This will be an ongoing series that I plan on writing, in which I will be chronicling my misadventures and terrible decision-making ability while abroad.
Skaftafelljökull, Vatnajökull National Park; Iceland— I’m a grown-ass man. I’m 6’3″ tall, and sit at about 200lbs. I play contact sports, love roller coasters, and have been told by many people that I live my life like I have a death wish. Save for a couple of near-drowning experiences as a kid – coupled with years of Shark Week – which had scarred me towards the thought of being adrift in open water, I can honestly say that I feared nothing. Until I saw these three words:
Beware of Quicksand.
Talk about fucking up your plans, right? At that point, all I wanted to do that day was hike to the top of that hulking, expansive glacier in the distance, with a name I couldn’t pronounce.
That glacier was named Skaftafelljökull, and it is an offshoot of the Vatnajökull, or Vatna Glacier, which is one of the largest glaciers in Europe, and the largest and most voluminous in Iceland, covering roughly 8% of the nation’s surface area. It was bad enough that only one of my three explorer friends was willing to do this with me, but now with this newfound information, our original plan for scaling this monster was proving to be problematic.
Well, technically, it was our third “original plan”.
Our first “original plan” was to do something entirely different. We had originally jotted down in our handwritten agenda that today was to be designated for checking out the ever-so-fucking-astounding Skaftafell Ice Caves. And I mean, like the “take your breath away, make you stop dead in your tracks” kind of astounding. So we pulled over off of Route 1, and moseyed our way up to the visitor’s center, figuring we’d at least need to rent some hiking gear, if not actually need to hire a guide. Naturally, I volunteered to go in and do the talking, and hindsight being 20/20, and knowing that I am VERY easily distracted, I definitely should’ve let that responsibility fall on someone else’s shoulders.
Upon walking I was greeted by the most beautiful woman on earth (if you ever read this, I still love you, mysterious woman from Skaftafell Visitor’s Center), and since I immediately forgot what I went in there for, I promptly began asking questions about how my Icelandic pronunciation was coming along, what part of Iceland she was from, if she had a boyfriend, and what she thought of dating tourists. You know, the usual. But in one ear and out the other, somewhere in our much too short conversation words like “the caves are closed“, “out of gear“, “tour guides are off-duty” and “unstable glacial conditions” were sprinkled in. I really don’t remember any of that.
Anyway, she wasn’t having it, or at least not in front of her boyfriend, who also worked there. So only mildly bummed, I half-sulked out of the visitor’s center and approached the guys who were huddled near our vehicle to keep out of the chilly wind.
“Whatever, guys. I dunno what the hell is going on. Plus, she was being super vague, and I wasn’t really paying attention. Fuck it, we’re here, right? Let’s just do the hike to the glacier caves even though they’re closed.”
So there you have it, the “original plan”, out the window, and here we are now, onto “plan two”.
It took us about an hour’s hike on the first part of the trail to reach the first warning sign. I mean, I’m pretty sure that a yellow sign with those three aforementioned words stenciled in BIG BLACK LETTERS would stop most normal people dead in their tracks. Not me, because, as you’re probably starting to figure out, I’m a fucking idiot.
Where is this quicksand? What does it look like? And will I put my foot in it?
Well, geologists say that quicksand happens anywhere where sediment is suspended by water. You see, sediment gets it’s strength from the friction of the minerals, ores, etc. rubbing against each other. When the water seeps in, it keeps those granules apart, and creates a slimy, viscously thick liquid. Therefore a glacier, which is entirely frozen water and sediment deposits, is essentially like the Walmart of quicksand.
It looks like mud, which is so fucking sneaky. I mean, geologists also say that a more accurate name would be “quickmud”, because there really is minimal sand – it’s mostly silt and clay. And no, you probably shouldn’t let your foot sink into it. Although, I wish I did, because in avoiding doing so, I got the scare of a lifetime.
So now, quicksand watch 2014 is in full effect, and naturally, “plan two” is effectively out the window.
Onto plan three! Our mantra became “we made it this fucking far, we have to at least get onto the goddamned glacier”. WE HAVE TO DO IT. No ifs, ands, or buts.
So there we are, apprehensive as fuck, continuing our hike – laboring along this fucking wasteland of silt, sporadic glacial pools, and enormous sediment deposits that look more like small mountains rather than the collection of rocks that they actually were. We literally stood and stared at this barren landscape, postulating our next move for more than fifteen minutes. It was like we had x-ray eyes, and we were staring through the terrain, trying to find a solid, stable way to move up to the base of the glacier.
Finally, we had our eureka moment – those rocks were accessible; that would be the gateway to our ascent. Often times, the rock deposits form at the glacier edge, and in this instance, they created a rocky stairway up from the ground to the glacier surface and bridged across over a lagoon of water that came from the ice that had to melt to reveal said deposit. Up we go, me and my best friend, hoping to just stand on it. I should probably note that the extent of my hiking experience does not include ice, snow, or natural rock bridges formed by melting glaciers.
Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Eyes fixed down, searching every inch of dirt for the quicksand the sign warned us about. Right foot. Oh shit, that’s quicksand. Avoid it. Strafe left. Left fo–
And that’s when I realized that I planted my foot firmly in quicksand. You see, if I understood the mechanics of quicksand, I wouldn’t have freaked the fuck out.
But I didn’t.
So I freaked the fuck out.
I immediately withdrew my foot and put it on the nearest hard surface. Soil. No wait. Mud. Wait, why is this mud? What’s underneath this mud? Why am I starting to slide? Oh, because this is a fucking glacier, and a glacier is made up of fucking ice.
My legs cross, my left one gives out and starts the inevitable process of what would have been me falling to the lip of this rocky chasm, and then eventually plummeting about 30-40 feet below through a very sharp, scraggly ravine that was filled about a quarter of it’s depth with hypothermia, broken bones, and (barring probably death) an immediate flight home to have my body put back together.
Oh man. Freaking the fuck out. All I could hear was the deafening sound of my heartbeat, echoing in my head like a fucking jet engine.
But today was not my day to die. You see a few days earlier, while in search of an Icelandic GPS system, we stumbled upon a sports store that sold hiking gear. I decided then that I needed a pair of hiking pants, as I did not want to hike in my red jeans (I was saving those for the bar scene in Reykjavik – cut me some slack, I was trying to blend in). So I picked out this sweet pair of grey hiking pants, size large, and walked to the register. Right before I pulled out my 3500ISK, I reneged, and ultimately decided that I wanted to get a black pair of pants. WHATEVER, right? Black goes with everything. I’ll be damned though, as it turned out I grabbed a size medium, which I didn’t realize until the following morning, and made me so fucking mad – I mean, MEDIUM? I couldn’t even tie the fucking belt. Whatever. I’ll just let it hang, I guess.
I never believed that shit happens for a reason. And I kind of still don’t. But, seriously, thank the fucking stars that I fucked that up at the store. Because that dangling belt was the only thing within reach of my hiking partner, who quickly grabbed it like the last shot of Ouzo on Easter (he’s Greek), and yanked me back so hard that I nearly landed on my ass on the edge of that ravine. He seriously saved my life that day, and had this happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, he would’ve had every legal right to Chewbacca my ass. I didn’t die that day, and I walked away unscathed. For what? I mean, I guess that now I have this ridiculous story, and some awesome pictures.
Really awesome pictures, actually. You know, like the one that I took after gaining composure, taking a deep breath, continuing my ascent and finally climbing onto that fucking glacier.