15 December 2014

World's end

"Anything I've ever done that was ultimately worthwhile, initially scared me to death."
-- Betty Bender

“We shouldn’t be here,” I thought on the walk back to our guesthouse. Technically, we were still within the city limits of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, so carrying a firearm for protection from polar bears was not mandatory.  In truth, we were living, moving targets.

It was a 3 kilometer uphill hike from the town center to Spitsbergen Guesthouse, but there were no buildings along this stretch save an elementary school.  Where would we run if a wild polar bear smelled us?  And did you know they can smell seals 1 meter below solid ice? Not to mention, the odds of us outrunning hungry mega-fauna were slim to none.

It was 01:00 but who could tell the difference between night & day, given that we were in the realm of the midnight sun?  Though it was not sunny, the sky was bright enough to see the single paved road ahead (and behind) my mother & me.  The ravine’s dark walls surrounded us and the deserted mine perched on our left.
At this late hour, the world was muted.  No birds chirped. The wind wasn’t howling like it usually did.  The silence was maddening because it made me paranoid about every sound I heard.  The high, foreboding hillsides felt like they were closing in.  My eyes and ears were hyper-alert because at any moment I honestly expected a large, yellowish figure to emerge atop the hills on all fours.  With their uncanny ability to smell seals under 2 meters of solid ice from 2 miles away, I knew we had already been identified by any nearby polar bears. Maybe Mom sensed my nervousness, but she must have been equally concerned because she offered to survey the left side of the street if I would scan the right.

“We shouldn’t be here.” That crossed my mind occasionally in Iceland and Norway, but here – in the Arctic Circle – the phrase thrived. 

At 78º 13’ N, Longyearbyen is the northernmost “city” (I use that term loosely) accessible to tourists.  Yes, there are other "cities" in Canada & Barrow, Alaska, but they lack an infrastructure.  To travel to northern Greenland & Russia – where there is predominantly a military presence – one must first obtain written permission from the federal government.  How do I know this?  At 23:00 I met an Asian gentleman in the communal kitchen of Spitsbergen Guesthouse who informed me of his goal to reach the northernmost and southernmost latitude possible.  He assumed Longyearbyen was where his quest ended, but excitedly reported that – after a 3.5 hour boat ride earlier in the day – he crossed 78º 41’ N at the mining settlement Pyramiden.

So, Longyearbyen it is for those in search of isolation, extremes and polar bears.
"We shouldn’t be here” moments amassed exponentially once I left the town of Longyearbyen & land altogether.  The first occurrence was on Day 2 aboard an Arctic cruise.  It was each person’s first time disembarking the MS Expedition.  I could sense their hunger for the Arctic.  It was a mad dash downstairs to the mud room – the dressing and staging area for leaving the boat.  However, the anticipation quickly dwindled once guests loaded the much smaller, inflatable Zodiacs to be transported to the tiny stretch of land named Poolepynten (pronounced “poo-lee-pin-ten”).
On the brief ride to shore, horizontal rain crashed into my body and poured off my jacket in rivers.  Since the Zodiacs could not be completely beached, each guest stepped into the frigid Arctic water with only cheap galoshes (made flimsier by every previous user) to sheath their feet.

On Poolepynten Mother Nature continued her barrage.  The rain was so heavy at times that the anchored MS Expedition looked like it was behind frosted glass.  Photographers scrambled to put plastic bags over their expensive cameras.  And the wind.  The Arctic wind sliced my cheeks & left them raw the remainder of the day.  Furthermore, the Walrus colonies – for which the island was famed – were subdued.  The majority of the population slept peacefully through the foul weather (although if I had 10 centimeters of blubber I’d be cozy too) which worsened the sightseers’ moods.
An hour ago in the mud room, all the passengers were laden with bulky clothes & overheating.  Here & now, exposed to all the elements, Mother Nature was winning the war for warmth.  As I observed six Walruses, yearning for them to wake up & be active, I knew we were all in over our heads.  I saw two Zodiacs return to the cruise ship with likely soaked and disappointed guests.  I removed my bulky glove & cinched my Canon Rebel T3i case tighter, but within two minutes my hand was numb. Inside the generic rain boots provided by G Adventures, I wiggled my toes to keep blood circulating though the effort proved futile in the end.  In these conditions, the minutes passed like hours to me. Humans were not meant to endure 78º N.

For the dedicated, Poolepynten was a highlight (more on that in a later blog entry) and taste of Arctic life. On Day 3 the expedition leader planned for Zodiac cruises to see Puffins, “hanging gardens” and the interestingly named 14th Of July glacier.  En route to 79º N the ship pitched so brutally that its corridors reminded me of a funhouse with slanted rooms & a dizzying, spinning tunnel.  I sought the doctor for a medicated ear patch to settle my equilibrium. Convinced the Zodiacs would be bashed against the rocky cliffs in this weather, the Puffin expeditions were cancelled.  Yet, the crew was confident that the land excursions could proceed – with caution.

Lesson learned from Poolepynten, I wore additional, thicker layers. Since the MS Expedition’s mudroom was on a lower deck, it lacked windows, but I still felt the violent rocking.  Waiting in line to board the Zodiacs, I recognized the man standing at the threshold to the outside world as Chief Officer (second in command).  His austere demeanor and neat attire made him stick out.  “Conditions must be serious to warrant this level of supervision,” I thought.  

