III. The Gates of Hell

Awful looking are these Icelandic wastes, yet beautiful to a man with eyes and heart.”

-William Morris

I can’t get more than an hour’s sleep at a time before I awaken, check the clock, reference it with the light streaming through the window, and knock back off for whatever spare moments I can get.  My body aches, and my head is quaking with post-drunk regret.  A smarter man would have slept, but at least I’m not driving.  Eventually, I throw in the towel, pull on some clothes and go wait in the lobby, having a snack of some toast, jam and skyr to pass the time.  Before long, someone from Reykjavik Rent-A-Car arrives, with a Hyundai Tucson 4×4 in tow.  The agent highly recommended that we get the insurance against windshield breaks due to rocks, as well as “severe undercarriage damage.”  That is not usually a request back in the States.  Are we in over our heads?

It’s a beautiful morning- brilliant blue cloudless sky, slight wind coming from the west.  The perfect day to leave the city, and dive into the countryside.  The outdoors.  God’s country.  Or more properly, Odin’s country.  The right time to climb this volcano.

For the life of me, I can’t remember where I heard about Hekla.  A stratovolcano topping off at 4,892 feet, Hekla is the most famous and most active volcano on the island.  From the time that Vikings first settled on Hekla, its reputation has been intimidating.  Referred to as the ‘Gates of Hell’ by locals and travelers alike, Hekla was considered to be the prison of Judas, as well as a gathering spot for witches.  Eruptions have been recorded there for nine hundred years, with varying degrees of frequency and intensity, some eruptions being near-continuous for up to six years.   The general wisdom holds that the longer Hekla remains dormant, the bigger it will blow its top when it eventually does explode.   In 1159 BC, part of Hekla exploded with such force that it cooled temperatures in the northern hemisphere for years, and according to Irish tree rings, a decade of growth was lost.

In short- Hekla does not fuck about, she has no mercy and you had better take her seriously.  So of course we had to climb her. In more recent history, Hekla last erupted in 2000.  We’re getting dangerously close to her ten-year cycle of the past few decades.  Obviously, we’re still here, and Hekla continues to build pressure for her next explosion.  As of this writing, the eruption at Eyjafjallajökull continues in a smaller form, after canceling nearly all flights in continental Europe due to a massive ash cloud. It remains unseen if close neighbors such as Hekla and Katla will erupt soon as well.

About an hour out from Reykjavik, I catch sight of it off in the distance.  A huge white dome on the horizon, it stands at the head of a row of mountains.  The dominant position.  As we get closer, I realize something- we will not be able to achieve our goal any any stretch of the imagination.  Even if it weren’t a time problem, we definitely do not have adequate gear.  My initial reaction was dead on.   Even from our distant vantage point, I can see the snow blown off the mountaintop by the ferocious winds.  I look down at my worn, roughshod boots- I forgot my wool socks.  I’ve tromped all over Virginia, Missouri, Utah and points in between over five, six years, and the soles show it. I left my gloves at the hostel.   The other guys are in a similar state of disarray.  What the fuck is wrong with us?!  Don’t go out drinking before attempting to climb a volcano.  How very much like us to plan to climb an active volcano while completely unprepared.  The only salve for this disappointment is that, based on what I’m looking at, even if we had our full gear, we could never make it up the summit through that snow pack.  It’s not possible without snowshoes and possibly even more intense gear.  My fleece and rain shell would probably leave me frozen.

No reason why we can’t explore the area; hell, we drove this far.  After a first stop in the middle of the road, Hekla square in our view to the right, we take our first round of pictures.   And it is here that I finally get a sense of the nearly infinite silence and space of the Icelandic interior.  It is almost as if until now we had been traveling in an extension of Reykjavik, a sealed spacecraft, like the city was still within and represented by the car.  Outside, I breathe in the air of wilderness.  Opening the doors to freedom, we descend a small slope of loose, grainy sand, undulating over the landscape in larger and larger waves up to the base of Hekla.  To our backs, a massive plateau, worn down at the edges, imposes on us like a barricade.   The icy wind rakes across the landscape, snapping the folds and lengths of my jacket like a whip.  The sun arching steeply overhead, we did not dally too long, wanting to see how close we could get to this mighty mountain.

