How a Walk in Iceland Changed My Notion of Hiking

One of our first stops when we left our home for full time travel in August of 2015 was Iceland. When booking our around the world airline tickets, the fantastic gal who helped us asked if we would like a week layover in Iceland, so of course we said yes! We relegated our exploring to day trips from Reykjavik and felt like this was going to be a great kick off to our trip. 

It was October at this point (we spent the month of August in Mexico and September on a road trip in the US), so the weather was blustery, rainy and cloudy most of the entire time we were in Iceland. We didn't let that get us down though, and continued with our plan to go on some hikes and explore some hot springs, etc. You know, all the things you go to Iceland to do. 

Glymur falls in Iceland. Beautiful but a bit of a challenge to get to.

There are very few places in the world where you feel like you can actually perish at a moment's notice. The Earth just seems inhospitable and is trying to rid herself of the human scourge. I felt this instantly upon arriving in Iceland. The wind blew so hard that at times I felt as though my legs were going to be taken from under me. We had to turn back from our trails a few times because I couldn't catch my breath in the wind while climbing up a hill and being pummeled in the face with cold large rain drops. But still, we decided to head out each and every day and try to do some walking.

We've done a lot of walking in our travels and in our days together as a couple. As a child, my family would go on nice long hikes to State Parks and the like. But nothing prepped me for what I found in Iceland. I'm not sure if something was lost in translation, but "trails" that were considered moderate were anything but. Zac and I kept laughing and saying, "if this were the US there would be ropes and caution signs all over the place. Hell, you probably wouldn't be able to even use this trail back home." But we were thrilled. The walks here were so wild and so unlike anything I'd done before. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. 

We decided to do a bigger walk to what was the tallest waterfall in Iceland before they found one inside a glacier that is taller. When I was doing my research for the trail to Glymur, it mentioned a river crossing and that some people prefer to cross again at the top of the falls to make a loop.

"Perfect", I thought. "There must be several bridges." So imagine my surprise when we arrived at the river crossing to find no bridge at all. What we did see was a giant log spanning half of the width of the rapids (because of course there were rapids at the point of crossing) followed by submerged stones that are traversed by holding on to a thin wire to help keep the river from washing you away.

Our way across the river coming back. That transition from wood to rock is where you need to dip under.

We watched as several women took off their shoes and crossed the river with aplomb. I looked at Zac with something akin to terror in my eyes as I watched one woman after another cross under the wire to be able to continue her journey across the river on the stones. That's right. Not only were their feet submerged half way up their calves at that point, but then they needed to do a little ducking movement halfway through the journey. What the fuck?! The trail notes definitely did not mention this.

I suspect you're thinking, "just turn back. The trail isn't worth it." But I was not about to let my fears drive me away. So, Zac took off his shoes and into the freezing water he went. I do believe there was a little gasp as the air left his body with the shock of the cold. He dipped, he crossed, he's at the other end. Yay! Except now it's my turn. My first foot went into the water and quickly I was breathless. Second foot in and my teeth were chattering. My toes and feet were getting numb and all I needed to do was make it across the river. Except that a vertigo kind of thing started to kick in. It seems that for me, vertigo can be triggered when I am moving in a direction that is counter to the way the rapids were coming at me. So as I was watching my feet, I was also watching the rapids. They were coming straight toward me, but I was cutting across them. I felt my eyes go all sorts of wonky and my body go sort of slack.

Jill's first crossing of the river at Glymur

But I couldn't give up. I was at the crucial twist under part of the crossing. I was struggling. I steeled myself and dropped back just enough to be able to swing my body underneath the wire. My backpack got caught on the top and I went further back than I intended. Yoga and some good ab strength kept me upright and I was able to make it across. My feet were alternately bright red and white with numbness when I made it to the other side. I was proud of myself for crossing, but also reeling from the vertigo and fear that had taken over while I was in the water. 

