was no way I could carry a pack and manage a difficult hike up to the top of anything.

“How long will all this take?” I asked.

M said, “We have to drive to the west part of Iceland and then up the volcano a little way.  The hike will be fairly direct.  About six hours.”

Six hours.  Hmm.  So a nice little drive, a few hours hiking up and down and then a drive back to the hotel.  That sounded like the perfect excursion, and left time for some sight-seeing on the way back.

The Jet Nest sculpture at Keflavík International Airport - photo taken at 1:09 am

With the northern latitude of Iceland, the sun wasn’t really setting completely that time of year. It was sinking just below the horizon but was furnishing plenty of light all night long, so we could potentially stop along the way back and see sights until late that evening if we wanted.

It sounded like a great opportunity.  I said, “Okay, I’m in.”

“You are?” he asked, again with some surprise.

“Well, if you don’t mind,” I added.  I was worried that I was intruding on the solo adventure he had planned, and I also didn’t want to hold him back.  After all, he was an experienced hiker and climber and I was anything but.  That was probably why he was so surprised that I wanted to go.  It was probably obvious to him that I might not be up to this task.

“No, no,” M replied, “It will be fine.  I have an extra backpack that you can use.”

“Well,” I thought, considering the whiplash, “A small pack might be okay.”  I did want to take my camera and a bottle of water, so I decided to bring plenty of ibuprofen as well so I could shoulder the pack and treat any whiplash flare-ups or ankle pain that might arise.

“Sheesh,” I thought, “What am I doing?  Can I really pull this off?”

I kept my thoughts about my inadequacies to myself. I didn’t want him to know that I felt as though I was going out on a limb here, unsure of my stamina and abilities.  I felt like a big wimp, but I didn’t want him to know that.  Then he might not take me along after all.  I decided that, above all, I would do everything I could not to slow him down or get in his way.  This was his trip, after all.  I was just along for the ride.

The next day, I was in the line in the hotel restaurant during the lunch break of the meeting, and a couple of colleagues were chatting with me, mentioning the hike up the volcano that M and I were to make the next day.  The word was out, apparently, that I was going with him .

They were glad that he wouldn’t be making the hike alone as he had planned, but they were concerned for the safety of the both of us.  I said, “Well, he’ll still be making the trip to the top alone and he’s an experienced alpinist and hiker, so he’ll be okay.  I won’t be able to make it all the way up.  I’m just going as far as the glacier.”

Icelandic Horse

One of them, a tall, older man who is a tough, weathered horseman, took a half step back and sized me up with his sharp blue eyes.  He would have headed out the next day on an Icelandic horse if his shoulder hadn’t been clipped and severely bruised by a rearing mare just a week before the trip.  He was a much better specimen than I, despite his age.

He concluded, “You’re in pretty good shape.  You’ll do just fine.”

“But I’m not!” I insisted.

He waved off my protest.  “You’ve been sportive most of your life, right?  Then you’ll do just fine.”

I silently nursed my doubts.  I wondered, should I really try to do this?  There’s still time to back out.  On the other hand.  I really wanted to see that glacier!  His confidence in my abilities bolstered me a bit and I decided to keep my plans unchanged.

Well, that was until later that night in the hotel bar when a colleague said, “Are you ready for tomorrow?  I hear it’s going to be a very long day for you two.”

“A long day?” I asked, somewhat confused.

“Yes.  M says it will take twelve hours,” she replied.

“TWELVE HOURS??!”  I hadn’t bargained for that!

I immediately turned and looked for M, who was at another table having a conversation with a close colleague.  I interrupted them.

“Is it true that our trip tomorrow will take twelve hours?” I asked?

“Oh yes,” he replied with a smile. “It will take three hours to drive to the volcano and three hours to drive back, so that’s six hours.  And we’ll be on the mountain for five or six hours.”  When he described it, he spoke as though six hours hiking around on a mountain was like a walk in the park.

“On the mountain for five or six hours?!”  That was it.  I knew for sure now that I could not do this.

Gullfoss Waterfall

“I didn’t realize this, M,” I said, now with some anxiety.  “I thought when you said six hours that you meant a total of six hours, including the drive.  I don’t think I should go with you .  I will probably not be able to do it and I don’t want to ruin your trip.”

“No, no, it will be fine,” he assured me. What was it with these Europeans who thought that everything was always going to be fine?

