Part 2 – Lessons Learned in Iceland

In our last episode, I was leaving the safety of a rental car to join my coworker M in the fog and rain on a hike up the north-eastern slope of the Snæfellsjökull volcano in western Iceland.  It was an activity in which I felt I had no business participating, but I had convinced myself to go anyway so I could fulfill a life-long desire to walk upon a glacier.

My plan was to hike as far as the glacier and then go back down the volcano to let my more experienced colleague continue alone to the summit.  He had promised me that he would not push me beyond my limits, he assured me that the trajectory was relatively flat along this route, and he told me multiple times that everything would be fine.

Yeah, right.

When discussing our plans with others in the group the evening before, one of them asked, “What will you do if he falls in a crevasse?”

Before M could dismiss them with another comment about how fine everything was going to be, I slowly bent over as though looking down into a crack in the ice, brought an imaginary camera up to my eye and said, “I’m going to take a picture of the bottoms of his feet.”

Less than twenty-four hours later, here we were on the volcano, in the cold rain and mist.  As M walked into the fog, I headed off to follow, wondering if I might soon regret the decision to take this little outing.

And this is what happened…

We were fortunate in that the wind cleared away much of the fog and improved both the visibility and my uneasiness.  The rain had stopped as well, for the most part, leaving me hopeful that the hike would not be as miserable as I had feared when we drove up from the coastal highway.

M took the lead, striding over the washboard-shaped terrain.  We were on the end moraine, the field of debris spewed out by the relentless movement of the glacial ice.  The sediment size at this altitude was rather small — gravel sized for the most part — and was composed mainly of crushed lava, making it relatively easy to walk.  Still, M offered me one of his walking poles. I didn’t want to take it at first, as the going was not very difficult, but he insisted.  (Eventually, I would come to appreciate his generosity.)

As we hiked in, we reached the first snow field.  M stepped out onto the whiteness and I said, “Wait a minute.”

He stopped on the snow and looked back.  I held out my hand.

“Car keys,” I said.

“What?” he asked, a somewhat surprised look on his face.

“Car keys, please,” I replied.

He laughed — not in a mocking way, but more in amusement.  I stood with my gloved hand out, palm up

He looked as though he was going to say something, perhaps tell me how silly I was being, too overly cautious, but he seemed to change his mind and instead, reached into his pocket, pulled out the car keys and placed them in my hand.

I stuffed them safely into my pants pocket, commenting, “If you’re going to fall head first into a crevasse, at least I won’t be stuck here with no way to go back and get the coroner.”

“Don’t forget to photograph the bottoms of my feet before you go,” he remarked with another laugh and continued uphill.

As we walked, M talked about the gradual slope here, how it was relatively ‘flat’ as we saw on the contour map.  The wind had cleared away some more of the fog, and I hoped that the sun might burn through eventually.  The air temperature was not below freezing, so the top layer of snow was somewhat soft and slippery.  

As we ascended toward the glacier, we reached what looked to be a series of ridges of glacial debris made up of mixed sediment.  These ridges, basically piles of busted up rocks and lava, were difficult to traverse.  It was then that I appreciated the walking pole that M had given me.  It added stability and leverage when scrambling up and down the ridges.  The further we went, the larger the debris piles became and the more difficult they were to navigate.

Well, at least for me, that is.  M seemed to be adept at treading on and among the larger sediment pieces, choosing his stepping spots with ease.  I felt fairly clumsy and slow as we went along and I was trying to keep up as best I could, but as the ridges became larger and taller than me, I had to stop at one point and catch my breath before scrambling up the next one.  M had been keeping an eye on me and stopped at the top, patiently waiting.
I was leaning on the pole, breathing heavily, and looked up at him, exclaiming, “Man, am I out of shape. I’m really sucking air here.”

“You are trying to go too fast,” he replied.  “It is okay to take your time, to find your pace. Once you find your rhythm, it goes much easier.  I took my father-in-law hiking and he had the same difficulty because he was trying to go too fast, so I set the pace and he followed.  Once he found his rhythm, he was fine.  Why don’t I set the pace now?  You can just follow me.”  That sounded like a good idea and I agreed with a nod and started up the ridge.

