Friday, 6 November 2020
Tuesday, 6 October 2020
Public transport mishaps and a claggy mess on the mountain
In connection with the last few posts on my "proper" blog, I went on another adventure with the aim of writing up the route, but it didn’t quite turn out as intended. Making use of Iceland’s public bus system, Strætó, I had a 25km circuit planned, from Laxness in Mosfellsdalur (east of Reykjavík, on the way to Þingvellir), up Móskarðshnjúkar (the two rhyolite peaks on the eastern side of Esja), and then along the Esja plateau before descending down Gunnlaugsskarð and to the busstop at the bottom of Esja. Clearly, this was an ambitious day with not only a lot of distance and elevation, but extremely tiring ground conditions (the plateau is mile after mile of treacherous boulder field). Moreover, I was wedded to the bus schedule, which meant I could only arrive in Mosfellsdalur by about 12.30 in the afternoon. The forecast was mixed, with rain in the morning but sun and little wind in the afternoon. I decided to go for it.
The morning didn’t look good; the rain was heavy and didn’t let up even a little bit. The bus into Mosfellsdalur is so seldom used that you have to order it in advance, and true to Strætó’s lousy record, my ordered ride never showed up. After several phone calls, a ride eventually materialised but when I arrived at the start of the hike, it was 1.15pm and still chucking it down, though thankfully with no wind.
Friday, 2 October 2020
When I plan an expedition or hike I sometimes spend hours, weeks or even months planning and thinking about the routes. What will the conditions will be like? What do the place names reveal? Will there be any unsuspected treasures, cultural or natural or something in between?
When I return I write pages and pages about the trip, what I saw, discovered, felt, experienced. But I also write technical information, a precise record of the route taken, the conditions underfoot and any points of interest, topographical, geological, ecological or historical. I’m endlessly fascinated, too, by the weather (even when soaking wet after hours of horizontal rain, an Icelandic speciality drenched), a fascination that both British and Icelandic cultures seem to share. The clouds and skies here and endlessly variable and consistently beautiful.
Getting out and about like this is part of how I feel connected, and how I strive to maintain that connection, to the world around me. As I explore both by mind and foot, I feel my awareness seeping outwards, tendrils of knowledge and experience snaking their way through time and space and constantly enriching my experiences.
I enjoy the wonderment of natural beauty or cultural interest equally as much as the technical elements of map-reading, navigation and all-round survival in places off the beaten track. It’s a nerdy appreciation for both statistics (distance travelled, elevation gained) as well as equipment and how to use it. For me, this is about combining the desire (the need?) to get out there and see with the limitations of the human body (and mind). If it’s blowing 60mph will I be able to gaze in one direction long enough to see the landscape I’ve come to experience; if I’ve hiked 20km through mist and snow and hail, will I have gained anything from the experience, other than being able to sleep like a log at the end of it, and really enjoying that burger? I fully believe that desk-bound knowledge is only one element of the things we have to learn and share; the rest of it comes from getting out there, being, feeling, talking, seeing. This is true for someone like me, who researches landscape and place names, but really for anyone who is interested in people and place, no matter what your specialism. Can you really be said to understand something until you’ve seen it in the flesh; can you understand a person until you’ve seen the place they live(d) in and walked their landscape with your own feet?
Despite all this, it took me a long time to put something together that I wouldn’t mind sharing. Surely all this research/thinking could be useful to others as well, right? Part of the final push was realising that I had nothing to lose, that if no one read or understood it, the world was no worse off than before; and if, by some miracle, it encouraged someone to head out their front door and explore somewhere new, then I would have achieved something. Also, like all creative people, producing material to share can feel like a huge pressure and the temptation is to make it perfect before letting even one person read it. This is of course a load of bollocks, nearly impossible to do, and even if you think you’ve achieved it, I guarantee you’ll read it again the next day and find something wrong with it. No. Experiences and knowledge are to be shared, and by sharing, we can keep some of the things we experienced; we can develop our thinking, our analytical skills and make it clearer in our minds what we know and what we think.
So last month, I wrote up a small piece about hiking on of the lesser known routes on Esja, Reykjavík’s city mountain. This was an obvious choice, as I’d hiked the route countless times before and had a wealth of knowledge and stories to draw upon. Also, being back in Iceland, but only ever temporarily, I have to make do with public transport and Esja is one of the most accessible places from the city. It's not perfect, but it's out there, I did it. You can read the post here, on my "proper" blog.