“But what if I hold you back?  What if you came all this way and made all these plans and brought your gear and everything and then you can’t even make it to the glacier because of me?  I think it’s better if you just go on without me,” I told him.

He leaned forward and looked at me with unwavering gray-green eyes, saying in a smooth, confident voice, “Don’t worry.  We will not go beyond your capacity.  I will be satisfied with whatever we manage to do because I will be happy just to be on the mountain.”

I returned his gaze, looking for any hesitation.  Seeing none, I was calmed by his steady reassurance.

Well, that is until our coworker interjected.

“Don’t you believe it!” she asserted.  “You know him! You know how driven he is!”  She was laughing, but she was also quite serious.

“No, no,” M said to me, laughing, trying to wave her away.  “Trust me, it will be fine.”

“He won’t be satisfied until he gets the both of you to the top,” she continued. “You know it!”

I looked back and forth between them, she maintaining that he would be unwilling to stop at anything short of the summit, and he trying to assure me that everything would be alright.  They were funny and I couldn’t help but laugh.

In the end, M convinced me that he would not push me beyond my limits and he would not be disappointed if I stopped before he did.  Although I was apprehensive about the long day ahead of us, I was excited about the drive through the Icelandic countryside, the hike on the volcano and the exploration of the glacier.  I went up to my room, laid out the clothing I would need the next day, set the alarm and went to bed.

The next morning, someone from the rental car company picked us up at seven o’clock and took us to the rental office. We signed the papers and made a quick stop at a nearby grocery store.  I picked up a bag of trail mix, a few energy bars, a package of beef jerky, three bottles of water, some yogurt and a couple bananas.  M purchased some supplies as well. We tossed them into the back seat of the car and hit the road, eating some of our purchases for breakfast along the way.

Western Iceland

We weren’t able to drive directly to the volcano. We stopped along the way to investigate streams, lava fields and interesting plants.  I suppose that’s not so unusual for a couple of scientists, even though we knew it would make our day even longer.  We would get down into the ditch alongside of the road when we saw some interesting flowers or lichens, and M would say, “We should probably not stop any more,” but then we would see something else that intrigued us and we would pull over again.

As we made our way, the weather became more overcast, windy and cold, and at times, we drove into a rain shower.  Blue skies and good weather would have been nice, but I didn’t really care.  I was glad just to be there and to see it all.  Iceland is wonderful place with friendly people, good food and magnificent countryside.  I knew that after this trip, I would come back to Iceland some day.

I was checking the landmarks and signs along the way against M‘s map.  We got to the point where we should have been able to see Snæfellsjökull, but the volcano was mostly obscured by clouds and fog.  That was disappointing, because otherwise, we would have witnessed an impressive sight that was something like this:

Snaefellsjokull Postcard

As we got closer, the sea was to our left and expanses of green extended to our right until they met rising cliffs of volcanic basalt.  The countryside was dotted with grazing sheep and horses.  We didn’t see many vehicles on the road, but there were few towns and not many farmhouses in the area.

We turned off the main highway and onto an unpaved ‘road’ that was the thin brown line M had traced on the map the other day.  As the road steadily climbed up the eastern slope of the volcano, I turned to look back in the direction we’d come and saw the ocean below us. We were making our way through a jagged lava and lichen landscape, and it was almost startling to see the softness of the sea as a backdrop.


We stopped to make a short hike to Sönghellir, a singing cave of fame on the northeastern slope of the volcano.  According to the Iceland Review Online,

“Probably the most famous Singing Cave is Sönghellir on Snaefellsnes peninsula, west Iceland, located on the northern side of mount Stapafell which overlooks the small fishing village Arnarstapi. It is famous for its echo and there are ancient inscriptions on its walls. Sönghellir on Snaefellsnes is believed to have provided shelter for the settler Bárdur Snaefellsás and his family while their farm was being built, who relocated from Norway to Iceland at the end of the 9th century. Snaefellsás named both Snaefellsnes and Snaefellsjökull glacier and is now the glacier’s protective spirit.”

Looking out from Sönghellir

I stooped to go inside the cave and test its acoustics.  It was smaller than I expected and I couldn’t imagine an entire family living inside, but it was certainly more inviting than the desolate countryside just outside.

I whistled, whispered and spoke to the ancient walls, the amazing sound echoing around me.  I am unable to describe the unique effect.  (I wish I’d had the presence of mind to record it with my cell phone.)

