Hábarmur is the mountain we never meant to climb. Our ambitions were set on Torfajökull, a small glacier southwest of Eldgjá. We drove for a couple of hours until we arrived at Lake, and in true Icelandic fashion, just started walking with only a GPS (and Ranger Róbert) as our guide. As I mentioned before, Icelanders don’t do trails, but there were some small paths, created by years of sheep traffic, if we wanted to create the illusion in our heads that we were on some type of high-traffic hiking path with easy access to help if something were to go wrong (how cute).
We hiked up and over a ridge and down into a valley filled with electric greens. Glacial melt shot out tendrils of water, all lined with very bright moss, until they converged in an explosion of vitality on the valley floor. Small pieces of lustrous obsidian occasionally littered the ground, probably from Katla’s last major eruption. We began walking up Hábarmur proper - or what we thought was Torfajökull proper - and the combination of physical exertion and constant vigilance in regard to safe footing was exhausting. We eventually arrived at a small dip between ridges where a huge wall of glacial ice clung to the mountain like a sentinel, waiting for us.
We stood around for a bit, wondering what to do.
Róbert basically ran up this vertical boulder scree and yelled, “It’s okay!” We just stared. He bounded back down and asked if we’d rather try the snow instead. Yes. He picked up a sharp, flat stone to use as a spade and carved out footholds for us in the steep snow bank. My boots were shit and I couldn’t kick in any myself.
Once we stepped off of the snow and back onto gravel, we were surprised to find that it wasn’t gravel, but just a thin layer of mud on top of glacial ice. There were gaping crevasses and holes all around us. At this point I put all of my trust in Róbert, who had been a farmer in this area for 40 years before becoming a ranger.
He started climbing up the small canyon of pumice ahead of us, using massive obsidian boulders as hand and footholds, turned back, and shouted for us to follow. This was one of the most exciting, and probably most dangerous, scrambles of my life. The pumice actually lay on a thick layer of glacial ice with the whispering of melt streams flowing down it, turning it into loose mud. It was very difficult to find solid footing because the pumice was mush and the obsidian was so smooth. Every handhold was a one-off, so everyone had to find their own way. At one point I looked back to check on a team member to find that the place I was just standing was no more than a thin layer of mud on six inches of ice with a gaping hole to the underworld and beyond underneath. I turned back around and walked into the sun with one hand over my eyes.
The summit view, as is almost any view in Iceland, was a transformational experience. Landmannalaugar was fully visible in the distance. Torfasjökull, the mountain we thought we were climbing, loomed directly in front of us with rippling glacial ice that had trapped the ash of thousands of years of eruptions, memorialized in thin black layers. A small mountain had a pale green tint to it from some type of strange oxidation. The surface of the summit was completely covered with glassy obsidian, some pieces too large to move. Anyone would be safe from the Others up here.
I used enough adrenaline for a week on that hike, and the trip back was a blur of exhaustion. I would never have a proper weekend’s rest in Iceland as long as I had friends like Róbert.
You help the others break the ice that seals the cabin doors shut with your ice axe. It’s the first time you’ve wielded an ice axe, and you automatically feel like a badass. At the same time, you feel cursed for having to do more work after trekking five miles through snow a meter deep, slowly reaching 800 meters from the floodplains at the foot of Eyfjallaljökul below. You’re in the Icelandic wilderness in January, and shit just got real for you.
After trying to put the thought of Adam Sandler’s black foot, circa Mr. Deeds, out of your mind for some time now, you pull off your soaking boots and socks to confront the fragility of your body against such an unforgiving, beautiful place. Sure enough, the skin is bright red and shiny around the toes, and a member of the party, who just happens to be on the volunteer rescue team, nonchalantly confirms a mild case of frostbite.
“You’ll be fine,” he says, patting you on the shoulder, smiling. You play Icelandic Trivial Pursuit and trust his words.
Against your better judgement, you depart the next morning in search of Tindfjaljökul glacier. You question your intelligence while fiercely wiggling your toes in a futile effort to pump blood into them, waging a war on the encroaching crystallization of your bodily tissues. Two hours in, after scrambling up the side of a small face for which Mother Nature definitely intended the use of crampons (you didn’t use them), your toes are gone. Well, they might as well be, anyway.
