I was excited when I first heard I was going to have a chance to climb Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest mountain in Iceland. I have been fascinated with the country ever since I first visited and hiked the Fimmvorduhals pass—now buried under lava from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. It’s a visceral place and the island’s landscape is only equaled by the spirit of the 300,000 souls who live here. Standing at the top seemed a fitting way to celebrate Iceland’s power.
Then I found out I was going to be making the climb with 150 other people. My jaw dropped. A mountain should be a challenge, not a traffic jam. It got worse. As the lead guide debriefed us at the headquarters of Icelandic apparel company 66 North, which would be sponsoring the climb, he stressed that we would go slow. Very slow. We were going to cover fourteen miles in twelve to sixteen hours of slow. We would be tethered in rope teams of eight people. My heart dropped.
I wanted to tell the guide: I’m from freaking Boulder. We don’t go slow. We hammer. Forget your fourteen hours of rest-stepping. I need to run up that thing as fast as possible while monitoring my heart rate using an iPhone app. And then it hit me. I was way too high strung. Luckily, I kept my mouth shut. You see, the 150 other people heading up the mountain had been training in a 66 North program all year. They had been learning how to negotiate the mountains and glaciers of their stunning country and the trip to the top of Hvannadalshnúkur was the crowning achievement.
Here in Colorado, we think we live a life in tune to the challenges of our mountains but Icelanders live on a remote Arctic island that’s the most active volcanic spot on the planet. They have eked out a living for centuries fishing the tempestuous North Atlantic and farming volcanic rock. While the rest of the world was freaking out about the ash of Eyjafjallajokull, Icelanders were going about their business despite the inevitability of another of the island’s volcanoes blowing up. It hit me that me and my Boulder attitude could learn a lot by taking the slow route to the top of this country with 150 natives.
Did I ever. Hvannadalshnúkur is a stunning peak, the 6,921-foot highpoint of a much more massive caldera. It’s an island of white above the clouds with views out to the sea. Celebrating on the top after a meditative hike up the glacier and over the caldera with the locals, I actually met an Icelandic woman who had family in Denver and one of the mountain guides told me she wanted to go to Colorado more than any place else in the world. I told her that at that moment there was no other place on the planet I would rather be standing than on the top of Hvannadalshnúkur.
I kept thinking about that experience while working on this, our climbing special issue. We get so wrapped up in achievement when it comes to climbing, in speed and difficulty and our own egos that we often forget the reason we began climbing in the first place. That is to experience a place on its own terms, whether that be free soloing an alpine route in the wild or slogging along with 150 locals. The old cliché that the journey is the destination is at the heart of climbing any peak. Now go out say Hvannadalshnúkur three times fast and climb as hard or as slow as you want.