The signs are not encouraging, literally and figuratively.  The first posted warnings state that car rental insurance does not cover ripping out the undercarriage on undeveloped roads, much like the ones we were about to traverse.  The second read simply, “Ófært/Impassable.”   Ken in particular was hot to get moving down the road.  Perhaps my enthusiasm would be greater, were my name not on the rental agreement.

“I don’t know about this. It rained a few days ago, and on this soft soil…”

“Let’s go!”

“Fuck you, you’re not liable for damage!” No lie, I was worried.

“Well,” Dave chimed in, “it’s really Pete’s decision- I mean we’re all paying for it, but his credit card is on the form.”

“You’re all going to help with whatever happens. Right?”

“Whatever, it’s your name on there.”   Ken replied.  He was joking, I hope, but this was a headache that I did not want to deal with.  So I offer up a prayer to mighty Odin, may you protect us in our travels through your land, and suggest we drive awhile up the sporadically wet, rutted road, to see just where it takes us.  Over the swells and down the slopes, sliding through what we now realize is fine black ash, we pick our way around the deepest ruts to a narrow road at the top of a ridge, moving to the side as a larger 4×4 heads our way.  We flag it down, hoping to get an idea of the road ahead.

“Oh, it is bad,” the driver replies in anonymously European-accented English.  Definitely a tourist, because all the locals only have perfectly American or (less frequently) British accents.  “We had to turn around just now.  It gets dangerous real soon.”

No one opposes my decision now to turn back.   I’m a little disappointed that I can’t make like Edward Abbey, destroy the car and hike back unscathed weeks later and without worry.  It’s always those amorphous, intangible worries like financial ruin that keep us at arm’s length from true freedom.  We pull the car off to the side so any further travelers can go around, and take to the hills.

The surface bisected by the road is mostly gritty black volcanic ash, thick in consistency like gravel, covered in mosses and lichen where stable.  The sides of the roadway are slopes of ash finer than any sand I have ever seen, matte black with glistening silica within.  Like a liquid, it flows smoothly through my fingers.  Dead grass sticks out from the black soil in randomly arranged outcroppings.  There is a small valley ahead of us, so we walk towards it, with a less-defined rocky construction beyond that has caught our eye.   I am certain our car is fine where we left it.  We start hiking toward the distant rock structure, cameras in hand, buttoned up tightly against the Arctic wind.

Not more than ten yards from the road, the surface cracks, and Ken falls through the ground.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the ground opened up and swallowed him, considering his terrified reaction. His foot punched through the crust, which swallowed his leg up to the knee.  What was below- flowing magma?  An open cavern?  Razor-sharp rock formations?  A troll’s hideout?  Ken extricated his leg from the dirt, laughing uproariously, so relieved to not be in any danger at all.  As he pulls his foot out, we see something completely unexpected.  Under about five inches of ash and gravel, rests a layer of white snow three or four inches deep, wedged between strata of volcanic rock.  Tufts of grass poke out from the snow, green as after an April shower.  Don stomps further test holes in the dirt, and finds a larger seam of snow throughout the area.  The last eruption of Hekla was in February of 2000.  This snow must have been buried in that eruption, preserved and insulated against ten summers, so even the grass had not died despite a lack of sunshine.

We descend a long hill of tightly packed ash, feet crunching the gravel, hiking towards the strange monoliths maybe a quarter-mile away.   I detour off to the left while my companions climb directly up the hill.  The hollow between two hills looks like flowing gray liquid.  As I get closer to this dry stream, my feet sink deeper and deeper into ash, absorbing more of each stride.  My thick-soled boots are no match for this, and I am buried halfway up to my knees.  I look at this untouched hill before me, and turn back to see my deep footprints scarring what was previously a perfectly pristine hill.  I know the best outdoors ethic is ‘take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints,’ but even this feels wrong to me right now.  I was drawn to it’s pristine, gentle slope, and had stomped all over it.  Shamed, I turn around and retrace the same footprints back up to my friends.

