Only two hours more…
At 11 the next morning, Jean, Rick and I were the last to wake. Across the hut from us, Kristjana and Sylvía were changing, reminding me of a funny scene from the night before. It was of Jean, giddy from overexertion and fatigue, undressing in plain view on her bunk as Rick scurried around trying to shield her.
"Here, use this," he'd said, holding up her sleeping bag, but she'd kicked free of it, nearly kicking Rick in the process.
Last night I had opted for the sleeping bag shield, but this morning I was with Jean and now Kristjana and Sylvía too in my shameless shedding of clothes. It was that silent transformation that occurs while sleeping in close quarters with near strangers where you wake feeling as familiar as old friends. It reminded me of high altitude acclimatization where the body replicates its blood cells overnight, enabling everyone to wake already adjusted to the lack of oxygen. But while these transformations were silent, things in the cabin hadn't exactly been quiet the previous night.
First there had been the snoring—a slight sniffle here and a wheeze there had quickly transformed into a full–blown chorus of chainsaws. And then there had been the yelling. At various points throughout the night, a woman had shouted out in English with increasing pitch and franticness, "Where? Where? WHERE??!!"
When we joined the others outside for breakfast, Kate suggested that maybe our yeller had been having nightmares about today's hike.
"She was probably asking, "'We have to hike to where? '" Kate said, and we all laughed knowingly.
The first thing I noticed as we started our second day's hike, which I had somehow overlooked in my anxiety over our ever–expanding hike the day before, was that all the Icelanders had hiking poles. Soon, as the snow receded to reveal a rutted and rocky tightrope of a trail balanced between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers, it became clear why. The new twist in today's hike was a technical one, and to attempt these trails without poles seemed seriously unsafe. Without any discussion between them, each of our Icelandic companions gave up a walking pole, with Sylvía forfeiting both of hers, so that the rest of us could maintain a semblance of balance.
Photo by Nigel Bevan
Beyond the glaciers were brown–green valleys and mountainsides streaked with rich red soil, and in the distance, mountains as blue as ocean waves stretched into the equally clear sky. But the treacherous trails made the going even slower than it had been the day before. And, sure enough, when Rick tried to verify that the hiking time was only two hours, Sylvía said it would probably be closer to three.
"Well," Kristjana said, adjusting the estimate once more, "it might be more like three to four."
Rick shot Jean and me a look. It was a look of disbelief and utter exhaustion. It was a look that described a feeling I knew well by now.
Yet, despite (or perhaps to make up for) their lies about the length of the hike, the Icelanders (I'd come to consider them all guilty by association) made repeated efforts to slow down to our pace. As the trail disappeared into a steep stretch of glacier, Sylvía took my free hand to aid my descent, and Sigrún walked in front of me, demonstrating her heel–first glacier walk, and instructing me to follow in her footsteps. While Kristjana maintained her end–of–the–line lookout position, Karl abandoned the leader post he'd maintained for much of our hike and linked arms with Jean, helping her down the glacier in what looked like a high–legged wedding processional walk.
By the time we stopped for a late lunch, more than three hours had passed and, once more, the hut we were hiking to was nowhere in sight. After lunch, perhaps in anticipation of my question, Sylvía announced, "About two more hours. I think."
Not ready to absolve her of her prior falsehoods nor get too excited about what most likely was yet another one, I refrained from saying anything and instead just nodded.
"I am a mountain!"
As we approached this supposed final portion of our hike, even our walking poles were of no use. Here it was so steep and narrow we had to make our way down using both hands to alternate between gripping a chain link railing and a thick rubber rappelling cable. I tried to avoid looking down, but still this didn't stop me from feeling shaky and weak, especially when we got to the end of the final chain railing and I discovered that a post securing it to the ground had fallen out.
Sylvía caught my frozen deer–in–the–headlights stance, and she and Sigrún, who stood behind her, insisted I take their hands as I lowered myself down the mountain.
"No, you'll fall," I said. "I'll pull you down with me."
Sigrún shook her head. "We are strong," she said.
"I," Sylvía paused, and I could see her scanning her mind for the words in English. "I am a mountain."
I couldn't help but laugh at this, but Sigrún and Sylvía were serious. They had wedged their feet into the mountainside and refused to withdraw their hands. So I reached out and took hold, and to my amazement, they didn't come tumbling down with me. I found my footing on the next incline at a spot where the railing was sturdy once more.
Sylvía and Sigrún refused my offers of help and somehow made their way down to the safe spot themselves. From there, a few miles ahead and a few thousand feet below, in the middle of a river–fed valley, I could see the shape of our new hut. I pointed it out to Jean and Rick, who both smiled, heaving sighs of relief.
Had I known from the start that we'd be hiking for eight hours until four a.m. the first night and then for what I now suspected would be nearly as long the second day, scaling dangerous cliffs with chains of questionable quality, I don't know that I would have signed us up for the trek. But in the aftermath of what I could tell was the toughest part, I was glad we had come. I was glad, after all, that we hadn't known the truth from the start. As my friends had once done for me, I could forgive the Icelanders.
Also, though, I could play their game. "So," I said, looking out over the many mountain passes still ahead, "What do you think? Just another half hour, right?"
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Lea Aschkenas(to the right of Rick and Jean) is the author of Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island.
All photos by Lea Aschkenas except where indicated.
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