As with the rest of Iceland that we had seen so far, the plant life in this area was very interesting.  There were “bare” moraine piles that consisted of busted rock and lava debris, and then there were others that were capped with lichens and mosses.  One area was very interesting, covered in a thick, heavy coating of dark moss that made the terrain look, from a short distance, like a group of sleeping black seals.

In one place, something bright on the ground caught my eye. At first, I thought it was a piece of shiny metal but upon closer inspection, I realized it was some type of pure white plant that was brilliantly reflective.  I took a photo of it and it was so bright among the mosses that it overwhelmed the sensor in the camera.

As we continued, the weather became worse.  It went from an intermmitant drizzle to a driving rain that came right into our faces.  M was wearing lightweight thermal clothing with a rain suit, but my waterproof protection was only a windbreaker and hood.  I was wearing blue jeans which were already too heavy for this sort of activity, and they were becoming even heavier as they absorbed the rain water.  Being inexperienced, I hadn’t even considered this issue.  M, on the other hand, caught it easily and offered a suggestion as we stopped to rest behind a large boulder.

“Your pants are going to get wet and heavy in this rain.  Do you have any rain pants? I have an extra pair in my backpack that you can use.”

An extra pair of rain pants?  Wow, this guy came prepared!

I gladly took him up on his offer and pulled the waterproof pants over my damp jeans, feeling better immediately. I hadn’t noticed how the wet jeans had been sapping the heat from my legs.  The rain pants provided warmth and kept my jeans from absorbing more rain water.  I wondered what the outcome would have been if I had continued to march around on the volcano with soggy, heavy pants — I don’t think it would have been pleasant.

So we continued, up and down the moraine ridges and debris piles, sometimes crossing snow-covered areas.  Every 100 yards or so I would stop and look back, pointing out the way we had come, reciting it out loud to M and committing the visual landmarks to memory for the return trip.  With the fog and mist and the lack of any plants and trees (other than lichens and moss), the landscape seemed barren and bleak.  I’m sure that if we had not been hiking in the middle of a cloud, a sunny view of the green fields and blue ocean waters at the base of the volcano would have induced a much different mood.

As we hiked, there were times when we could hear the intermitant sound of a machine that was carried on the wind.  We would stop and listen and wonder what it was.  It was definitely an engine of some sort running, but I couldn’t imagine what it might have been, especially in this type of challenging terrain.  We stopped to listen to the engine sound, I used the time to catch my breath —  I was really feeling out of shape.

I’m not sure how long we continued this way.  One hour?  Two?  According to the embedded data on the photographs I shot, it was about ninety minutes, but when we were in the moment I wasn’t really paying attention to the time.  I was concentrating on finding solid footing with each step, and more than once I stumbled and almost fell. The backpack, with its bulky shape and poorly placed straps, was sliding around on my back, throwing off my balance.

I was concentrating so intently on the ground in front of me, so carefully choosing where to place my feet, that when I finally reached the top of yet another ridge, I was stunned at the incredible sight that greeted me when I looked up.  There was M, grinning at me from the front edge of the moraine pile, the azure blue ice of the glacier showing through the snow field behind him.  I called out, “Wait!! Don’t move!” and snapped this photo:

I made my way up next to M and we stood for a while to take in the view.  By global standards, this glacier was likely unremarkable.  There were no Khumbu Ice Falls here, no formations or yawning chasms.  But for me, this sight was amazing and beautiful and thrilling.

Then we went out onto the ice.

As we explored the glacier, the weather cleared a bit more, the rain turned to a light mist and the area became a bit brighter and less gloomy, adding to the fun we were having at that moment.

We found a narrow crevasse and gazed down into it.  I wondered how deep it was and marveled at the blue color of the ice.  M explored it at a little wider point but I was content to stay at the narrower end.