M came inside as well to explore it.  I opened my cell phone to illuminate the corners of the cave to see whether there were any passages leading to other chambers, but didn’t find any.

Back in the car, we continued slowly up and around the slope of the volcano on the rough, rocky road.  The farther we went, the less that the lava and rocks were covered with green moss and lichens.  The world became dun brown under a gray sky of fog and clouds.

At one point, I was shooting a photograph out of the passenger window when, as we rounded a bend, I saw a flash of color to our left.  It was a large, bright yellow sign covered with bold, black print in numerous languages, framed by heavy red triangles with exclamation points in their centers.  It flashed by so quickly, I barely had time to read the word “DANGER!” across the top.

“Hey ,what was that?” I asked, turning around in my seat to look back.

M glanced in his side mirror without slowing the car.  “Oh, it was nothing,” he said, innocently.

“Nothing?  Shouldn’t we go back and read that?” I asked.  “It said something about danger.”

He waved his hand as though shooing away a gnat.  “That is not for us. That is for people who do not know what they are doing.”

“Dude, I don’t know what I’m doing!”

“We will be fine,” he said, in that maddening, carefree way that I’d come to know so well on this trip.

Later, I managed to find a photograph of that sign on someone’s Iceland travel blog.  In hindsight, it’s probably a good thing that M didn’t let me go back and read it.  I’m not sure what I would have done if I had known what it said.

We curved around toward the north-west, the slope of the volcano rising up to our left.  The road had been steadily rising but then flattened out a bit in an area where there was an emergency shelter marked on the map.  We soon passed it, a small rectangle of painted wood mounted on a single-axled metal frame, it’s hitch nose-down against the ground.  It looked sort of like a pop-up camper. I was trying to imagine how someone could get into it.  It looked to have a small door on the back-end and enough room for two recumbent people.  I suppose that if someone found themselves in an emergency situation, the shelter didn’t need to be large and spacious. It just needed to give someone enough shelter to save their life.

At that point, we drove up into the fog.  There was drizzling rain pecking the windshield.  We pulled over to the side for a car that was coming the other direction, heading down.  “They’re the smart ones,” I secretly thought to myself.

We were squinting through the fog and the mist and the drizzle, looking for an area on the left side of the road where we could pull over and park to begin our trek.  M found a relatively flat area ringed with a few boulders and backed the car in.  We ate a small lunch, with M telling me how we were going to hike in a ways to find the trail that was marked on the map, and then we would turn up the slope toward the glacier.  I looked with trepidation at the nasty weather outside of the car.  Visibility was only a few yards.

“Are you sure we should go out into that fog?” I asked him, but I already knew the answer.

“Oh yes,” he replied cheerily.  “This is fine.  I’ve been in much worse conditions than this,” he said, as though that should reassure me.

He reached around into the back seat and brought up a square-ish black backpack. “Here’s your pack,” he said, handing it to me.  I handled it with some concern.  It was made for carrying books, not for hiking.  It was heavy and had no lower straps, so I knew it would slide around on my back.  I also knew it was that or nothing because I didn’t have anything else.  I filled it with my camera, an extra sweatshirt, an energy bar and a couple bottles of water. 

M was getting his own pack in order when I had a thought.  I wondered if my Blackberry would get a signal on this volcano.  That might come in handy if M fell in a crevasse and I had to call for help.  (I realized that the phone wouldn’t do me much good if I fell in a crevasse, but at least it would come in handy 50% of the time.)

I pulled the phone out of its holder and couldn’t believe it.  “I’m getting a signal up here!” I exclaimed, adding,  “We are so out in the wilderness.” 

M chuckled as he opened the door, stepped out of the car and closed the door behind him.  He pulled open the rear door and rummaged around the back seat for his rain jacket and pants so he could put them on.

I looked down at the Blackberry and noticed that the red light was blinking, indicating that I had a new message.  “Hey, there’s an email from the group that went whale watching.”  I read it out loud.

“Great fun at the whale watching tour….almost everyone is throwing up!”

M laughed as he gathered up his backpack and ice axe and then stood up straight, his head lost above the open doorway of the car.  “The wind is picking up,” I could hear him announce as he judged the surroundings.  “That will clear this fog a bit.”  He seemed sure but I was skeptical.