Instead of queuing at the metal door, one person at a time was summoned forward to the grated platform. Like a bouncer at a nightclub, the Chief Officer shook his head in approval or disapproval to the three men that waited four steps below the gangplank. When I received his blessing I was passed into the arms of all three staff members using trapeze holds.  At this point in the boarding process guests typically put one foot on the Zodiac and stepped in, but I was prevented crossing.  The Arctic Ocean undulated savagely and was strewn with whitecaps.  These were not waves you would encounter on a bad day at the beach.  The swells rose and fell in massive variances that would devour the Zodiac if not timed precisely.

The acme of “we shouldn’t be here” resulted in the use of [over-the-counter] drugs, a sleepless night and anxiety attack on Day 5.  After a wonderful day filled with unique wildlife and unprecedented landscape, I returned to my cabin past midnight.  Earlier the MS Expedition reached the northernmost latitude of our tour: 80º 16.12’ N.  Why couldn’t we sail further north since we had the time?  Quite simple: the polar ice pack.
I probably slept an hour before being awakened by the terrifying sound of something scraping against metal and jarred me from slumber.  Outside the porthole, ice surrounded the boat as far as the horizon. The fog blocked the midnight sun and heightened the portentous feeling that we were sailing in dangerous waters. The haunting vastness of the polar ice – and nothing else – that I saw will forever be etched in my memory. 
I laid in bed & begged my mind not to freak out, but every five minutes I was jolted out of a quiet prayer by another, familiar sound of ice being dragged across the ship’s frame.  With each unnerving sound I wondered if it had punctured our vessel – our lifeline.  The MS Expedition was not an ice-breaker, only reinforced, and replaced the MS Explorer which sunk in Antarctica after an irreparable tear from ice.
At 03:00 the thuds of ice had partially subsided, but just when I relaxed, another would crash into the hull. The ship’s swaying increased and contents in the room shifted.  There was often so much momentum I felt gravity pull me and anticipated my head impacting the wall.  The MS Expedition continued to pitch inexorably, to the point that I swore we would tip over & capsize at any second.  A few times the drastic tilt was interrupted midway by an enormous wave. I was grateful for the momentary lapse in rocking, but questioned the structural damage.  Frazzled and exhausted, at 05:00 I resorted to a double dose of Dramamine which never once worked for my nausea, but would hopefully sedate me.  How my Mom (& other passengers) slept I’ll never know. 

Despite the intensity of feeling overwhelmed, alone, frozen, in danger, isolated, hesitant, vigilant and downright scared, insignificance stood out the most to me in Iceland, Norway & Svalbard.  I presumed Christopher Columbus' crew experienced the same emotions as they sailed to the edge of the horizon for Planet Earth lives on without care for flora, fauna or humans. What would be my tiny role in this grand history? In the Arctic Circle, Mother Nature flexed her muscles and the sole thing anyone aboard the MS Expedition could do was take preventative measures. Sometimes that is not even enough & humans are utterly helpless – like a National Geographic cruise ship the previous week that became trapped in the ice for two days.

I realized this trip had transformed from a vacation into risking my life. We shouldn't be here -- the tippy top of the globe -- but here we were, 1300 kilometers a.k.a. 800-some miles from the North Pole.  At Poolepynten, I stared out into the gray void.  Somewhere out there the ocean & sky united. I wanted to cry because I felt so puny. A microscopic blip on a map.  A lone grain of sand on the beach. The way the sun never set, the almighty weather, and the lack of civilization humbled me more than I can describe with words.  Despite my dismal realization, I concurrently felt proud to have even traveled this far north; grateful to simply be alive and inhaling one more breath. At the ends of the Earth, I found perspective.

16 November 2014

Three sides to every story

"The earth never tires.
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible, at first:
Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first.
Be not discouraged, keep on,
there are divine things well envelop'd
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell."

-- Walt Whitman



HOW DID YOU SLEEP THE NIGHT BEFORE IN THE PARKING LOT?

Michelle (me):  I slept restlessly in the rental car in the parking lot of Preikestolen Vandrerhjem a.k.a. Preikestolen Hostel.  My mind was too preoccupied by the fact that our Honda was the only vehicle that remained there past 22:00, making it an easy target to rob or investigate for trespassing.  At 06:30 my alarm clock woke me up.  Mom & I initially planned on setting off pre-dawn to watch the sunrise at Preikestolen but the receptionist at the guesthouse dissuaded us, claiming the view would be anti-climactic.  The sun had been on the rise since 04:30, but who could tell given the permeating sidewalk gray haze?  We debated postponing the trip due to the unfortunate weather conditions.
Stephanie (Mom): I slept terrible because I kept waiting for someone to tell us to move. I figured every person or car that came by was a security guard.  Plus, the windows of the car were steaming up so it was a giveaway we were inside.  But I was okay [with the decision to] sleep in the parking lot & save money.  Also, I didn't get a good night's sleep because someone set her stupid alarm clock for the buttcrack of dawn so we could beat the tour busses. Still, I understood the reasoning behind Michelle's plan. 