We snapped photos of our grinning selves with our cell phones sent them to our colleagues (we still had a good signal!) and we walked around on the glacier and checked out the ice a bit more.  In the process, we noticed, far across a sloping expanse of snow-covered ice, that there were two snowcats parked at the edge of the glacier.  It must have been at least one of these machines that was making the sounds we had heard earlier.

After spending ample time checking out the glacier, we had come to the point that I had envisioned as the parting of ways, the time when M would continue uphill for the summit and I would turn back downhill for some exploration of the lower levels of the volcano, and I told him as much.  That’s not how he saw it, however.  I should have listened to our colleague in the bar the night before, because she had called it correctly — M had no intention of going on by himself.

“Going back?  You can’t go back alone,” he said.

“Sure I can,” I replied.  “Why do you think I kept stopping and looking behind us on the way up here?  I was remembering landmarks for the hike back down while you continue to the top.”

“I can’t let you go alone.  What if you fall and break your leg?”

“I’ll call you.”  I held up my cell phone which was still in my hand.  I thought it was funny, but M was not amused.

“I cannot let you go back alone.”

“Look, I can’t go with you,” I said.  “I don’t have any crampons.”

“You can have one of mine,” he replied.  I had a vision of spinning in circles on the ice with only one foot getting traction.

“That won’t work,” I said.  “Besides, I can’t make it to the top.”

“Why not?”

“Because I just can’t!  I’ve never done this before, I’m out of shape, I have a sprained ankle, and I’m almost FIFTY!!”

I thought he would argue and try to convince me otherwise, but he remained silent and regarded me as though in thought.  I thought, “Good. He’s seeing things my way.”  I figured this was for the best.  I wouldn’t hold him back if I didn’t go with him.  He had a better chance of succeeding at reaching the summit if I went in the opposite direction.

“Okay,” he said, seemingly resigned to the situation.  “But since you came all this way, you should at least come and see what’s over there,” he said, gesturing across the snow-covered slope in the direction of the snowcats.

This seemed like a good idea to me.  After all, I had bothered to hike all this way —  I might as well do a little more exploration.  I was worried, however, about what might be hiding under the snow.

As though he had read my mind, M mentioned that the glacier might extend under the snow we were about to cross.  He explained how crevasses form in glaciers and why there were likely none on this slope.  I didn’t bother to point out that we had just investigated a crevasse not too far from where we were hiking.

“Just put your footsteps in mine,” he instructed, and then he showed me how to traverse the slope perpendicular to the incline without sliding down the slope.  I kept a few paces of distance between us, figuring that if he fell into a snow-covered crevasse, I would be behind him far enough to avoid the same fate.

When we reached the snowcats, we found them to be parked with no one in the area, but at least one of them had left track marks.  Track marks that went uphill.  M pulled out his map and we saw that this trail was drawn as one ascent route to the summit.


“Hey, look at that,” I said, “Your trail is already marked for you, and it looks like someone else has even been here already,” I added, pointing to the footprints in the snow.  “I’ll go back down from here and you can go up.”

“But look,” M said, “the weather has cleared a bit and the trail is already marked.  Why not go up to that point up there, as far as we can see right now.”

I studied the trail.  He was right.  Although the wind was still blowing, the fog had cleared a bit and we were enjoying ourselves out there.  And with the trail clearly marked, we wouldn’t need to worry about falling in a crevasse that might be lurking under the snow.  The sky further up on the volcano looked a bit unfriendly, but I wasn’t worried about that.  I wasn’t going to go that far.

“Come on,” he said.  “It will be fun.”

He had talked me into it.  I could manage to go just that little bit farther, to keep him company.  Then I would turn around and let him finish his trek.  “Okay,” I said in agreement and we set off.

The snow was soft, providing poor traction.  M suggested that I follow behind him and put my feet in his footprints.  That worked somewhat, but I eventually tried different regions of the track marks to see whether there were areas that were more compressed and easier to walk on.  Nothing really offered solid footing, and so I dug in, pushing uphill, my breathing labored, my head down against the wind.