He stooped down to  looked in at me through the open rear door of the car.  With a grin, he simply said, “C’mon,” and took a step back to firmly shut the door.  I looked down again at the Blackberry, thinking that I would send out what might be my last communication to the world. I quickly typed out a reply to my seasick friend who was on the whale watching boat.

“We are finally at the head of the trail to the glacier.  We are in a fog cloud, it’s raining and windy and visibility is low.  I am afraid we will get lost if we walk too far from the car yet M wants to go. I am checking the GPS on this Blackberry…”

I hit the send button and turned around to see M through the back window as he walked away from the car.   I shoved the Blackberry into my coat pocket, opened the door and stepped out to take a look around.  The cold, driving rain hit my face; I could see that M had been right.  The wind had indeed cleared the fog a bit.

As I gathered my things, M stopped and looked back over his shoulder, beckoning me to follow with a wave of his arm.  Then he turned and disappeared into the fog.  Reluctantly, I closed the door, wondering whether I would soon regret leaving the safety of the car.

Then I shouldered my pack and stepped into the mist.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Iceland story…

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12 Responses to Lessons Learned in Iceland

  1. j says:

    Thank you for the tour. So far, I’m loving it! The photos are stunning. Why don’t you start a Flickr page and upload all the photos you take. You travel so much, it would be interesting. ATM I am waiting for part 2.

    Have you heard of the Siachen glacier? It’s the most dangerous glacier in the world, not just because you see nature at her most cruel. But because Siachen is the world’s highest battlefield. Out there Oropolitics takes a deadly turn with India and Pakistan watching each others moves warily across the ice.

    Sir, I’ve mailed you a nice article for the whiplash pain. Do read it.

    • Hi J. Thanks for the nice comment about my photos. Actually, they’re not all mine, so I suspect that the most stunning ones were taken by someone else 🙂

      I have not heard of the Siachen glacier but I thank you for bringing it to our attention. Has anyone ever made a movie about this?

      Thanks for the whiplash article. In fact, I started seeing a physical therapist in August who has helped me considerably. I’m almost pain-free at this point.

      • j says:

        Movie … Bollywood? Not yet. I wonder how it would look… The hero and heroine disco dancing in the ice in snow suits.
        More importantly if there is a trans part to this blog post, then post it fast. I cannot wait.
        Glad you are almost pain free, Sir!

        • I was thinking more of a military suspense thriller with James Bond-esque intrigue and gadgetry and the occasional firefight on the frozen landscape.

          Yes, there is a trans part to this blog post, but I hope that it isn’t anti-climactic. I really didn’t want to split this post into two parts but the first part is over 4000 words by itself.

          Thanks for your best wishes.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Oh, my — I’m too interested, and want to know the rest, and now :-)! I love/hate suspense (when I found out one of the latest Lee Child books ended with a literal bang, only to immediately segue into the next [unpublished] book, I forced myself into patience for the next book’s publication, so I could read them at once)… Very much looking forward to the next installment! (I *told* you that you’re a good writer!)

    • Thanks Liz. (shucks…)

      Come to think of it, I’m not a fan of cliff-hangers either. I didn’t mean for this post to end in the middle of the story, but I had to do it when it became much longer than I had originally anticipated.

      The next part brings in the trans piece, so there is some application to the mission of this blog, even though that might not be apparent at the moment.

  3. Josh says:

    Can’t wait for part two 🙂

  4. emil says:

    Hi! my name is Emil, i was actually on google and searched for pics on icelandhorses, and on your blog i found a pic i would like to use for my sisters website ( its about horsemassage and icelandhorses and its really basic because its my first one). its the picture over the headline “Icelandic Horses”. did you take it or just found it online?
    have a good day!

    // Emil J from sweden

    • Hello Emil. I’m glad you like the photograph. Yes, I took it. If you were to use it, I would want to apply a copyright watermark to it and get credit on the web site for having taken it. Would you be agreeable to those terms? If so, I can prepare it and send it to you by email, and I would need to know the necessary ppi (I assume 72 ppi) and the dimensions in pixels.

  5. emil says:

    Hi again! sorry i havent answerd earlier, i have been on a short vacation. Of course i agree your terms.I will put your name on it and If you want i can put up a link to your website to.
    I was hoping to have your picture as a background and the size is 1280×700, but if you can send it in original size i could crop myself to right dimensions. Please send me a mail and i can send you a jpg on the website layout if you are interested!

    / emil / emil.jordan@gmail.com

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