Hekla {To the Gates of Hell}

3.5.10

 HEKLA   
photo by Anna Andres


"Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful."

(Joshua J. Marine)


Ahhh. The saga continues. Everyone loves a good Icelandic saga, don't they? Never would I have thought I'd be so easily manipulated into climbing another mountain on this island nation. Never would I have thought ...

Last week I received a group email from the enthusiastic Icelandic hike leader. You know the one. With the bus. I don't know what kind of twisted destiny brought him into my Ashtanga Yoga New Beginners class but there's definitely been some devilish work at play. Getting back to the email, he excitedly stated the next hike would be to the summit of Hekla, the second most active volcano, depending who you speak to, in Iceland. The climb would be just under 1, 500 meters (4, 891 ft), about a 4 hour climb up. I read the email, and said to myself, HELL NO, and left it at that.


When I talked to the hike leader after class I explained the fact I didn't have hiking boots, went on to reiterate how the hike sounded a bit out of my league, and thanked him for keeping me in the loop. He seemed agreeable, and in a rush after class. I was in the clear. Whew. Dreams of the Blue Lagoon filled my brain. Now that's how to spend time in Iceland.

Later, I received a personal email from the infamous hike leader telling me he had a pair of hiking boots for me to borrow, went ahead and reserved a seat for me on that bus, and to remember, "body strong, mind weak." No he didn't, I thought! No he did not just serve me up my own words on a silver platter to swallow whole! Great. Just fucking great!

During our last class I talked a bit about one of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois's most famous sayings,"body strong, mind weak," in reference to how it is in our own minds that we perceive limitations, and that our bodies are ultimately strong and able. Anything is possible, blah. blah, blah. The thing is, I wholehearted resonate with this, but to then have someone challenge me on the very thing I said, well, well, well, NOW we're playing with the big dogs. Big, bad, Icelandic dogs. Nice. I was reluctant, but game on. If this is how he wants to play it, FINE! I'll go.

To get myself into the "spirit" of the hike, however reluctantly, I thought I'd do a bit of research on the most famous volcano in Iceland.  I found it quite interesting in medieval times it was considered the entrance to Hell. Pretty much Hell's front door. Okaaaay. Wow. They've got it all here, elves, trolls and entrances to hell. 

Moving on, the name literally means, "Hooded One" because the peak is usually capped by looming clouds. It sits restlessly in the Þjorsardakur Valley, surrounded by vast lava fields. The last eruption was in 2000. The last big one in 1970.

I didn't feel completely comforted hiking to an active volcano, especially when it stated on his email we would be warned of an oncoming explosion if there were a series of earthquakes. We'd have to be off the mountain within 30 minutes to 1 hour. Hmmmmm, I thought, and the actual decent takes 2, from my personal calculations the odds of getting down in time seemed slim. Gah! "Body strong, mind weak." What is there to fear. I was still game.

Then I decided to look in my Iceland, Lonely Planet and read up on Hekla where it clearly stated, "The volcano is due to blow its top again round 2010." Huh? I blinked my eyes. I must be reading this wrong. Nope. I read it again. Said the same thing. Great! Just fucking great! I can imagine it now, riding down the mountain on a wave of hot, molten, lava!!! NOT exactly the way I thought I would go.

Lonely Planet Iceland


But time marches on, life marches on. I was still due to go on this hike, given the risks. The biggest risk of all, the loss of my pride, lol.

I met the group at the designated check point. 14 nationalities represented, most if not all, except me, were graduate students in engineering, geology, and what have you. An interesting bunch. France, Italy, Sweden, US, UK, Austria, Spain, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia. Talk about representation.

Wow! It's a miracle! The exuberant hike leader was on time! Arrived in his usual joyous, energetic self. He never seems to tire. Always filled with energy and a zest for life. Must be all that mountain air, like I've said before. It's gotta be. I have no other explanation for it. Everyone quickly boarded the bus, then I was faced with hike leader number two, from my first Icelandic hiking experience. I saw the look on his face. It said it all. She's coming?! Oh God.

It was a quiet drive out to Hekla. Once off the main road, the bus ambled over to the trail head on a rough lava laden road. It was a bumpy ride, a slow, tiresome ride. During the drive I kept thinking maybe Hekla will blow right now so I don't have to go on this godforsaken climb. Wouldn't that be nice. Thinking it unlikely, I continued to amp myself up for what was ahead. With a group of experienced mountain hikers it was a task to feel worthy of going up. When the friendly, Australian girl next to me stated she'd be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in a couple weeks, it didn't exactly stroke my confidence, but nonetheless, "body strong, mind weak," eh?

Lava Fields

lava lava lava!

and more lava!


When we arrived to the trail head everyone tumbled out of the bus in usual fashion. Gear ready, bundled up, boots tied. I had my borrowed boots, about two sizes too big, wearing extra socks, no hiking poles, which could have come in handy later, but I continued to remind myself, this is a mental challenge, not merely physical. "Body strong, mind stronger!" Would I crack this time? Only time would tell. 

And we were off. The first part of the trek marching through an expanse of lava fields slowly climbing upward. I felt in good spirits even though the view to the top seemed like an endless journey. The peak of the mountain danced with the clouds. Don't look, I thought, just feel each step under your feet, better that way. To look up will only trip my mind. This seemed to help for I was able to keep pace with the first half of the group with no problems, except for a few areas of the ascent when I had to tell myself, whatever you do, DON'T look down. No looking up. No looking down. Just keeping moving one step at a time. 