M said, “See, it’s relatively flat here, just like it showed on the map.”  I looked at him, incredulous.

“I think,” I said, huffing and puffing, “that you might want to consider using a different word than ‘flat’ because your definition and mine are really not the same,” and he laughed in response.

The wind grew stronger as we ascended, blowing at us head-on, and the rain started up again, driving into our faces.  It turned out that the clouds we had seen from below were actually part of a storm that was battering the higher elevations of the volcano, and we had hiked right into it.

And the rain was salty!  I wondered whether the wind lifted salinized moisture from the ocean below or whether the salt was from the sweat I produced during the laborious uphill trek.  I was really breathing hard at that point and M must have noticed, because he said, “Why are you trying to go so fast?”

“Uh, I dunno,” I said between breaths.  “Trying to get there sooner?” I offered.

“Why?” he asked.

“So I can turn around and go back sooner,” I replied.

“Why?”  He seemed genuinely surprised that I would want to do such a thing.

“Where are we anyway?  Are we at the place where I was supposed to stop?”

Snaefellsness Penninsula

M pulled out his map; we turned our backs to the wind and hunched over it, protecting it from the rain.  It was getting wet and tears were appearing in the creases.  I tried to grab a flapping edge and hold it steady so M could estimate our position.

He poked the map with his finger and said, “Right about here.”

I looked and exclaimed, “Well hell, we’re more than half way!”

We looked at each other.

“Okay, I suppose I might as well finish this,” I said with resignation.  “Then I can at least say I’ve hiked to the top of a volcano.”

“Good!” he replied.

“You’re killing me, dude,” I said, trudging along.

“You will be fine.”

“Right,” I countered, “and this volcano is flat…”

He laughed, and then reminded me, “Don’t forget to keep your rhythm.”

Soon thereafter, we saw a set of snowmobile tracks that split off to the left, in what appeared to be a more direct route to the summit.  Although the trail we were on seemed to be making a less-direct loop around the top of the volcano,  M thought it would be safer to follow it than to veer off onto the snowmobile tracks.  As the path curved around to what I assumed was the north side of the volcano, we became sheltered somewhat from the wind and our going was easier.

The trail wound around, sort of in a wide, uphill, counter-clockwise spiral, tightening toward the summit, at least that was what I was assuming at the time.    We couldn’t see the peak – it was always up and to our left, always obscured by cloud and fog.

With the apex of the volcano sheltering us from the wind on this stretch, M took the opportunity to talk about how we would proceed.  Taking a look at the map again, he surmised that we were about 50 meters from the summit.  He said that we would not take chances, that we would not expend so much energy getting to the top that we would not have enough strength in our legs to get back down.  “That is how people got into trouble in these kinds of situations,” he told me.

He asked me how I was doing, sizing me up for the final push.  I told him that my feet were wet from snow falling into my shoes, but otherwise, I was okay.  I had swallowed a couple ibuprofen just prior to that to keep the pain down in my neck and back, and my ankle had been doing well.  He pointed out that the temperature was not below freezing, so I would not have to worry about frostbite.  To be honest, my feet were not cold, just wet and not all that uncomfortable.

As we trekked closer to the top of the volcano, my sense of anticipation mounted.  I looked forward to setting my feet on the summit.  Seeing a glacier wasn’t the only thing on my to-do list.  I had also had a life-long interest in mountain climbing but never pursued it. I’ve read books about it, watched movies, attended slide show presentations on the subject, and even (very briefly) met John Krakauer and David Breashears during book signing events.  I know the allure of alpine undertakings, and I understand George Mallory’s response when he was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest:  “Because it’s there.”

Of course, this volcano was no Everest — not even close.  And we were not climbing — we were hiking.  Still, on this day, I was getting a little bit closer to something that had interested me my entire life, something that I never had the courage to pursue, and I was feeling the excitement of it with every step.

Soon, however, that wasn’t all I was feeling.  As the trail curved around and up, it brought us to a relatively flat area (and it actually was fairly flat) which might have been the bowl of the volcano, and it was there that we got a healthy dose of the prevailing winds of western Iceland.