Truth:  Once a visitor has entered the parking lot of Preikestolen Vandrerhjem & Fjellstue a.k.a. lodge, he/she must pay $20 USD to exit, however, guests of the hotel are given a voucher.  Having realized there was really nowhere else to sleep, but in the car (except a campsite some kilometers away, back down Lysefjord) the duo had no other options except to pay the parking toll... almost.  Since the guesthouse reservation was for the next day, Stephanie & Michelle slept in the gravel lot and eventually got their parking ticket validated for free.


DO YOU RECALL THE INITIAL SCENERY OR FEELINGS?

Michelle/truth:  Of course!  Preikestolen Vandrerhjem was only a third of the way into Lysefjord, but it still was a chilly morning, probably around 13º C a.k.a. 55º F.  Not knowing the forecast  I donned my Cypres t-shirt (how appropriate), sweater, snowboarding jacket, winter accessories and two layers on my lower body.  As we set off past the trailhead, the path immediately and abruptly climbed.  Stephanie & I were sweating profusely and shed almost every article of clothing put on less than an hour ago.  Aside from this early morning activity, I felt excited.  I was ready to get moving and beat the crowd to our final destination: Preikestolen a.k.a. Pulpit Rock, a granite terrace overlooking the fjord.
Stephanie:  I was kind of disappointed because someone (Michelle) kept bitching at me that I wasn't getting ready fast enough.  Plus, it was overcast & foggy outside.

At first everything was fine, it was just like hiking. Toward the beginning we saw a sign that showed three crests & I thought "oh that doesn't look so bad."   There were some tough places to climb and I grew hot, but then it started to drizzle, so I had to put on my plastic poncho which made me even hotter.   Yet, I told myself "okay, only three hard places. I can do this."


TELL THE READERS WHAT TRANSPIRED AFTER EMBARKING.

Stephanie:  It was hard to see the small red marks on the trail & we had to keep stopping to search for them, asking "do you see another one?"  I was basically following Michelle, whom I often referred to as "my fearless leader." 

I want to talk about that wood walkway. That was really pretty and I thought "Wow, that was awesome! All that climb was worth it." It was so serene.  In retrospect, I wish we could've slowed down a bit. You were pushing me so fast.  I kind of regret that we didn't stop to observe the birch trees, we just kept going.

Michelle:
  I was surprised by the steepness of the journey from the start.  Not that I expected a pleasant, smooth trail, but I also didn't think I'd be exuding so much energy from the onset. 

I also remember my apprehension.  Everywhere I looked was fog & more fog.  Frequently, throughout the entire journey, I surveyed the field of rocks, searching for the red T's sporadically painted on them that indicated the way to Pulpit Rock.  I desperately wanted conditions to clear so I could behold that breath-taking view of Lysefjord from above, but in the back of my mind, I acknowledged the journey could be a bust.  The weather that plagued our adventure however, also created a brilliant ambiance.  The fog showed just enough of the mountaintops to keep me curious... well, at first.

I guessed whether this was the highest elevation or if more crags laid beyond.  Further, at one of the very few flat areas, Mom & I stepped onto a boardwalk that wove through a misty taiga a.k.a marshy forest.  The photo I captured was a favorite of both Mom's and mine.  The scene was so visceral: the complementary colors; the whole view in shades of brown and green; the outline of pointed, leafy trees breaking up the monotonous fog; and in the middle of it all, like the Yellow Brick Road, laid the natural planks swerving off into the jagged horizon. 
Truth:  Michelle was a bit of a slave-driver toward Stephanie.  However, Stephanie also started to severely lag during the hike.  As a motivational tool and way to keep pace, Michelle compromised by resting every 10 steps up the bakke a.k.a. hill.  Stephanie obliged but broke stride after 7 steps.  Soon thereafter she tried to get away with stopping every four steps, and that was when Michelle really became irritated.


AT WHAT POINT DID THE TRAIL & YOUR FEELINGS START TO CHANGE?

Stephanie/truth:  I ate a gross turkey sandwich (that I purchased the night before for breakfast) but much to my chagrin it was full of globs of thick butter.  When I unknowingly took a large bite, it was like eating straight butter.  It was lardy and made my stomach upset.

I remember thinking about how it seemed like such a long time since we began.  Also, I kept focusing on the diagram we saw.  The climb -- or should I say mountain goat climb -- was definitely challenging, but I kept saying "Okay, okay this is the second big haul. I can do this. There's only one more after this. I can do this."  My feet didn't hurt yet; I was still physically well. I mean there were sections where it was tough on the knees, and you know, your body temperature increased.

Michelle/truth:
  Not far from the parking lot the leisurely trail ended & was replaced with rocks, which made choosing good footing vital. After the boardwalk was the worst uphill scramble!  It was brutal & never-ending!  Having viewed the diagram earlier on the trail that showed three major crests, I assumed we were getting closer, but I was soooo wrong!  Each plateau revealed a newer, higher ridge and we kept climbing higher into the widespread fog.  By now, Mom began whining and gratefully relinquished the backpack for me to carry.  We struggled onward and constantly paused to catch our breath.  In an effort to keep Mom going, I kept yelling back to her, "It [Preikestolen] is probably after this steep part" -- and I truthfully thought it would be.


WHEN DID EVENTS TAKE A TURN FOR THE WORST?

