Several hiking enthusiasts pull up to the base of Mount Esja, Reykjavik’s local mountain. From the downtown core, Mount Esja beckons you to the challenge. Those that have arrived with hiking boots, polls and thermal gear, salivate at the sight of it.
The ascent begins in a sun-filled meadow of vibrant purple Nootka (also known as Alaskan Lupine), bouquets of Queen Ann’s Lace and clear streams that carry glacial water straight into small brooks of drinking water. It looks as though Monet has put his brush to it; though, this landscape preceded him by hundreds of centuries.
Mid-way up the mountain I am quick to remark that this climb is merely a “6” on the scale of toughness. The gods must have heard my self-reitcheous banter and formed a quick alliance to punish me. As soon as I stop to take some water the rain clouds move in quickly. The ground turns from flowers to sharp volcanic rock and rubble. It’s like I’ve been transported onto the moon.
I throw several layers of clothes on and push forward. Scrambling up the side of the mountain on all fours, I am quick to recognize that I have abandoned my family’s “safety first” code. The two litre bottle of water shifts from side to side on my back throwing my balance off as I reach for the next rock. I have deviated from the path.
The Icelanders have few rules. Sticking to the path is one of them. You will not find police waiting to bust you for a rolling stop or for going 5km over on a deserted highway. Here the laws are enforced by the live or die policy of “we told you so”.
As I glance up, all I see is a sheer rock face. I honestly don’t know what is worse… continuing up or retreating… the prognosis looks dim from either side. At this point, I have imagined myself, several times, missing a foothold and plummeting to my untimely death. As I feel the crocodile tears well up in the corners of my eyes, a big grey rock seems to move and detach itself from the rest of the cliff.
“Hello down there”, the rock calls to me. It’s actually a man well into his 80’s offering a helping hand like an angel giving food to a starving child. How this this man arrived at this particular moment I will never be sure. All I know is that when I truly needed a hand one was there.
For an older man he moves nimbly across the sharp, steep terrain like a mountain goat. Coaching me up the side of the mountain, I finally arrive to his warm reception. From here he shows me to a path with a chain that runs along the side of the rock. I’m supposed to hold onto the chain, he says. Otherwise, it’s too dangerous. I can only agree at this point.
On top of every mountain in Switzerland, there is a restaurant. It seems impossible, but after a six hour climb there is always a giant beer waiting for you. In Iceland, you should keep your wits about you. There is no tram down to base-camp. Instead, I open up a can of chick peas and have lunch looking down from the top of the world.
Climbing a mountain feels like a major accomplishment. I guess that’s why people do it. It’s kind of like reading Hemingway. When you are into it, the pros are hard. Sometimes you are unsure of it. There is vapid conversation that only seems to dissipate with a quick drink. However, once you reflect upon it it manifests itself into your being. It makes perfect sense. When the pain is over you are left with a feeling of contentment. This is how I feel. Content. Proud. Accomplished.
Until, in the distance I spot a nymph-like girl with a child attached to her. What I just did, she did with an infant strapped to her chest. She just took it to the next level. Granted, she stuck to the path (brilliant woman), I am in awe of her.
After conversing briefly, I practically jog down the mountain as she continuously gains on me. What ever marathon I trained for, it didn’t prepare me to go up against super-mom. Every time I glance back the baby is propped up on her in a different way. It’s like being in one of those “Husband Carries his Wife Challenges”… except all I’m toting is a backpack holding a bottle of water that was emptied at the summit after realizing that there is better water running through the streams.
I win. And I pick up a German Hitchhiker on the way home just to prove that I can be of use to someone else.