I put on my shoes and we continued up the waterfall. The rest of the trail hugs the edge of the canyon where the fall is located and up, up, up we climbed. The vertigo kept getting worse. I was getting nauseous and dizzy and just not feeling right. We arrived at the top. It was getting late in the day so we decided to just look for the way across the river at this point so we could head back down. There was no way I was going to cross at the rapids again. We looked and walked for probably an additional two miles of boggy and soggy riverside with no sign of a place to cross.

I lost my shit. I started crying and getting hysterical. I said things like "I don't want to die out here." And "I can't go back across that river." Ultimately, we had no choice; crossing at our original point was our only option if we wanted to get out of there. And so with reluctance we headed back down (I think Zac might have considered smacking me à la vintage movies when someone is hysterical but opted for kind words and a hug instead).

Jill realizing there is no way to cross at the top of Glymur. We must go back down.

When I arrived at the river crossing I took a deep inhale and exhale. I got my feet in the water, lost my breath and started across. This time I slipped when I did the dip under the wire but again my balance and strength held. I made it across and we got safely back to the car and to our hotel in the city.

Something broke in me that day. In reading this story now, I see that I could choose to see it as a tale of strength and perseverance and showing myself that I can do this. And I do see it that way. But something fundamental cracked. I lost confidence in my abilities to hike. I'm now daunted by hiking in places I don't know. I've lost my enjoyment of challenging walks and would rather forest bathe on easier trails that allow me to really enjoy nature instead of feeling like I am going to be killed by it. I don't know why I reacted the way that I did that day in Iceland. Maybe there was more to how I was feeling than I know even now. But what I do know is that my reaction has had a lasting impact.

I've continued to struggle with this to this day. We'll be out on amazing walks and all I can think to myself is that I have no right to be here. Nature doesn't need me trouncing all over her just so I can experience something. I'm not equipped to handle life and death situations out here. I feel so unprepared for what might happen. 

I'm not sure that I can pin these feelings all on this one experience in Iceland. I think traveling for three years and not having somewhere that feels like a respite or a return to home plays a factor into my feelings as well. But I can say this. I know nature and the Earth are nothing to fuck with. I know she doesn't need us here and will likely do something about it one of these days. I know that I enjoy the magnificence that she is and I know that I need to respect that she is a force unlike any other. So for now, and maybe for ever, I will cautiously tread on these trails so that I might be able to experience her beauty. But I will tread carefully because I know I am but a speck on this planet.

Post Script Update 8 September: So I've been thinking about this story on and off since I wrote it and since we've been out on several multi-day hikes here in Norway. A few things have come to mind for me on why I might have reacted the way I did and why this feeling still haunts me. The first thing that I have realized is that I am a lot more cautious with safety now than I was when we had a home. We have insurance, of course, but breaking something or having a terrible accident in a foreign country seems so awful. Not that I think the US has the best healthcare and I can't trust anyone else (far from it) but there's something so uncomfortable about the thought of not having a sanctuary to turn to in times of need. And what does an injury mean to our continued travel?

So, I think that played into my reaction. I also realized that part of what drove me to going on difficult walks in the first place was that I wanted/needed to challenge myself outside of my daily life. I needed to escape into the physicality of nature and moving my body in ways that I wasn't able to while working in an office five days a week. Now I'm challenged every single day. Almost every moment of every day. I'm in natural settings way more than before and don't feel the same need to escape and challenge myself the way I used to. Now I crave the mundane and less challenge. I have nothing to prove to myself and nothing driving me in the direction of challenge in the same way as before. Challenge is all around me. So, I think there were lots of reasons I had this experience when we first started and why it still resonates with me. I think about it every time I have to cross a body of water. I think about it whenever I'm climbing to the top of some hill or waterfall or whatever. I haven't given up I'm just thinking I want a little bit more ease in my life than what I currently have. I'm searching for the elusive sense of "balance". I think all these lessons will eventually lead me there.


Video: Walking to the top of Glymur Waterfall in Iceland