Michelle:  The old, buttery sandwich turned Mom's stomach, but we only stopped walking for a few minutes because gnat-like bugs hounded us.  Through the fog we passed more alpine lakes, but saw no wildlife.  After some time Mom felt abject, stating she couldn't even lift her legs. She was enraged that I brought her on this hike and her eyes welled with tears.  Although I halfheartedly laughed, I was also exhausted & pitied her. If I could have carried my mama, I would have.
I knew things were getting worse for Stephanie when she refrained from complaining.  Remember how I kept calling below, hoping to inspire her that Preikestolen was over the next ridge?  Well, I stopped all that.  Mom & I wearily trudged on in silence.  I was losing my damn mind too and thought if I spoke one more fallacy Mom would stop hiking entirely and I would scream. I considered myself in decent physical shape, but even I was ready to collapse.  It felt like we were blazing a trail to outer space through the same, endless scenery.  Upon summiting a mountaintop that used to be in the distance, more repeatedly materialized above us. 

The map posted near the start of the trail conveyed one more steep ascension so we pressed on, but inclement weather rolled in.  Mom & I cinched our rain gear and frantically looked for shelter, but we were on top of a fjell a.k.a. mountain with no protection.  Because boulders were strewn about, we split up to find an upright slab to block the elements at Mom's suggestion.  I wedged myself into a corner which hardly helped.   Through the strong wind, sideways rain and dense mist, I watched Mom do the same, but lost all sight of the red markers.  In fact, I could not see more than 20 feet ahead.  I was worried that the journey to Preikestolen was rapidly becoming a real-life episode of Man Versus Wild.

Stephanie:  {growls}  Do you remember the tour bus people started passing us? I know you weren't happy about that but I was trying to go as fast as I could.  Plus, I was carrying all the heavy weight in the backpack except for the camera.  I just kept climbing over the loose rock.  I went up the fourth mountain & thought "That was longer than 45 minutes." I was pissed that the map was misleading.  The terrain turned from rubble to granite slabs so I could tell we were getting higher.

However, we were lost in the fog up on that mountaintop. We were like Dumb & Dumber because we couldn't see the trail.  We argued because neither of us knew which way to go and I was getting pretty tired by that point.  Then, of course, it started to pour so we looked for cover and my big ass tried to squeeze in between two rocks but I didn't fit.  I was sweaty because of the raincoat, and that butter was making me sick. I needed that apple... Thank God for that apple. You actually let me sit down [Michelle], you Nazi, and eat that apple.  That was the first time we really rested.  

Truth:  Stephanie recalled that Michelle made her haul the backpack up until the storm, but such was not the case.  However, whilst crouching between tall rocks to avoid the rain, both ladies thought it an opportune time to snack.  Michelle ate the tastiest vanilla yogurt in her life & Stephanie devoured a red eple a.k.a. apple.


WHAT WERE YOUR REACTIONS UPON FINALLY BEHOLDING PREIKESTOLEN?

Stephanie: You [Michelle] took me over a monolith and down, rather than going around the damn thing. You took me 5,000 feet out of the way!  However, I was surprised that there were so many people there already.  I wondered how did all those people get past us, undetected?

Furthermore, we couldn't see the panoramic view. I remember saying "This is it? We climbed all the way for this?"  The fog made the experience disappointing at first.  Still, I was happy to be at our destination.
Michelle:  I didn't immediately know we had arrived at Pulpit Rock since I was focusing on the technical climb down the boulders (and trying to help you too Steph).   One wrong step equaled death.  I could only slightly discern the outline thanks to the permeating fog.  I admit I was somewhat crest-fallen.
I was puzzled too.  How were there already 20 people when we left so freaking early in the morning and no more than six passed us on the trail?!

Truth:  Somewhere during the hike the trail split, but this was unbeknownst to the duo because it was never mentioned in the guidebooks.  It was not indicated on the picture kart a.k.a. map at the start of Preikestolen nor posted on the actual trail (unless somehow in the fog, it was overlooked).  Michelle did not lead Stephanie "5,000 feet" out of the way, but it certainly was a higher, more technical route.

Michelle:  Within a half hour the fog marginally lifted and allowed us to see the fjord below but cut off the sky.  I remember I ate a snack since we were prepared to stay there for hours if need be.  The sky lightened to a crisp white which I assumed was from the rising sun.  My eyes played tricks on me because it seemed like the fog was dissipating.
Truth:  The fog actually was burning off, however Michelle believed it was her wishful thinking.

Stephanie:  And then the fog lifted & we really did get a great view! It was prettier than I ever expected. Oh my gosh, it was beautiful.  Going to the edge was creepy, but I got further than you did, however it was a little frightening.  I wanted to rest, but ohhhh nooooo, someone had to take a billion pictures.  So I retraced my steps halfway across the spanse and waited for your ass to shimmy across the opposite rock shelf because you were afraid you'd fall.  Then, we waited for all the tourists to get out of the way so we could take the shot.  I was trying  to be nice. I don't think I was bitchy about it, I just went along with the program even though my feet hurt.
Michelle:  Oh my God, that was divine intervention! Preikestolen was awesome beyond words!  The water in Lysefjord's a.k.a. light fjord vein was a creamy, Robin's Egg blue and disappeared at the horizon.  You could see tons of wrinkles in the rock faces and patches of green shrubs. It was sort of like being atop the world, looking down on it.  Honestly, I loved it.  The time we first spent there, watching the scene change & without the masses, was quite cathartic to me.  I never knew the definition of a fjord or how it differed from, say, a ravine or a mountainous river, but once I glimpsed Lysefjord I just understood what a fjord was.