Where I think we might have been.

These were not strong gusts with intervening moments of reprieve — this was a sustained wind, a jet of cold air howling off the Atlantic with such intensity that it pushed the breath back into my chest.

We turned our backs to it and tried to get our bearings on the map.  The weather had deteriorated, the rain was lashing us and visibility was limited.  We could see that the snowcat tracks turned upward again, a tantalizing trail to the summit that disappeared in the storm cloud.

I stood leaning into the wind, weighing the force I would need to push directly into the gale to progress the final distance to the peak.  I was imagining those final steps, the energy it would take to walk into that wind, uphill and on the soft snow.  I had pretty much convinced myself that I could do it, that I could make it to the summit, when I heard M‘s voice above the sound of the wind.

“The conditions have deteriorated too much.  Going further up would be dangerous.  We are going to turn around here and go back down.”

My first reaction was one of disappointment.  I was just about to argue with him, to tell him that we could do it, that we were so close, that we should continue to go up, when reason took over and I realized that he knew far better than I how to judge our probability of success in this situation.  Success was not necessarily getting to the top.  Success was getting back to the car.  I deferred to his judgment; we shot a couple of quick photos and then turned around and headed back down the trail.

He showed me how to walk in the snow going downhill, digging in with the heels on each step.  We made fairly good progress, which was not surprising considering that we had gravity working in our favor now.

As we hiked, I thought about what we had just accomplished.  Although we hadn’t made it all the way to the top,  I still felt as though we had done something worth acknowledging, so I said, “I wonder if I’m the first trans person to almost hike to the top of this volcano.”  (I work closely with M and had been out to him for about 10 months at that point.)

“I don’t know,” he said.

I gave it some thought.  “No,” I continued, “probably not the first.  There must be trans people here in Iceland who have hiked on this volcano over the years.”

“You think?” he responded.

“Sure.  There must be.  I’ll bet there were even transgender Vikings that came up here!”

That must have conjured up some images for M, because it certainly did for me.  We proceeded in silence for a little while.  Then I concluded, “But maybe I’m the first almost-fifty, American scientist FTM transsexual who’s hiked almost to the top of Snæfells… well, however it’s pronounced.”

He considered that possibility and replied, “Could be.”

I decided to go with that label, figuring that the probability of another 49-year-old American scientist FTM to almost hike to the top of this volcano was pretty slim.

By the time we reached the lower edge of the glacier, I was spent.  My legs felt heavy and lacked energy.  I realized that if we had made a push to the summit into that wind, I would have been in big trouble making my legs work properly on the way down.  Even as it was, descending had been difficult, and there were times that I had fallen, floundering in the snow behind M, but he didn’t hear me over the sound of the wind.

I knew I didn’t have the energy to traverse the series of ridges that we had crossed on the way up.  I let M know that we would have to go back by a different route so I could stay on the shallow, snow-covered areas and avoid the rocky debris piles of the moraine as much as possible.

M hiking down.

Eventually, though, the snow-covered areas became smaller and farther apart, and we were faced with the first ridge of moraine debris that we had to tackle.  M scaled it fairly easily but all I could do was stand there and look up at him.  I called out to him as he started down the other side and he stopped and looked back.

“I don’t have enough strength to lift my legs,” I admitted.  “I don’t know how I’m going to get up there.”

He took a couple steps back down the ridge and reached out his hand.  “Give me the end of the walking stick,” he told me.

I realized what he meant, and I extended the pole so he could grab one end while I held the other, and he pulled me up to the top of the ridge.  This is how we made our way back, M scrambling up each ridge and then helping me join him by hauling me up with the walking pole.  My legs were so heavy and weak, I couldn’t have managed it any other way.  As it was, I was breathing hard and slowing our progress.

In addition to that, descending by a different route caused us to lose our bearings a bit.  We knew, in general, (so we thought) the direction that we needed to go, but we weren’t sure exactly where to turn off the moraine and search for the car.  Each time M helped me struggle to the top of the next ridge, I expected to see a familiar landmark, or even the car itself, on the other side, but I was repeatedly greeted with the sight of yet another ridge of moraine debris.

