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iceland

Hell, there’s everything that makes life worth living crammed into every magical, maniacal second.

It’s part of the deal we make.
 

Packrafting Iceland

It’s a beautiful place, Iceland. One of the most beautiful I have ever been. The landscapes are magnificent and serene. You can travel for miles on end, undisturbed, free to daydream gently as you go. You are free to pitch your tent wherever you please in that big empty silence and sit and watch the long summer evenings slide slowly by.

I remember that expedition fondly as being one in which I was genuinely happy and at peace. I was doing something I loved, doing it proficiently, and doing it somewhere truly special. So it feels surprising that the closest I ever came to dying was out there in that beautiful wilderness. What a shame it would be to die at a time like that. But that’s part of the deal we make, isn’t it? We folk who thrive on adventure and the wild places of the world. We understand that these beautiful landscapes that fulfil us and nourish us can turn and bite and kill us. It’s part of the deal we make.

Volcano

I was crossing Iceland – north to south – by foot and by packraft, with my friend Chris. Our packs were heavy, the journey was hard, but we were making excellent progress. We were really happy on that morning when I nearly died. We were about to paddle a spectacular canyon. We’d scouted ahead. We’d talked and talked and talked about the risks and rewards, about the fine line between risk and recklessness, and we’d decided to go for it. It was exciting.

Expedition Portrait

Down in the canyon the sky shrank to a narrow strip above us. The day felt darker. The river was loud down there, grey and swollen with meltwater from the glacier we had recently crossed. Nobody on earth knew where we were. We were alone. We were afraid now. The river was muscular and our packrafts felt very small. I look back now and know we were stupid. We should not have been there. The river was too big, too difficult, too frightening. But this is another part of the deal we make on adventures. We want to walk the line of fear. We want to squeeze every last drop of our nerve, to test the depths of our mental and physical capacity. But you have to do that without the wisdom of hindsight or the counselling ear of friends and family. You make your decision. And then you live or die by it.

Iceland crossing - tired, cold, wet

I go first. I push the nose of my packraft out into the current and then I am gone. The river grabs my boat and drags me away. I know Chris is there but I don’t see him anymore. I am alone. I am committed. Utterly committed in a way that never ever happens in the safe blandness of real life where almost nothing is irreversible, where almost nothing really, truly matters. I remember every moment. My thumping heart, the soaring rush of adrenalin, paddling with every ounce of strength, judging my route, scanning the rocks, picking my lines, committing to decisions every single second, living with the consequences, leaving them behind and galloping wildly on to the next one. Hell, there’s everything that makes life worth living crammed into every magical, maniacal second. There really is. I am more alive than I have ever been before.

And I am about to die.

There’s a huge boulder ahead of me now. I try to go right. The river wants me to go left. I change my mind. I try to go left. I paddle with every drop of my soul. Left, left, left! Have I ever wanted anything more in life? Have I ever needed anything more? And now I rise so slowly up this boulder. This is really happening. Now. Here. Me. And the river flips me upside down and I’m submerged so fast in glacial meltwater so dark and cold spinning this way and that way and clinging so hard to my boat and holding so tight to the breath in my lungs and nobody on earth can help me. Even Chris can’t see me at the moment, let alone everyone I love in the world who at this moment are brushing their teeth or scratching their nose or waiting for a bus completely unaware that I am dying.

Crossing the Hofsjökull glacier, Iceland

Nobody that has ever lived, nothing in this vast and beautiful world I love so much, nothing can help me now. I have never felt such fear. I am about to die. But now suddenly I am above the surface again, hurtling down the river. I breathe hard (someone should open a restaurant serving the most delicious sensation of that one single mouthful of cold, beautiful air) and I’m hurtling so fast down this river and with some crazy random cocktail of luck and terror and primitive animal strength I get hold of a rock and haul myself to the side and back to the world and back to this beautiful life.

Climbing high to scout the mesh of streams of the Markarfljót river.

This piece first appeared in Sidetracked magazine.

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Comments

  1. Wonderfully written and puts my rather modest treks into perspective. As far rivers go I have never ever experienced rivers as cold as those in Iceland. Just wading across them is bad enough, never mind packrafting down one and ending up swimming.

    Reply
  2. I had a very weird feeling reading this post… this year i also did sth stupid, while being alone in the mountains – and even though it was not even close as adventurous as your experience, i also had a feeling of ‘im gonna die here’. Luckily everything went fine, and I can tell the story now as a funny anecdote of how thoughtless i am, and say ‘i was feeling im gonna die’ as a joke. But still… Its something hard to think as well as not to think about. This feeling of being at the absolute top of your skills and powers just to make it through, complete focus and clearness of mind about what is important, that each next step might be more important than any other step I have ever taken before, even though there were regarding life shifts, career, or personal life, or whatsoever…. I do not really think about, but your post just made me remember it again, and made me want to never forget it anymore. A lot things that you wrote I also had in my mind, but there is something I never thought of, exactly the part that goes ” the safe blandness of real life where almost nothing is irreversible, where almost nothing really, truly matters”. It just struck me how much things we do on everyday basis are indeed reversible, as there are almost always certain ways to reverse the situation, how easy it is to make an extra call, to go somewhere again, to contact anybody anytime again and again, as if nothing that is once said or made really matters. So maybe it is in fact this irreversibly that is so tempting in such an experience?

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  3. Wow. I’m lost for words. Just like that, huh? Amazing…also, planning a trip to Iceland just like that for next Summer, but with Fatbikes! 😀

    Reply
  4. Thanks for sharing this Al. It really struck a chord with me as I’ve very recently lost a good friend on an adventure he was undertaking. Also I had my own incident in Scotland whilst doing a coast to coast walk and packraft trip several years ago. I was overturned in a loch in weather we should not have been out in… the boat with by tent and dry clothes (the key to my survival) was blown further into the loch. I had to swim after it and then back to shore. I gave everything i had just to get through it. I’ve never been more focussed or determined. I’ve never been so cold or exhausted. I used the experience to learn and as a catalyst to enjoy life even more than before… It takes courage to admit your mistakes, to yourself and even more so in public. Risk and incident is a truth of such adventure and highlighting that is important. Take care!

    Reply

 
 

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