Ha!  The way I captured that great, panoramic video was by laying on my belly, army-crawling to the edge and dangling the Canon over it, remember Steph?  Seriously though, my vertigo was awful.  When I tried to cross onto a detached precipice my legs felt so wobbly.  I probably wasn't but my body felt like it was swaying and I feared if I stood near the edge much longer I'd fall off due to my unsteadiness. Suddenly that crack that everyone else had been casually stepping over looked like a three foot crevice! I refused to jump it because I imagined myself slipping on the wet rock and tumbling to my death.  I knew I could get some great shots from that other cliff though so I scooted on my bum.  I did feel like an oddball moving at a tortoise's pace in front of everyone who walked around fine, but I was queasy from the heights.  Mom was a lot braver than me.
Stephanie: Then, you let me rest there and we hung around, snacking. It was really unsettling to watch what other tourists did.  I kept thinking "You dumb fucker! You're going to fall off." Do you remember that guy standing on one foot on the edge? Dumb tourists.  It sure became crowded, and I know you have to share it but it was annoying.
Michelle:  Yeah! I was certain we'd witness at least one fatality that afternoon.  I was so paranoid about tripping or being bumped by an oblivious tourist that I kept a 5 foot radius from people at all times {laughs}.
Truth:  At the time Michelle & Stephanie visited Pulpit Rock, surprisingly, a fatal incident had never been recorded.


WHAT DID YOU EXPERIENCE ON THE RETURN HIKE?

Stephanie:  I saw the same damn rocks that I saw on the way up.  There were a lot more people to dodge.  It was not a smooth, straight, quick descent.  Everyone thinks going down is easy but it jars your knees because you're dropping down from crags over 18 inches tall. You were really kind of jumping down in a lot of places, it's not just walking.  The wetness didn't help either because it made the rock slick.  All I remember going down was staring at my feet & the people going by. I don't recall anything breath-taking about it.

Michelle:  Well, we were content with, but tired from, our trip and left Pulpit Rock because it rapidly became overcrowded as the Norway In A Nutshell tours swarmed it.  Like it was impossible to find a decent picture or picnic spot without hordes of loiterers.  Instantly my knees ached. Descending was onerous too, but still better than going uphill. The clouds had mostly evaporated and daylight brought more landscape into view that we previously missed -- like a hobbit house (wish I would have had that during the storm) & a post-card worthy lake.
As Mom & I headed back toward civilization, a variety of people flowed toward Preikestolen: Russians, Brits, Dutch, dog-walkers, women toting purses, backpackers, babies being carried, old people with walking sticks and families.  At a particularly long, steep and vexing scramble upward everyone paused, panting.  I wanted to warn them, especially the elderly couple: "You think that was bad? Just wait... it only gets worse!"


WHY DID STEPHANIE CONTINUE TO CRY?

Stephanie:  I only cried once on the way up, but I cried a lot on the way down . My feet hurt. My feet. Hurt. So bad. I already had pain in my arches from the ascent, but going down that 45 degree angle made my feet slide forward in my shoe, smashing my toes. Plus, the boots were a little tight to begin with.  I'd readjust them but within 3 steps my toes were crunched up at the front again.  I mean pain.  Horrible horrible pain. Birth pain. Like my toes were giving birth. And as I kept going that pain just kept getting worse. Remember I fell twice? The makeshift slab steps were so far apart, so I half fell/sat on my butt while everyone watched.  Later, I stumbled and almost fell flat on my face, but you yelled at me.  At least you took the backpack on the way down. I saw people going down barefoot & when I asked them why it was because their shoes were hurting them.

[And I cried again because] I was so happy to almost be done when the parking lot came into view. It was like "Yay! Thank you God I made it." I just couldn't make my feet move anymore, it was so excruciating {heavy sigh}.

Michelle:   Ohhhhh Stephanie.  First, she slipped and abruptly sat down.  She was alright but her hand was cut & promptly bruised.  I sympathized with her, but maybe I did not express that.  However, after the taiga boardwalk she moved at such a cumbersome pace.  Step by step -- literally -- her heel aligned with the tip of her previous footstep. By now, I didn't mind waiting on her, but knew it was only prolonging her anguish.  Stephanie simultaneously whined, laughed and cried when the parking lot materialized below us.  She's usually the one who helps me keep it together while traveling. I've rarely seen her cry (outside of sappy movies) so I was shocked by her outpouring of emotion.  In fact, only one other occasion comes to mind where she was mentally and physically broken to the point of tears and that was when I was 10 years old.  I'll spare readers the details {grins}.

DID EITHER OF YOU CONSIDER TURNING BACK AT ANY POINT?

Michelle:  For me, the only two options were #1 start the trip to Pulpit Rock and finish or #2 don't leave the parking lot.  I didn't specifically weigh turning back, that was never an option, but during the deluge I thought "What did we get ourselves into?" and how we certainly bit off more than we could chew this time.  Mercifully, the rain let up after only 20 minutes.  Mom and I decided we had better continue while we still could -- physically and given the weather conditions.  Although as we set off again, a couple passed us returning from Pulpit Rock.  They mentioned not being able to see the rock, only fog.  My spirits really sank then.  Again, Mom & I agreed to forge ahead and -- even if it was a wash -- rest, eat or nap at our final destination because we had come so far!  I had no idea we were still so far away {shakes head in disbelief}.

