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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Theall

Underestimating the Winter Warlock: How I Conquered an Icelandic Glacier

Underestimating the Winter Warlock: How I Conquered an Icelandic Glacier

Final push up H16

I’m a forty-three year old woman and I’m crying. Sniveling. Angry. Weak. I want to take my trekking pole and hurl it at the sturdier mountaineers in front of me, but they are too far ahead and that would require precision and more energy than I have left. On the positive side, I’ve managed to scale the highest peak in Iceland without impaling myself on my ice axe or yanking the seven other people, who were roped up to me earlier, into a crevasse.

I underestimated Hvannadalshnjukur (H16), maybe because it sounded like a condition easily treated with a dose of antibiotic or ointment, but mostly because it is only 6,900 feet high. I live at 5,300 feet and trained at 10,000 feet for weeks prior to tackling the glacier. But, H16 starts at sea level and gains 1,000 feet every mile. This was fine for the seven miles up, but on the return trip, my legs lurched and my quads quivered in protest. Still, it gave me a taste of what it means to be a true mountaineer, and tears or no tears, I chewed up that savory satisfaction of having accomplished something new and difficult and spectacularly beautiful (while eating Icelandic chocolate and hot soup served to me once I’d finally reached the bottom).

The tears came from a place of fear. On the descent, I fell behind. I wondered if anyone would notice that I wasn’t with the group any longer. Though we’d left the ice by that point, we traversed steep, dew-covered scree with exposed drops that made my already shaky legs tremble even more. One misstep and bye-bye. But that didn’t happen. I can thank the claymation Santa Claus is Coming to Town classic for getting me down that mountain, because the song I kept singing was Put One Foot in Front of the Other…you know the one…the Winter Warlock’s icy heart melts and he has to learn to walk again…and soon you’ll be walking out the door…but I digress…

Back home safely, I’d like to “play the MS card”, something I can do because I have Multiple Sclerosis. Drop the excuse of my disease on the table like a note getting me out of PE for cramps. But I don’t want to blame my wobbly descent on MS because that means it’s affecting my ability to do things I love, and as difficult as it was for me to climb that glacier, I loved it and I did it. So what if I shed a few tears? I can climb fourteen-thousand foot peaks in Colorado. I didn’t travel all the way to Iceland to do something easy or accessible. And perhaps this is the greatest lesson I learned on H16: I underestimated myself as much as I underestimated the mountain. I have yet to reach the limits of where I might go on the power of my own two feet.

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