You scoff at anyone who’s ever said that they can’t feel their [insert body part here] while carrying out a mundane task back home, such as waiting in line at the cinema, or smoking a cigarette outside.
Although you can’t feel pain in your toes, the next part makes up for it. You admit to yourself, and then verbally to everyone else in the party, that you can’t go through with this. You feel like the classic bumbling and naive foreigner, and this is mostly because you are just that.
You and your host split off and climb a smaller mountain before pathetically dragging your frozen blocks of flesh back to the cabin. You refuse to go back without summiting, not wishing that the ultimate outcome of this outing to be a seemingly arbitrary jaunt in a frozen wasteland in pursuit of an authentic case of frostbite.
After making it back off the mountain, you realize that you failed in a decidedly epic fashion. You underestimated the terrain, and overestimated your equipment and limits. You best get your ass back to the mountains of twangy ole North Carolina where it belongs.
The Benefits of Failure
One activity practiced by some mainstream minimalist bloggers that I have always taken issue with is to never admit failure to their readers. Doing this hides some of the most beautiful moments in personal growth while making the blogger seem akin to an infallible cult leader. We all fail. I’m an actual human being who fails too. Quite a lot, it seems at times.
I will never be able to shake how stupid I was in Iceland, despite how much theoretical knowledge I had on the situation. Fortunately, for all the damage done, I learned a lot from my mistakes, as dire as they could have been. While pondering the tingling sensation in my toes caused by a smidgen of permanent nerve damage after my morning run, I decided that failures are as bad as we want to make them for ourselves, and that we can even benefit from them if we like.
1. Failure is a Teacher - We learn from our mistakes. Everyone knows that. But do we ever put the adage properly to practice? Learning from failure requires us to reflect on failure, and that can be incredibly painful. We often want to put our lowest moments out of our minds as quickly as possible. By doing this, we waste great opportunities to learn. it doesn’t make sense considering the pain it took to come across that opportunity. We should get in the habit of systematically analyzing our failures. Why did we fail? How can we prevent it from happening again? Performing a self-quality control check on our motives and actions sure beats moping around.
2. Failure Humbles Us - There’s nothing quite like a nice, healthy slice of humble pie. We may think we know everything, but failure is always there to remind us that we have a great deal more to learn. I was arrogant thinking as long as I had my North Face jacket and assortment of other highly-regarded, brand-name winter gear, I was safe from the elements. I lost sight of Mother Nature’s rule until I failed, and was humbled by the hold that our environment still has on us, no matter how much expensive Gortex we buy. It’s a good example of how failure helps us to realize the insignificance of our knowledge compared to unknown variables.
3. Failure Innovates - You could make the argument that innovation wouldn’t even exist without failure. If we succeeded easily at everything on the first attempt, we wouldn’t want to change anything we’re doing. As a result, there wouldn’t be very much creativity to speak of. Even if something is fundamentally successful, there are always some tiny failures that leave room for innovation. Maybe your website design is beautiful and flawless, but you could improve on how you actually draw traffic to it. Or what have you. Solving the problems of our failures fuels our creativity and hardens our resolve so that we may be able to harness our failures as a tool rather than dwelling on them.
Failure can take a lot out of us and bring us dangerously close to giving up on the things we love. But these three benefits can help us develop a utilitarian attitude towards our shortcomings that is ultimately more useful to us than sitting around all jaded in a dark room listening to Radiohead. If we fail, we have the choice to be conscious of it, or we can act like it never happened until, well, the same circumstances come up again and we fail, again. I don’t need to tell you which is more harmful.
Hopefully other bloggers will be more willing to share their failures with their audiences in 2012. Failure is a universally shared aspect of the journey of life, so why place yourself above it when you can benefit from the experience of people who have been there? The next time I fail, I’ll let you know. Wandering can have a low threshold for failure sometimes, and I am not ashamed to enlist some other wanderers to bail me out, and vice-versa.