Thursday, July 9, 2009
Ascent of Sveinstindur
Two days after landing in Iceland, I was standing at one of the remotest parts of this country. Around 90 km short of the village of Hofn, at the Southeast corner of the massive Vatnajokull ice cap. There were nine of us. My friend, Leifur, perhaps the top alpinist and mountain guide of Iceland in the current times, was our guide for the day. When Leifur had earlier come to pick me up from the guest house where I was staying, I was delighted to see, three pretty girls perched laughingly on the back seat of the 4WD Landrover.
The previous evening, Leifur had briefed me about our day’s objective. An ascent of Iceland’s second highest peak, Sveinstindur (2045 m) by its very long and winding and strenuous S – SE route. We would be making only the 4th ascent of this route. It would take us between 15 – 16 hrs of continuous walk and a height gain of 2000 m and an identical descent, covering over 25 km in distance. He assured me that we had a crack team of eight very able Icelandic mountaineers and one Indian, who was the oldest in the team. What he failed to tell me that the five girls and the three men were also supremely fit, most of them professional mountain guides, and all were in that prime age when muscles, bones and mind are at its peak synchronization.
As I got out of the vehicle, which had been lumbering over the rough ground, and stretched myself, I looked at my companions for the day. They all looked thorough professionals, pulling on their gear and back packs with ease borne out of years of hauling up and down steep gradients. I also stared hypnotically at the lake Fjallsarlon with its floating icebergs and the glacier tongue caressing the blue water. It reminded me of the South Patagonian Glaciers in Argentina. The day was bright, sunny, and mildly chilly. A perfect day, I muttered gaily. Anna, standing next to me, smiled brightly, ‘Don’t speak so soon, Satya, Iceland weather is like a woman, it can change any moment.’ I eyed Anna, herself a dazzling specimen of her specie and muttered, ‘yeah, a beautiful woman! I know.’
Leaving the floating icebergs to our east, we walked straight into the glacier tumbling from the mountain ridges. Soon we hit hard ice and moraine. Now before we proceed, let me caution you that this was a pretty straight forward climb, long and sustained but nothing acutely technical or dangerous – not by my standards definitely and I was really astonished when at one point Leifur wanted us to rope up and clip on our crampons. So don’t expect any drama or life-and-death situations in this story. But then, what’s the point, you might ponder… well this story is worth telling primarily for a curious incident that happened towards the end of the day, while on our descent. Wait till you finish this post, you will know.
Walking on hard ice, we avoided the black moraines and glacial streams. Then we hit a rock covered ridge and climbed steeply to the top and followed the ridge line to a series of waterfall. We filled up our bellies and bottles, as Leifur cautioned there won’t be any more water point further on. After the waterfall, we gained height rapidly with each stride and stepped on the first ice-field. The sun had by now gone hiding behind the veil of a mammoth cloud and the wind had started building up. Beautiful woman… I ruminated. We crossed 1000 m contour line and Leifur pointed at a ridge above, which was by now completely shrouded in clouds, as to our next objective. He cautioned us that the ridge was nearly knife-edge and we must walk carefully since the visibility by now had reduced to less than 5 m. Gaping ice falls and crevasses blinked in and out of fogs and I felt very much at home. We climbed at a good speed and I found everyone capable and really fit and a cheerful lot. Anna was right behind me and we joked constantly. The altitude was ridiculous to say the least and I was barely out of breath. Though I had to be careful with my torn ligament which was yet to recover from a fall I had taken in the previous month. The impenetrable fog and cloud spoiled the grand view which I had been assured earlier. Only Leifur knew the route so he opened the route with his compass. I had complete faith in his navigational skills. I was happy to be in a line and just tagging along with the group.
The narrow ridge was heavily corniced with fresh snow and definitely dangerous. Though it did not slow us down, only that Leifur made us rope up. We had occasional bites of apple, biscuit and sandwiches and sipped our limited water cautiously… at least I did. Near 1800 m the hurricane hit us in full fury. I could easily lean into it and not fall. We strapped our balaclava and ski goggles. Any exposed bit of skin on our face would be brutally punished. Verbal communication was impossible and utterly unnecessary. Leifur stopped frequently to take bearings and check GPS positions. Without the GPS we would be lost. Every feature of the glacier and the mountain had been wiped away. I could be anywhere, with anyone. We all looked aliens from Mars. Only my altimeter watch confirmed that we had reached the summit. For the sake of posterity, I got myself clicked. Though in a court of law, I would not be able to proof that I was indeed at the summit and that it was indeed me in the picture.
We did not pause even for a minute on the summit as the storm was gaining strength and Leifur wanted to be down. No one argued with him; we all wanted to get out of the pandemonium asap. Sveinstindur is actually a part of the caldera that goes around the volcano in Orafajokull glacier, the other end being Havannadalshankur, the highest point of Iceland, which I had already climbed in 2006. So now we walked along the edge of the crater and joined the descent route of Havannadalshankur. Soon enough, ghosts emerged out of the snow, as other climbers descending from Havannadalshankur joined us. Our group nearly galloped down the steep slope, overtaking every other group on the way. By now my torn ligament had become stiff and I found the going painful.
At this point, one young guy, who had been climbing with me since morning, started descending with me and a conversation ensued.
‘So Satya, do you have mountains in India?’ he asked.
I paused for a while, ‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Are they as high as these?’ he waved at the under 2000 m panorama around.
‘Yes,’ I continued my monosyllable.
‘Do they have so much snow and are they as cold?’ he asked. I felt as if I was facing a standup comedian, and mind you, the guy was an able and fit climber.
‘Yes, of course.’ I said.
‘You seem to be a strong climber, Satya, you did well!’ he patted my back. He must have felt pity eyeing my white hair.
‘Thanks.’ I muttered. I still did not know his name, I still don’t.
‘Have you ever climbed this high before?’ by now we were below thousand meters.
This question took me by complete surprise and I started laughing holding my belly, my entire body shaking like dry leave in tempest. While he watched me with concern I just could not stop. Tears ran down my eyes, my throat hurt, I could not breathe, my face turned red and I rolled into the snow. By now the others had also gathered around sensing that something was seriously wrong. I could only manage to raise my right hand and indicate that I was ok and they could just carry on. My mouth was so choked with laughter that no words would come out. It was certainly one of the funniest moments of my entire life.
When we finally reached the car park at the bottom of the mountain, I made a little speech to thank everyone for being with me on the climb. And then, only then did Leifur introduce me to the team. While I shook hand and bid farewell with the five pretty women and the men, I noticed that the guy was nowhere to be found. He had simply disappeared into thin air. Believe me, there was no place for him to hide or go. We were smack in the centre of a vast moraine field, with only a table and two cars nearby. There was not even a boulder big enough to hide a small cat. Icelander’s strongly believe in elves and spirits. And here I would conclude the story. The day had begun with beauty and ended with mystery… the perfect concoction for a perfect day. Enjoy the pictures!