Saturday, 26 September 2020
The last month has been full of autumn colours. The mountains were speckled with reds and pinks as the berry plants shed their fruit, turning the fellsides crimson as if bathed in the light of the setting sun. In the city, the leaves turn yellow and brown and gold, and to open the front door is to risk admitting a gust of wind and a flurry of leaves
The air has been clear, the sun bright, but the wind bitterly cold, descending straight out of the north and over the mountain, frosting windscreens and chilling bones. This northerly wind bears winter on its back, ushering in snow on the mountain tops and heralding the end of autumn, though the leaves have not yet finished falling.
With northerly winds come clear skies, low temperatures and the season's first frosts. This combination is peculiar; the blue skies and sun lure you outside, but in reality it's so cold you wish yourself back in the comfort of home the second you leave the house. These conditions even have their own name in Icelandic, gluggaveður, or window weather. It looks clear and bright outside, but really it's best viewed from the window.
These conditions, while not ideal for walking, are perfect for sitting in the pool, and for the first time this side of summer, I could sit in the 40° pool for a whole hour without overheating. I had to run from the changing rooms to the hotpot, but once in the water I sank to my neck and really luxuriated, breathing the cool breeze and basking in the low evening sun. It's fascinating how much the pool experience varies from one week to the next, depending on the air temperature, and of course the wind, the rain, the hail and the snow. It was only last week I had to to duck beneath the water to avoid the descending hail stones, though bizarrely the air temperature was warmer and I was forced into the cooler and shallower pool before long.
Despite the reds and golds, autumn, which in most countries lasts a couple of months at least, seems to have bypassed us this year and we've gone straight from summer to winter. Sunglasses are replaced by hats and gloves and dripping noses; and as tyres are switched from summer to winter, the streets resound with the sound of thousands of small metal studs rolling on tarmac. Summer coats are pushed to the backs of wardrobes and out come winter parkas, with big fluffy hoods and inches of insulating layers. Gone are the months of activity and light; sunset arrives earlier with each passing day and the time for keeping warm has come.
Thursday, 24 September 2020
Thursday 24th September. The first northern lights this side of summer. My fingers ache and tingle with cold but my eyes glint green with light and colour.
Clambering onto the shed behind the house, we are amidst gardens and rooftops, away from the streetlights, gaining height and perspective and framed with treetops and gable ends, there was the sky, alive with a streaming, a flowing trail of green haze. Flickering and moving with every second, the lights mutate and reform effortlessly, changing beyond recognition in an almost imperceptible moment of transition; but then, it can never have been just one moment because it is all transition, never the same shape or form from one minute to the next. In the same way that no two persons’ fingerprints are the same, no second in the life of the aurora borealis exactly resembles the one that came before it.
The stream twists and doubles back on itself, flowing along its length, then pulsing and stretching, before curling up like a frond of fern, before changing again and fanning wide across the sky. The ribbon twists around itself before becoming a bedsheet, filling up the entire sky with a pale green glow.
We head to the seafront, climbing over rocks and boulders to see the lights over the bay, isolated in the darkness of sky and water. But we return to our shed rooftop before bed, and see 4 streams flow from a single point, slaloming in unison, echoing and mimicking each other. These streams pulse with flowing light for several minutes before they blend together and begin an effortless sweep across the sky.
Some bands are thicker now, like stray lines of cloud, scattered and elusive, others mere wisps of vapour, but as if on some unseen, unheard cue, all distinct paths suddenly fade to leave the night sky with only a pale pastel hue, soft and wide and calm.
Seeing something like that stays with you, something so beautiful, so simple and so unmoved by anythings occurring on the planet’s surface all those miles below. It doesn’t appear for show—a performance for applause—it merely is. And how lucky are we to witness this perverse accident of physics, that just happens to be beautiful.
Monday, 21 September 2020
I went for my second Covid test since arriving in Iceland in June. Voluntarily, this time, in a bid to improve the data that the Icelandic government has to work with. In the morning the sun is shining and I stand outside drinking my coffee and soaking up the rays. En route to the testing centre we get a glimpse of Esja and she’s covered in a fresh coat of snow, only a light dusting, nothing like a full layer, but still, the first hint of winter. The sun shines for most of the morning and allows for a short “walking meeting”—the safest form of face-to-face meeting in Covid times—though even after half an hour, my cheeks are beginning to feel the chill. And then this afternoon, the sky darkens completely, electric lights go on and hail descends, blown diagonal by the wind. Office-workers look up from their computers, and pedestrians grimace and lean into the wind, their faces shining in the shower of hail. The wind whistles through window cracks and ice splatters the panes. The browned leaves of trees turn cloudy white and glistening; and flagpoles rattle, their slackened ropes tapping out the beat of the storm.
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