Finally, M thought that we should have descended far enough to be near the car, but the landscape was unfamiliar and we couldn’t see anything but seemingly endless dun-brown piles of rocks.  We needed a vantage point, and fortunately for us, there was one right in front of us.

We had come to the base of a hill composed mostly of small sediment, as though at one time it had been the terminal moraine of the front edge of the glacier.  M looked to the peak and then at me. “Can you make it?”  I damn sure wasn’t going to say no, and nodded in affirmation.  I summoned a reserve of strength, I’m not sure how, and clambered to the top.

The view was great from up there, especially because the fog had mostly lifted in that area and we could see for several miles; however, the vista was of a rocky, brown landscape of extended moraine hills and valleys, and no car to be seen.  (I wish I had had the presence of mind to snap a photo of the view, because it was really interesting.)

I looked for a landmark and found one with the small emergency shelter we had passed in the car that morning.  It was down below to our right, looking to be about a mile or so away, maybe less.   Although the road was not visible, as it was merely a set of tire tracks in the gravel, I compared the topography of the area below us with my memory of M‘s map, imagining the road as it passed  by the shelter, curved up and around, and…

“There it is!”  I had spotted the car, a gray speck on the gray landscape.

“Where?” M asked.  “I don’t see it.”

“Over there, to the right of that small hill, next to the boulders,” I replied, pointing out in front of us, a little bit to the left.   M gazed in the direction I had indicated, scanning for the car.  He still didn’t see it and I had to orient him by tracing the invisible road, starting with the emergency shelter which stood out white against the dull background.  As I drew out the map in the air in front of him, ending with the car, he spotted it.

“I see it!” he exclaimed.

The final hill, the arrow marking our tracks down to the car, which was off to the right. (Photo taken from the road near the emergency shelter as we drove back down.)

As we stood side-by-side at the top of that hill gazing down at the car, the end of the trail, I was caught up in my thoughts.  Thank goodness we were almost finished with the day.  I should never have bothered M by inviting myself on this trip.  I slowed him down, got in his way, and he had to drag me up and down those hills.  He probably stopped short of the summit because of me.  He could have made it to the top by himself but he turned around because I was there.  I had been nothing but a burden to him.

Then my thoughts took an ugly turn.

Hell, it’s not just here, today, that I’m a burden.  I’m pretty much a burden all the time to everyone around me, the transsexual burden.  Family and friends, the people in human resources at work needing to make accommodations for me, even a (former) ‘good’ friend I came out to told me, “I didn’t ask for this burden.”

Apparently, these thoughts had been simmering in the back of my mind for some time, and in that moment of fatigue, they bubbled to the top.

M broke through my thoughts and brought me back to that rocky hilltop on the moraine of the Snæfellsjökull volcano in western Iceland, when he said, “I’m glad that you are here.  I don’t think I would have been able to find the car by myself.”

With that little comment, my whole world shifted.

Even though my feet hadn’t moved from that spot, everything in me and around me rotated to an entirely new perspective.

He was glad that I was there.  He had done everything he could, working hard to get me up that volcano and down again, going out of his way to help me reach my goals even though I slowed him down at every turn, and yet, when it was all said and done, he was glad that I was there.

It was then that I realized that he had enjoyed my company that day, that he had derived as much pleasure in getting me up that volcano as he had in doing so for himself, and that he did not see me as a burden — he saw me as a friend, a colleague, and a welcome companion on this day’s journey.

I knew that he had no way of knowing the effects his comment had had on me, and I had no words to explain it to him.  The feelings in me were larger than the volcano behind us.  There was no way he could know that he had just liberated me from myself.

While I contemplated all of this, M looked as though he might start down the hill in the direction of the car, but then he seemed to think of something he might have forgotten and he paused.  He knelt as though searching the ground, and then reached down, plucked up a non-descript piece of lava and stood up to hand it to me.