A few hundred yards from the crest, we reach our destination.  A twisted, gnarled wall of black stone stands before us, maybe twenty feet high, almost perpendicular to the ground.  The battlements of some decaying castle- thorns of stone stand out at jagged angles, and in the crevasses broken shards of rock and smaller gravel fill the space, allowing us places to walk.  Light green moss, bone-dry to the touch, crowns the volcanic rock at odd angles.  The cold Arctic wind whips through the chasms and passageways, whistling and howling, rippling off our jackets with ferocity.  It is unwelcoming.  I’m writing cautionary tales in my head as I stare it down.

Hand over hand, we begin climbing into the structure, which reveals itself to be a labyrinth of solidified magma.  The stone is pitted with seemingly uniform bubbles, otherwise glass smooth.  Where there are ridges, I take care not to place my hand there or rub my jacket, as they are sharp as a razor.  Mercifully, there are precious few of these blades, and most of the surface is pitted, coal-black stone.  It arches over our heads, and if we look down, there are further chasms ten, twenty feet below us as well.  Is there even a way out?  Is it the best idea to wander these structures, thrown up out of the earth in violence and rage, unprepared for what we may find and what may threaten us?

Hell yes it’s the best idea.   Looking and turning back is not enough.  We press on, working our way higher, clambering up walls and down chutes, eventually emerging on the top of the lava flow.  Moss and grass sparsely dot the plateau.   As we turn and face east, mighty Hekla looms over us.  The gray clouds continued racing by overhead, and if we were not intimidated of the mountain prior, we are certainly filled with dread and respect now.  No, we will not climb you, but we do come here to honor you.  The vocabulary of climbing is often so possessive and penetrative- conquering this peak, taking that summit.  It echoes violence, and it seems grossly misplaced.   You cannot conquer Hekla.  What hubris.  Don’t rob this magnificent mountain of its dignity, this or any other.

As for myself, I am filled with the clarity that I truly only find when I am alone, away from all the petty restrictions of modern society.  I can imagine another time, another way of life.  It would be harder, possibly brutish and short, but it would be honest and open at the same time.  To be able to look out over this volcanic plain and see nothing but lava, ash, and grassy hills, hemmed in at the horizon by huge gray and green plateaus, is to experience freedom in its purest form- the most full and most fleeting.  Right here and now, I don’t need food, nor water, nor shelter nor companionship.  I need the wind, the black stone, the cold air, and the mountain.  Right now, I’m getting everything I need, and I full a wholeness that I so rarely feel outside of the wilderness.  There is nothing I need and nothing that anyone can hold over me.  This land opens something primal in you- a harsh grandeur that represents life on earth sharpened to a point, where nothing is easy and the rewards for life and survival are so complete.

I sit down on the ledge of solid magma and stare off into space.  Right now, there is no place I would rather be on this planet.  It’s like a form of external meditation- enlightenment from without.   It descends upon you slowly and fully.  Instead of focusing on my breathing, clearing my head, trying to hear my heart beat or my blood flow, I just listen to the wailing wind.  My mind empties.   The clouds race.  That’s all there is, and for a moment, it is wonderful.   Eventually the brain has to try and process it all, not content with simply absorbing.  I think of other places that remind me of here, places with red rock and blazing heat, almost the perfect counterpoint to this very landscape.  Both are earth stripped naked, raw and unforgiving, yet still lush with life and beauty and strength.  Anything that survives here has a purpose, and perhaps this is why I find it so easy to dispense with the things that truly do not matter.

Extraneous things are liabilities.  They weigh you down.   Our hearts still beat, the sun still rises, and I am gripped with the clarity that we will succeed, experience the fullness of life, outlive our enemies and, someday, scratch at the essence of full understanding.   Worries and stresses blow away like so much powedered ash.  I think of one person in particular, so far away, who broke my mind open so long ago with that landscape, and who she is.  My lips crack as they smile into the bitter wind.  It does not fade, not even as that wind chills them dry.  In fleeting moments of freedom, we are even free from our bodies.

Conclusion: Beauty, Meaning and Terror


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