“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Haruki Murakami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
The high point of my two weeks in Iceland this July was the Laugavegur and Fimmvorduhals Treks, which are connected and done continuously over 4-6 days. Beginning with the raw, desolate beauty of Landmannalaugar in the highlands of western Iceland, traveling through the deep, rugged, verdant canyons of Thorsmork and ending near the southern coast at Skogar, the trek is included in many “best in the world” lists on the internet. It could easily be the most incredible natural beauty I’ve seen in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I do like to get out and see the world! In addition to the unforgettable scenery, I met a lot of wonderful people on the trail and in the mountain huts we stayed at each night.
The actual trek was amazing but it was preceded by a minor freak out. On the bus from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar, the starting point of the trek, I read a few blog posts by people who had done the trek and I realized that I’d overlooked a couple things when I packed. What worried me most was learning that we would need to cross four streams without bridges, and that the ice cold water can be waist high. One thing I like about blogs as a medium is that they’re really timely, easy to update and often include photos and/or video – after reading 2-3 posts by people who had done this trek in mid-summer it was easy to see exactly what it would be like to cross the rivers. To keep everything dry, you take off your shoes and socks and roll up your trekking pants (or strip down to your underwear if the water level is high). “Fuuuuuuuuuuck!”, I moaned to myself as the bus made its way up the gorgeous central highlands toward my four dates with a lot of ice cold water. I really wished I had read the blog posts back in Thailand and packed flip-flops and trekking poles for safety and comfort during the river crossings.
In addition to worries about doing the river crossings barefoot and without poles, the first day was going to be the longest and the hardest of the trek. It included a major ascent and I needed to do two segments of hiking (27 km total) because I wasn’t able to reserve a place in the first mountain hut along the trail. The night before setting off I slept fitfully and had bad dreams about everything that could go wrong, none of which involved death or serious injury but all of which involved making a serious fool of myself.
One of the things that gets me jumping out of bed every more is excellent health and cardiovascular fitness. Physically, even at 48, I’m definitely a leader and not a lagger on these treks and also in my running club in Bangkok. This was only the second trek I’ve done in my life though and on this one I made some stupid mistakes in my packing. (Along with not being aware of the icy river crossings, I didn’t realize that there’s snow on 5-10 km of the trail – in July! – and had brought only low-top hiking shoes.) More significantly than packing oversights though, on the negative side of my assets and liabilities ledger, I have a bad habit of getting worked up over small things.
After I started worrying on the bus from Reykavik, I had a 20 year old memory of seeing Harvard undergraduates crying over getting an A- when I visited the Japanese teacher’s office as a graduate student. “Buck up, weenies!”, I remembered thinking at the time. “Real life is a lot harder than this!” The thing is though I’m a lot like them – I set the standard high and then get worked up in a frenzy of anxiety when something isn’t perfect. I didn’t cry over my own A-s, just lost sleep and worried that I’d end up working construction jobs to eek out a living. There’s setting high standards and there’s just being neurotic, and I think I definitely cross over the line sometimes. The thing is, life has mostly rolled my way, and I should learn to be more confident.
The curious thing about all this worrying the day before the trek is that the mental agony was much more painful than the actual experiences I was dreading (doing the river crossings and walking in the snow without the perfect shoes). Shortly after the reception desk at the mountain hut opened on the morning of the first day I was able to get both flip flops and a trekking pole from the lost and found. (Of course, I made it clear that they weren’t my belongings but the fact is no one is going to backtrack 30 km over challenging terrain for these items and the staff were happy to give them to me.). Also, I learned in the blog posts I read that some people lose their balance and fall down during the rivers crossings, and the friendly staff gave me a large, heavy duty garbage bag to pack my clothing, camera, phone etc. into. Isn’t that something? In spite of agonizing over not being prepared for the river crossings since the day before, I solved the problem within a few minutes of the staff’s appearance on the first day of the trek.
The actual experience of crossing the streams was no where near as bad as the anticipation of it. At each crossing there were small groups of trekkers congregated on both sides of the stream because of the time it takes to partly undress, pack items in plastic and get set up again on the other side. For this reason, it was always possible to watch and learn from other people before plunging into the water. (Watching how these strangers helped, supported and learned from each other through this endeavor reminded me of one of the endless fascinating things I learned from reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind last year: while humans do have relatively large brains, there are and have been a number of species with larger ones; rather than intelligence, it’s actually our social qualities that set us apart.)
At the largest stream crossing, I learned from some Icelandic ultra-marathoners on a training run (people run this thing!). When I remarked that they were crossing at a very different place from most of the foreign trekkers one of them told me, “Foreigners like the narrowest point but we prefer the shallowest.” Of course, I followed the local runners. Actually crossing each of the icy streams was just a minute or so of pain – “My Buddha, I’ll never feel my feet again!,” I moaned internally. Having done this four times though I find it ironic that the least pleasant part of the actual experience was the simple inconvenience of undressing, packing everything in plastic and then getting all set up to trek again on the other side. Throughout the day I marveled at how I’d let my mind get worked up about something that in the end was not that big a deal, and was an unavoidable part of one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life. There was absolutely no chance I would back out of this trek – with things I like this I almost always do feel the fear and do it anyway. (I think my biggest fear is having a boring life.) But this experience was a great example of how the way we think about our experiences in this world is even more important than the experiences themselves. And in this all important life of the mind I’ve got my strengths (taking initiative in various areas of my life etc.) and I’ve got my weaknesses (neurotic overthinking). Almost all of the agony of this trek was in my own mind. The actual experience was out of this world.
I’m keeping this closely in mind as I’m planning to do the Annapurna Circuit, a 14-20 day trek circling the most beautiful section of the Himalayas, this October. When I catch myself start to agonize over the biggest potential pain point of this trek – about 24 hours before and after a mountain pass at 5400 m where there’s 53% less oxygen than at sea level – I just make a note to myself to read some blog posts before hand and to let my body acclimate by not ascending too quickly.
Here are my best photos from just the first day of the trek in Iceland. I’ll share other photos from the trek in a later post.