I was walking with my head down when the dirt ended. It was raining. Not torrential, soaking rain, but the kind of rain that’s more like wet air; constant, light, and misty. Impenetrable. Cold. Eight degrees is lovely in the sun, or even just when your clothes are dry, but wet it feels like your bones are frozen.
I stopped when the footpath led directly into the ice. Under my feet was orange sand scattered with chunks of obsidian while ahead of me blue ice topped with a few inches of snow ran perpendicular to the path I walked. It seemed to go on forever.
The map had warned me that the path crossed a little finger of the glacier, but what had looked small under my pen looked insurmountable in real life. Everything had looked smaller on the map. The scale couldn't be comprehended from a folded piece of topographic paper. The only small thing in this place turned out to be me and I found myself slapped in the face with my lack of experience.
I was a total hack job.
As it turns out, filling a backpack with camping gear and dehydrated food then flying to a frigid, treeless country to hike its backcountry does not make you ready for it. I guess that’s partly what I went for; to be confronted with this moment of raw insecurity; to figure my way out of whatever mess I got into so that I’d feel more capable in other parts of my life. So there I was, standing in my Gore-Tex leather boots with my Osprey pack filled to the brim with all the right things, not knowing how to move forward. I was freezing my ass off.
If I couldn’t find the path on the ice, what was I going to do? This question pressed uncomfortably at my mind but at least it was a distraction from my blistered, swollen feet. In this moment I knew that I was facing six or seven more days of this pain; of this indecision. I begrudged every gram of weight in my pack.
This was hypothetically only two kilometers from the camp I was aiming for, but it would be a lot further if a glacial excursion left me lost in Icelandic backcountry.
How will you feel if you walk all the way back?
Good point, me, but how will I feel if I get lost and die of hypothermia?
Whose idea was this?
As I stepped onto the ice, my internal voices continued to argue, and I kept walking. I could pick out some footprints here, or a shallow depression there, and once in a while even a gloriously tall wooden trail marker in the snow. It turned out I didn’t need orienteering mastery.
A few hundred meters in, I looked back. The air was like a blanket of water and I couldn’t see past the snow through the fog. Walking through a sea of frosted grey and white while the ground faded into the air where they met was a wild sensation. 360 degrees of wet nothing.
I have never felt so alone or, frankly, been so alone.
So I cried. Obviously.
I released the straps on my bag and dropped it into the snow and just stood there crying. Don’t get me wrong; this was at a time in my life when I had a few things to cry about. But this wasn’t entirely about those things. It was more a kind of emptying.
Because The Outside lets you do that: feel whatever you want and stand there pouring it out with no humans around to react. The Outside is utterly indifferent.
To call it indifferent sounds negative, but indifference does two things: it forces us to take total, sole responsibility for what we feel, and at the same time allows us to feel anything. We don’t have to justify it out there.
At home this time of year, light fades, temperatures drop, and fatigue and sadness creep in. I don’t want to go outside. Hiking, climbing, and riding my bike all sound less appealing than eating, reading, and watching movies.
So I do them for the indifference. I do them so that I’m outside where I have to, and get to feel what I’m feeling – illogical or unreasonable as those feelings seem.
Then I go home and tell myself to remember how good I feel so that I can talk myself into it again tomorrow.
On that particular walk, home wasn’t in the cards. The only card I had to play was that of forward movement; the next camp; my tent. The sun came out for about 6 hours that week. Nothing dried and there was nowhere to hang it anyway. I had blisters on 6 toes and one of my nails came out, but I didn’t get swept away in any of the glacial rivers.
That hike was filled with more beauty and more physical misery than any week since. It sucked. Seriously.
But I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I wish that special kind of misery on all of the people I love because of how much it made me - and let me - feel.
I wish it on you.
Tori is our resident adventurer here at Wild Rock. From Icelandic adventures to climbing in deserts to weekends spent in hammocks. Live vicariously through her in The Journal!