Stephanie:  
No, never.  It's that stubborn quality in me. When the mist (of the storm?) dissipated a bit, we found a red blaze on that wet, smooth granite high up on the cliff.  We were all alone, but you took me up that route.  That fourth mountain was the one that did me in.  I think that right after that when I had my first cry because there was a fifth mountain to ascend & I couldn't climb again.  We should've been there already because the stupid brochure said 45 minutes but we were 2 hours and 45 minutes in!  My feet hurt; my knees ached.  I kept thinking "It's just over that ridge" but that constant disappointment destroyed me.  And Michelle tried to be positive by saying "It's got to be just ahead Mom" but every time it wasn't, I was heart-broken.

Truth:
 The most updated edition of Lonely Planet read "The two-hour, 3.8 kilometer trail to Preikestolen...begins along a steep but well-marked route, then climbs past a series of steep and alternating boggy sections to the final climb across granite slabs and along some windy and exposed cliffs... The steepest sections are at the beginning and in the middle parts of the trail and can be challenging for the unfit."

Stephanie:
 That was a misleading article because it implied there were only 3 sections but I distinctly remember 5.  {angry} There were 3 more climbs. And the steepest are all over!  BULLSHIT,  it was steep the whole way there.  And it was four hours not two.  3.8 kms has never been sooooooo lonnnnnng.  Good God that was forever.  I'm never ever letting you pick [activities] anymore!

28 October 2014

Swimming

"Be not the slave of your own past -- plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, & swim far so you shall come back with self-respect, with a new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson


When most people think of swimming, there is certain imagery: a fat sun in the sky; clear waves lapping; malleable sand; chilly water enveloping hot skin as you enter/jump in; floating on your back; swimsuits; searing cement next to a turquoise pool. 

I lived the antithesis of all that:  a milky, sunless sky; opaque, oddly-colored water; volcanic ash replaced tan sand; floating face-down like a dead body; an area smaller than a dinner plate was the only exposed skin; water so cold it would be frozen without the ocean's constant movement.
Just one sentence in Lonely Planet mentioned SCUBA diving in Iceland but I riffled through the text since I was not certified.  I discovered Silfra (pronounced "Self-ruh") from trolling Trip Advisor's website. Dive Iceland picked me up early in the morning at my apartment.  It was my second of 28 days abroad and my first time leaving the capital city of Reykjavik.  The weather was lugubrious with fog hiding much of the hills' tops.  The Icelandic countryside had a scattering of quaint churches, horses & sheep and it all reminded me of the Scottish highlands.... until I saw a big, fat, white Arctic rabbit squatted on the side of the road.
I would snorkel Silfra with my Finnish guide, Andreas, while an American father & his two daughters would SCUBA.  We all had experience with our respective water sports, but none of us had ever swum in water this cold.  To do so, I started by layering my snowboard gear. Next, I stuffed myself  -- with Andreas' aid -- into a blubber suit and felt warm for the first time that morning. Again, with much cramming from my guide, I squeezed my wrists through the dry suit.  I truthfully was in a human condom.  Strangulated, I pulled at the neckline with my fingers which gave me just enough space to swallow and not asphyxiate.  The only female instructor sweetly secured my pigtails into the suit to assure a good seal.  Then, Andreas pried the hood open as my disfigured face was birthed through the taut Neoprene hole.  The hood was so tight my cheeks spilled over the edges as they were smashed together with the rest of my face.  After the entire process I looked like the Michelin Man.  Everything bulged.  The two of us spent over an hour dressing ourselves for a 30 minute excursion.  This proved to be the most arduous part of the day.
Andreas and I waddled from the parking lot to the diving platform as the sun ostentatiously cast its light onto Silfra.   It made gazing into the pool [that descended to Silfra Cave] like looking through blue-tinted, one-way glass since the landscape flowed downward seamlessly. 
It is this clarity of water that brings adventurers to the divergent tectonic plate boundary... and you must be a risk-taker to submerge yourself here.  Earthquakes are common throughout Iceland so when caught in one, the swimmer must avoid falling rock.  This is especially imperative whence SCUBAing caves.  Being trapped in a dark, confined space, more than two football fields from your only air source; unable to breathe because your equipment was suddenly damaged by a displaced rock, sounds like a scary way to die.  The month before a diver passed away at Silfur Hellir Cave -- so perilous National Geographic had yet to explore it.  Furthermore, the water temperature ranged from just two to four degrees Celsius, making hypothermia and overall discomfort typical.  You'd be better off swimming in the 5º C ocean.
Silfra's frosty temperature was attributed to it being entirely glacial run-off & filled from underground springs.  This was Silfra's claim to fame for two reasons.  First, this was uncontaminated water.  Although glacial melt is dirty, the Icelandic lava rock in the area acted as a filtration system.  Despite the floating things suspended underwater you could dip a glass into this crack in the Earth, chug it, and never feel ill.  Therefore, the water from the Icelandic highlands that took 20-some years to travel here had been repeatedly filtered which lead to impeccable visibility. 
Many argue Silfra's clarity is the best in the world & I was tempted to agree after entering Silfra Hall -- with a maximum depth of 45 meters.  The combination of natural water and sun's rays helped illuminate every rock & the gradients of the bluest blue.  But even with the light, I couldn't see the floor.  For divers & snorkelers alike, Silfra Hall must be swum like a yo-yo due to its varying levels.  One minute I was adrift between cliffs, the next Andreas & I skimmed over broken boulders.  I approached each enormous pile of rubble in Silfra Hall agog to discover what laid beyond it.  Sometimes there was a sudden vertical drop; sometimes another cave's mouth; sometimes a Cerulean blue chasm.
However, the show-stopper was Silfra Cathedral.  Just its name sounded grandiose & it was.  After a dramatic drop-off, the fissure stretched unobstructed for 120 meters a.k.a. 393 feet.  As Andreas & I entered the narrow corridor, I saw the SCUBA divers' trail of bubbles at the far end of the cathedral, exiting it.  On each side, towered walls of craggy rock, juxtaposed by the flat sand floor.  Fractured from earthquakes, dragged by glaciers, pushed onward by the underwater currents, here was where Icelandic rock came to die. 
After a final shallow spot, Andreas veered left to take us to Iceland's lesser known blue lagoon.  As I rounded the bend a masterpiece of colors and biologic wonders unfurled for over 100 meters, like in Silfra Cathedral.  Through the sapphire water laid the distant rocky shore.  The sapphire faded to cyan but closer to me the floor was nude & muted brown.  The only plant that flourished in the frigid underwater temperature was the bright green "troll hair" which was suspended in the lagoon.  The green cobwebs reached for the surface as if gravity had abandoned this place.  The scene was made even more surreal by the frozen bubbles Andreas pointed out.  Encapsulated in the algae as it tried to float to the heavens, a myriad of teeny air pockets frosted the ground.  It was the oddest, most backward scene I encountered on the entire trip.