We stopped for lunch at 1000 meters. I made it with no complaints. Of course the hike leader had to add his two cents in. 

Chiding me, "Oh Laruga, I was expecting you to be the last one in the pack!" 

Really, is he trying to be charming or just push my buttons. 

I smirked a bit, and simply said, "Ye of so little faith." 

Our banter was quite funny, and I needed to refuel. There was still quite a bit to go before we reached the top. 

 Climbing Hekla

What a view!

After lunch the group gathered up to make the final leg of the ascent. The snow was deeper. A challenge. I felt ready to go. I felt good. So I thought. Then things swiftly began to change as I started the climb. At first I was with the lead pack, then slowly one by one I was being passed as lactic acid started to build in my behind, then slowly move down my thighs, burning like hot fire. A hot fire I've never experienced before in my life! WTF, I thought. Oh, how swiftly the tides shifted from before lunch to after. It was like nothing, I'll say it again, like nothing I've ever experienced. I literally could only take five steps, then I had to rest. It had nothing to do with my cardiovascular system, that was fine. It was as if my lower body was sizzling, the lactic acid build up getting worse, and moving down to my calves. Seriously, WTF, was all I could say to myself. I was at the mercy of my puny legs. I was at the mercy of this godforsaken mountain. It wasn't looking good. It wasn't looking good at all. 

Somehow through all of it I wasn't the last one in the group, and quickly I was left alone in the middle. On a mountain, by myself. The pack to the front marching swiftly on, became smaller and smaller  toward the horizon of the peak. The pack behind me, slowly moving forward, and me in the middle. Wayward. Burning. Oh. The burning!

It was literally, five steps, rest, five steps, rest, sometimes only three ... and when a bit ambitious, I took ten. That was when I could psyche myself to push a bit more through the ache of my legs. Oh. How they ached! Slowly, but surly I made it upward. Then came the wind. I was stumbling into a whole new weather pattern. The wind howled powerfully feeling as if it could blow me off the ridge. I'm not kidding. This is where I started to get a bit mental. Thoughts of "body strong, mind stronger," were wavering, and it didn't help that I saw the lead pack already reach the summit in celebration. They seemed so far away. I felt so alone. It was me, the mountain, and the wind. And, somehow through the agony of my burning legs I kept moving forward. I was like the little train the could, barely

The interesting part was the mental component to the climb. I started to focus on every single one of my limitations. Intriguing. When the going gets tough I immediately went through the list of every negative I could find. My boots, are too big. I'm cold. I don't have muscular legs. I've never hiked in snow before. I've never hiked to the summit of a mountain no less. I don't have the proper equipment. It went on and on. Then I realized, how is this gonna help me? I had to turn my attitude around. I'm young. I'm strong. For God's sake I've got air in my lungs, let's move! Yah. That little pep talk lasted for about ten steps. Lol. "Body weak, mind weak." Blue Lagoon sounds so good right now. Why am I up here?

Alas, I was moving. However, I was losing feeling in my fingers, and felt tingling in my arms. Temps steadily dropping.

After the lead pack ended their celebration at the top, they began their descent. I was STILL on my way UP. My morale, on the way DOWN. They passed me by, all smiles, beaming. It's that mountain air I tell you. I did my best to be at peace with my state of affairs.

Then the hike leader starts charging his way toward me off the summit. 

"Laruga! We must get you up this mountain!!!"

Seriously where does this guy get all this energy? Really. I need to know. He can make the most sour, rotten batch of lemons in to the sweetest tasting lemonade. It must be a gift.

In my moment of peace. My moment of zen. The first things out of my mouth were ...

"I so don't like you right now!"

The wind howled and bellowed making it hard to hear. "WHAT?!" He yelled.

"I SAAAID, I SOO DON'T LIKE YOU RIGHT NOW!!!!!"

"Ahhh," he responded. Then he quickly took my hand and literally dragged me to the top, burning legs and all. He even threatened to throw me over his shoulder, Viking style, but I decided I better stay on my feet and make this climb legit, if you know what I mean. 

Again, his enthusiasm won out. 

Finally, I made it to the TOP! I freakin' made it to the top! Wooohoo! 

Me at the Top! 
Photo courtesy of Gunnlaugur B. Ólafsson

Never in my life have I felt more exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. Something happened to me up there, I tell you. There's something to scaling up a mountain, feeling as if you have nothing left, to make it, and breath it all in. It's fucking cool. No better way to describe it. None. 

"Body completely shattered, mind blown." I felt good. 

Because I was literally shivering into convulsions, the hike leader made me practically run down the mountain to maintain and build heat in my body. Snow makes for a soft landing on the way down. The best part, sliding on a few of the slopes directly on my bumb. THAT made my day. It's the proper way. It just is.

The descent


So the saga ends. I made it to the top of Hekla, with a bit of help. 

Am I glad I did it? 

Hell ya! 

Somehow the thirst for adventure and open possibility will always win out.

I tell you, ever since I made it to the top of that mountain, I've had a buzz. Seriously. There's something to it. Not sure what it is. All I can say, it must be that mountain air. 

The End. 

Mighty Hekla
















Notice how I'm way in left field, literally! Lol.
Photo courtesy of Gunnlaugur B. Ólafsson

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