“Oh,” I said, a bit surprised, taking it in my hand.  “A piece of what I conquered?”  He nodded.

He didn’t’t even know that he had helped me conquer more than just the volcano that day.

“Do you take pieces of the mountains you’ve climbed?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” he replied thoughtfully.  “Only from the special ones,” he added, and turned to go down the hill.  I dropped the stone into my pocket and followed him.

Lessons Learned

This piece of lava is not just a reminder of a hike on a volcano and my first visit to a glacier.  It is also a token of the lessons I learned in Iceland, which I share now in the hopes that you can take something from them as well.

I learned in Iceland:

1.  That this body may not be what it should be, what it was supposed to be, but it served me well that day, and, I realized, it has over the past five decades as well.  I am not as disappointed with it as I used to be.

2.  “Fifty” isn’t the same as “dead.”  I managed to achieve much more hiking around on a volcano in Iceland than I ever thought possible.  I feel younger because of it, and I have more faith in myself than I did before.  “Middle-age” does not mean “incapable.”

3.  It’s okay to ask for help, or to accept help even if it wasn’t asked for.  I used to have this idea that my issues were just that, my issues, and I should not bother people with my problems or be a burden because of them.  I wonder if this is part of being trans, at least for some of us.  I have seen trans folks who are reluctant to receive help or assistance of any kind, even for some pretty big problems, either because they didn’t know how to accept it or didn’t feel that they deserved it.  But guess what — we don’t have to do this alone.  There are people who will stand by us, lend a hand, be supportive, not because they have to, but because they want to, and it’s okay to accept it from them because, well, that’s what people do for each other.  It’s part of being human, and we are no less deserving of that than anyone else.

4.  I / we / you bring value to every single interpersonal interaction we have, even if it’s not recognized or mentioned, even if it’s not apparent, even if we don’t believe it ourselves.  We matter.

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.



The next week, I was on the phone with a colleague in Europe, a woman who works closely with me and with M.  She had been at the meeting in Iceland as well, and she asked for details of the day that we had hiked the volcano because she hadn’t heard much about it from M.

I told her, “It was incredible — one of the most amazing days of my life.”

“And you actually went up to the top?” she asked, because she knew I had not planned to hike farther than the glacier.

“Yes, well, almost.  Bad weather stopped us short of the summit, but I couldn’t have made it even that far without M.  He got me up there.  He got me to go in stages.  ‘Let’s go over there and look around,’ and ‘Oh, just go up as far as you can see.’  He set the pace when I tried to go too fast, he had me step into his footprints, he taught me how to go down the mountain…

To be honest, he saw more potential in me than I saw in myself.  I think this just shows what a great leader he is.”

She was quiet for a moment, as if searching for the right words, and then said, “Hm, yes, I think this is how he does it with his kids.  They don’t really want to go with him, you know, when he goes climbing or hiking…”

His kids??!

I laughed so hard, I almost fell out of my chair.

Well, that didn’t change anything for me or for the lessons I learned in Iceland.  I hope to go on another adventure with M one day.  And next time, maybe I will be the one in the lead.

Here is a little slideshow of images and music from Iceland.  The song is Man Ég þig Mey (I Remember You Girl), an Icelandic folk song performed by Ragnheiður Gröndal.

The video is not very smooth, but the one I had made is not compatible with WordPress video upload, hence the delay in publishing this post.  The photos do not blend into one another in the transitions and the timing is off, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.

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13 Responses to Part 2 – Lessons Learned in Iceland

  1. j says:

    You’re only 49 … and you think it’s old??!
    Think young to be young. Mick Jagger and Steve Tyler had Peter Pan complexes; look at them now. No 24 year old has their energy.
    As for being a burden on people. Pls check your mail… there is a nice thing I have for you to read.
    By the way the icy shiny flower is awesome. Thanks for that photo and information.

    • Well, now I’m 50.
      No, I don’t think I’m “old” but I felt as though this age made me physically less capable of certain things. Guess I hadn’t pushed myself hard enough until Iceland.