* * *
Later that week -- still in Iceland -- Mom & I explored the greater Keflavik area.  Outside of the city, I witnessed the rockiest terrain in the country.  I believed only mountain goats could cross it.  Amidst the toothy, inhospitable landscape rose a building whose grayish-white color mimicked the sky.  Behind it laid Iceland's iconic Blue Lagoon.
From afar, Mom & I saw the steam rising from the cauldron that essentially was the Blue Lagoon.  We commended ourselves for purchasing the "comfort package" which provided a robe + towel (and other amenities) because even though it was summer, the thermometer read just 7º C a.k.a. 45º F outside.  The wind bit & sent the steam rolling westward in clouds.  Mom finally worked up enough nerve to shed her robe and ran across the crunchy, black sand beach to the toasty water.  Because the Blue Lagoon is a natural wonder, she fell into a random groove many times & I stubbed my knee twice against unseen, igneous rocks.
The lagoon wasn't like a hot tub though; I did not need to ease into it.   Although its six million liters of seawater commence their journey at a burning 464º F. By the time they reach the open air enough heat has been discharged to make it a balmy 100º F which was welcomed on this cold day.  The steam that rose from the lagoon was so heavy, there were times I could barely see my mother standing across from me. My camera lens fogged up & all my photographs have a misty morning look.

The most staggering feature of the Blue Lagoon is the stark contrast of its colors.  The shoreline was so encrusted with kísill a.k.a. silica that my pictures suggested I was in the middle of a snowy tundra instead of a lava field dating back to 1226.  Without the sun's rays, the entire scene was monochromatic.  Some rocks looked like they had been bombed with bird droppings.  From a distance I assumed there was a type of white stone present, but it turned out to be the same, dark rock transformed by volcanic minerals.
The same minerals that were caked on the igneous rocks is what gives the Blue Lagoon many of its benefits & -- alleged -- healing powers.  So, I thought it ironic that spa services were offered considering this hole in the earth was one massive, free spa!  Because the lagoon's unique ecosystem cannot support "common" bacteria, there is no need for harsh chemicals such as Chlorine in the water.  I found loose Pumice & gave myself a natural ablution.  The aching in my quadriceps and left knee (from hiking a lava tube the day before) alleviated.  Amazingly, 60% of the microorganisms harbored in the geothermal water were new species of algae -- two of which stimulate collagen in the skin.  I felt it compulsory to put these living creatures on my face since I paid a hefty sum for the Comfort Package.  Dispersed throughout the slökunarsvæði a.k.a. relaxing area were unassuming wood boxes with heaps of kísill harvested straight from the earth.  Like a cafeteria worker, I removed the ladle that overflowed with thick, pale goo and slopped some into my hand.   The kísill mask was creamy as I slathered it on &, even after I rinsed it off, I felt a briny residue still on my face .  I didn't dare put any in my hair as it was already slimy enough from the Blue Lagoon's unique properties.



No matter that the Blue Lagoon was a tourist trap & over-priced.  Rightfully so, skeptics doubt its healing abilities but I found the experience rejuvenating.
* * *
On Saturday, 29 June 2013, aboard the M.S. Expedition, David + Giles + I grinned at each other at the dinner table.  Stephanie quietly giggled.  The expedition leader had just announced an overview of tomorrow to the passengers.  A stop at Magdalenefjord -- ranked amongst Norway's top 10 by Lonely Planet -- with an afternoon swim.  If you recall, on day #1, at meal #1, the three of us shook hands and agreed we would complete this rite together.

