A Rough Start to the Morning
We had to wake up entirely too early for this experience. I would have traded anything to be able to spend the morning lounging in our warm bed. It was still incredibly dark out, and I assumed freezing. We layered up, ate Skyr for breakfast, and walked half a mile to our van’s stop. Apparently we were at the wrong place and had no internet service on the street which made for a wonderful way to start the day.
We had to run up and down the streets finding an open venue with wi-fi to get in touch with our driver several times. Finally, we made contact and walked to the right pick up spot. We climbed in a van full of guests, who were definitely already sick of our shit, and hit the open road.
I was not excited for this experience in any way, shape, for form. I embarked on it because my husband wanted only to pick one excursion, and this was the one his heart was set on. I wasn’t opposed because I hate nature, or think I’m too good for the hike. In fact, it’s the opposite. I have a severe phobia of trying new sports and physical activities.
I especially have anxiety about doing such things in groups. Occasionally, I like solo workouts such as running, yoga, and barre. However, I’m not at all what you would consider “athletic.” My nerves were getting to me. I kept feeling that I was going to be terrible at the hike and everyone would wonder why I even came. Sometimes, my anxiety manifests as anger or annoyance. I definitely remember making a bigger deal out of the morning mix up than I need to do.
The Notorious I-C-E
Solheimajokull is located in southern Iceland and took a number of hours to get to considering the conditions on the road. We had three guides in our van, and I remember thinking how cool they all seemed. They were young, energetic, and badass. Our lead guide told us his name was “Biggie.”
He is an absolute legend for this one quote. “You both are from the east coast of USA, that is where your Biggie, Mr. Smalls is from. Well, I am Biggie, and I am also from the east coast…of Iceland.” He still looms so fucking large in my imagination for this one. However, as the guides described the procedure for the hike, I felt my stomach tighten into knots. Everything sounded so intense and I wasn’t able to follow along because I was so overwhelmed.
The guides talked cheerfully and made jokes because they had been doing this apparently since they were born. I already felt inadequate. That’s the weird thing about anxiety, it puts all sorts of thoughts into your head. Everyone on the tour was new to glacier hiking, yet, I had convinced myself entirely that I was without a doubt the worse one.
I was really proud of the boots I had picked out for the trip, as they looked the part of a glacier hiker. However, I was told that they were actually too soft and that I needed to rent a pair of sturdier boots. Womp, felt like an idiot. No one else had to do this, but I did. I eventually moved past that and was suited up for my helmet and gear.
Before arriving at the base of the glacier, we walked through a valley of black dirt and green earth. Being a big fan of The Great Gatsby, I nicknamed it the valley of ashes. The walk through the valley was fairly easy, and I thought, stupidly, that the entire hike on the glacier would be this way. Walking through the valley of ashes gave me a little while to collect my thoughts and nerve before embarking on the greatest test of my (non) athletic prowess. It was also an opportunity to soak in the amazing nature around us!
I was surprised to see that there were icy steps involved to get onto the glacier – as in actual steps cut out of snow. We had to hold onto ropes as we were told several times that it was very, very slippery on the stairs. I made peace with the fact that I would probably bust my ass and take everyone out behind me with my large body. I welcomed that high possibility. I was just glad that we were starting off with something I had done before, climbing steps.
The tougher of our tour guides led, and we passed an attractive young woman and her group who were coming down as we went up. He announced to our group that it was her birthday and we all must sing her the HBD song. I think our group definitely thought this was weird, and even patronizing. However, we were afraid he would toss us off a cliff if we didn’t help him get it in with this woman, so we sang like a bunch of awkward middle schoolers with a mean choral director.
Finally, we reached the top of the glacier. I felt like I was in a National Geographic show and was totally stunned into silence. I felt so frail, so tiny, and so helpless as I looked around at the sweeping landscapes surrounding us. We were ants compared to the size of the glacier and natural formations around us.
On Top of the World
We would next have to attach our crampons to our boots. I’m only adding this detail here because crampon is the best word in the entire world. Luckily, one of our guides chose me as a volunteer and attached mine for me! I’m really glad that I didn’t have to figure out for myself how to attach the crampons, it looked difficult. As fearless as Icelanders are, the guides take safety very seriously. A few people in our group were talking over the demonstration. The stricter guide told them if they don’t know what the hell they are doing, then they should shut their mouths.
Walking around for most of the experience was only mildly difficult, and at some points – not difficult at all. However, the more that time went on the more difficult the hike began to feel. At one point, most of us could not even lift our feet out of the snow and were gasping and panting – as if we had run for miles. Everywhere we looked was barren except for snow. I felt as though we were transported to a different planet entirely.
A Feel Bad Tale of Ice Climbing
One of the coolest parts about our tour was that it allowed for the opportunity to go ice climbing. This involves literally using only pick axes and a harness system to scale up a giant wall made of ice within the glacier. As our guides demonstrated after setting up, it was not easy or for the faint of heart. You dig your pick axes into the ice, then make holes with the tips of your boots by kicking into the ice repeatedly. You step into those holes, straighten your body out, then begin again.
I was shaking purely from nerves – there is no way I wanted to do this. I didn’t mind watching other people go, but I became annoyed. Hiking this glacier wasn’t enough? Now, I have to fucking scale an ice wall with pick axes?! Do I look like Yukon Cornelius. After hearing our group talking shit about the first woman to go and how long she took, I was even more apprehensive.
I’ll bet you think this is a tale about overcoming my fears and rising to the challenge. Well, it’s not. Fuck that shit. I didn’t want to do it, and so I didn’t. As soon as one person said, “I’m going to opt out” and I found out that this was an option, I did the same. My body was exhausted, and I just didn’t feel like it. So, there. However, Arthur did the scaling (perfectly I might add) and I enjoyed watching him have a good time.
What I Learned
The final steps back into the valley of ashes brought on an entire parade of emotions. First, I felt grateful, so grateful to have experienced such beauty. This beauty will probably cease to exist with global warming and to have had the chance to see it, to hike up a fucking glacier, how could I feel anything other than gratitude?
I felt so proud of myself. To have had such very low confidence in the beginning of this journey and to walk away feeling like a total bad-ass made me feel so much stronger. As soon as I stepped off of the mountain, I walked with a straighter back and my head literally held up instead of looking down at the floor.
I looked people in the eye, spoke freely, and chimed into conversations with our guides without hesitation. Having faced such an enormous fear and obstacle gave me an ability to look at all challenges and uncertainty in a different light. I’m always able to look back on this moment when I’m nervous and say, “Bitch, you climbed a glacier. You climbed Solheimajokull in Iceland!”
Finally, Iceland is definitely over touristed. I cannot image the huge price that this is taking on their natural landscape. To have been welcomed to see such a treasure of the country was such an honor. I’m so grateful to have been able to see such a unique aspect of Icelandic culture.
We purchased hot chocolate with Bailey’s in it at the snack stand. I’ll never forget how amazing that warm cup of sweetness was to my bones. The slight burning warmth in my throat allowed my tired muscles to feel just a bit of soothing. Our guides had one final surprise for us, and allowed us to check out Skogafoss waterfall. It was the most confidently I think I have ever posed for photographs in my life. After climbed Solheimajokull in Iceland, why would something like an impromptu photo shoot scare me?