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. Becky says:

    Congratulations on your climb. I had been waiting anxiously for the conclusion. While I am disappointed for you that you did not get the opportunity to make it to the top. I do believe you could have and would have done it, conditions permitting. I am glad you are finding, like me, that 50 is not actually as bad as we thought it would be:-)

    • Hey Becky,
      Yeah, you are right – I did have some sort of vision of what I thought 50 was going to be like and it ain’t all that… fortunately.
      Thanks for the congrats. And thanks for reading.

  3. Jason says:

    Very nice, thank you for sharing your adventure with us. It’s funny how life lessons sometimes come when we least expect them, glad you were able to grow from the experiences.

    • Thanks Jason. Iceland was indeed a major experience.

    • Also, I didn’t mention this in my post, but while I was there, the Iceland government unanimously passed a law allowing same-sex marriage. Iceland is the only country in the world with an openly gay head of state in Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, and she and her partner were one of the first couples to be married when the new law went into effect later that month.

      In addition, every single public place, from the airport to the hotel to the restaurants and bars, all had 3 bathrooms: one for men, one for women and and a single-stall bathroom for families, making it easier on trans people like me traveling in the country.

      Lastly, we were there for their independence day, which was a big party in downtown Reykjavik. We were walking down one of the main pedestrian streets down town which was full of kids, mostly teenagers, and I was wondering, where are the adults? We found them — they were in the bars! Lots of live music and Viking beer. (I even have a beer glass someone, ahem, acquired for me.)

  4. Jay says:

    You know, maybe it’s that turning 50 thing, feeling that you aren’t what you used to be physically, but for me it was a turning point. I got off my ass, started taking marital arts and worked toward the goal of becoming the grand champ in my age and rank division. I worked my ass off, did things I never thought I could ever do, and at the age of 54, became the National Grand Champion in my age and rank division. I wear my hoodie jacket proclaiming me the grand champ with pride. I earned it honestly.

    What we have now is wisdom we never had and the ability to look at ourselves differently. If you ask me, what we are doing is coming into the fullness of who we really are, in every way possible. The ignorance, fear and folly of youth no longer a deterrent to living life fully.

    What an awesome experience you have had! I don’t even know you and I am proud of you. May you continue to move forward, doing that which you never thought you could do, again and again… rock on brother!!!!!

    • Wow, Jay, that’s a very cool story, and inspirational too. It’s amazing that you were able to go from ground zero to grand champ in four years. Makes me think that I could even take up mountain climbing at 50!

      And thanks for your supportive comments. (aw shucks…) 🙂

  5. Mac says:

    What a fantastic adventure and even more impressive, the lessons learned. Congratulations on your accomplishments, all of them! Take this opportunity to reflect on each of them and be proud. Check out what Michael Jordan said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” You succeeded! Be Proud and Own It!

  6. Denise V says:

    Amazing story A,
    Your writing made me feel like I was on the trip with you. Your learning of M taking his kids on these hikes reminded me of when I climbed Katadin in Maine. We had taken a grueling route climbing over boulders the size of a bus with our sights on one of the major peaks that was connected to another by the Knife Edge. Upon reaching the summit and preparing myself for the Knife Edge crossing I noticed a couple with their 2 little girls making the same crossing. The girls were laughing and giggling showing absolutely no fear which immediately took all the drama out of what I was doing. I still laugh about it to this day.

    On being a burden
    Human resources: Lemme see, human – check! Resource, yep need some of that – check!

    Disgruntled co-worker: Give copy of Tao Te Ching – Check!

    Grinning broadly,

    • Good story Denise! Thank you for sharing it. I was laughing too at your story. Made me think I could have seen a couple kids playing around at the top of the volcano and the story would have had a completely different meaning.

      And yes, you’re right — Human (check) Resources (again). That’s what they told me too – that they’re doing their job. I asked one of them later, “If you all are taking care of us, who is taking care of you?”

      Anyway, thanks for reading, for the story and for commenting. 🙂

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