What would tempt any sane person into knowingly placing their warm, supple body parts into a freezing (literally, the water temperature that was a startling 0º C!) alcove?  Perhaps we had been cooped up too long on the M.S. Expedition?  Maybe we were demented with seasickness?  Vitamin D deficient?  Whatever the reason, a "polar plunge" was something I had always wanted to accomplish & where else would I find a more fitting location than the polar north?

Stripping down to my grungy swimsuit was a juxtaposition to a mere hour earlier, when I donned the usual Arctic fashion:  a tank top + base layer + fleece jacket + snowboard jacket + thermal underwear + snowboard pants + neoprene socks + wool socks + galoshes + [what I referred to as] a mad Russian hat + 2 pairs of gloves.
Mom & I stepped from the Zodiac onto the sandy shore where skeletons of a blubber oven, fish, Puffin & Reindeer remained.  Unfortunately, as I hovered over its crumpled frame with wings spread, this would be the longest I ever gazed at a Puffin throughout the entire 30 days abroad.  There were hints of living things too.  In the sand were recent prints from something with sharp, long nails & paws that looked feline, although I could not recall an animal remotely related to cats that survived in the Arctic!? The only wildlife I spotted was a Snow Bunting crossing a scant stream. Guy -- spotted polar bear tracks in the snow close to 2 days fresh.  As much as I loved Polar Bears, I did not want to see a one alive & well while marooned on Magdalenefjord.
Since we stopped at Magdalenefjord toward the end of the cruise, it was a bit underwhelming compared to the rest of Svalbard.  Not to say it was ugly.  On the contrary there were three hanging glaciers surrounding the bay and that icy blue, hallmark of the polar regions. I was tired & decided to save my energy for my afternoon drowning so I laid on the squishy volcanic moss and napped.
Towards the end of the outing, all 93 passengers and most front-of-house staff assembled at a calm lagoon.  In the middle of it a single Zodiac was anchored.  You could feel the electricity: "Are you going to do it?" "Ha! Only if you are." "Don't be such a baby."  Dr. David wimped out on account of recovering from Bronchitis "recently" (whatever that vague timeframe meant).  As I approached Giles -- clad in a fur-lined parka -- my gut told me he was about to balk as well.  Oh the irony that a 5'1" Filipina had more balls than two burly, well-respected, tall, educated, backpackers! 
On the shore 26 lunatics -- myself included -- trepidatiously lollygagged in their skivvies, not wanting to be the lab rat of the group.  To summarize the ritual, there was such a spectrum of emotions. The first brave souls who entered the lagoon were the also the youngest: two twin girls certainly not old enough to legally imbibe in the mandatory shot poured at the floating Zodiac.  They waded into the water quite jovially.  In contrast, the sisters were followed by probably the oldest swimmers: a white-haired lady & bald, hairy-chested man.  The gentleman raised both his arms, with a shot of Aquavit in one hand, as if he had just been declared the champion of some sport.  Indeed, it was an accomplishment to survive zero degrees without succumbing to cardiac arrest.  Based on their reactions, I swore two crew members (Natalie & Lauren) were actually enjoying themselves and I presumed Damian giggled as he completed a freestyle lap around the raft.
 
However, others made it quite evident that a polar plunge was not their idea of fun.  One man tried to hike up his swimming trunks as if it would help him retain heat & cast a "WOW this water is really cold" glance back to the crowd on the shore.  Another bloke named Giles tiptoed hurriedly out of the lagoon as if every step was painful & onto broken glass.  Some of the esoteric group looked like they might keel over at any minute from the shock.  I was one of those swimmers who displayed absolute anguish in the water.
I dislike being in the spotlight, so I hung back on the beach for a few reasons.  First, in hopes that the onlookers' attention would wane as more & more lemmings plunged into the glacial lagoon.  Second, I studied.  I noticed that the last person in any group spent precious seconds waiting for his/her shot to be poured by Dmitri on the Zodiac.  I lingered in the sand but could not preserve any more heat nor prolong the inevitable.  At Magdalenefjord -- 79º 33.70′ N -- this was the best place to execute a polar plunge.

I furtively sprinted into the Arctic water.  I intended to race in & out, making the event as smooth & painless as possible.  Sort of like ripping off a Band-Aid.  My hopes crumbled within the first few steps.  Knives voraciously stabbed my feet and I nearly belly-flopped into the water with the sudden & unexpected paralysis of my lower limbs.  When I arrived at the boat, Dmitri handed me the shot of Aquavit, but I held up my index finger.  I wanted to earn my polar plunge certificate & I did not just swim through -- literally -- freezing water to feel shorted of the experience.  So, I took an enormous breath and dunked everything.  Immediately I felt the skin on my face contract and brain seize. I exploded from the bone-chilling depths and downed the liquor in one big gulp as I dashed back to dry land.
To recap, I snorkeled in between two continents constantly pulling away from each other in a violent manner.  I witnessed frozen oxygen.  I floated  in century-old seawater heated more than a mile below the Earth's surface, and submerged my entire 98.6º F body into the 32º F Arctic Ocean.  As abysmal and agonizing as it sounds, it was actually a dream come true!