Icelandic Dreams

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa, April 18th, 2004.

After seven weeks in the sweltering desert and rain forests of Africa and Costa Rica, I sighed a breath of relief as our plane touched down in Reykjavik, Iceland. Beyond my wildest dreams I had made it through four eliminations in this round-the-world adventure called Global Extremes. So far it had been the adventure of lifetime, and it was not yet over for the nine of us that advanced to Iceland. For five of us, this adventure would only be half over, as a trip to Everest was our goal.

Certainly, anyone in their right mind would know better than to venture to Iceland in the dead of winter. For me it was a dream trip to a place I knew very little about, had never been to, nor have I known anyone that’s visited this country. I was thrilled with the prospect to finally use my strongest skills. Cold weather sports had become my forte. I knew this from spending 12 years in Alaska and enduring 16 months in the Antarctic. Certainly, I enjoyed warm environments, but since I was a boy, I have always been drawn to the snow, ice, and cold. I welcomed the opportunity to explore Iceland in the midst of winter.

On day two, our group of nine athletes flew North to a small town called Isafjordur. Here, new teams were selected and the events changed from a racing perspective to a focus on expeditioning. This being much more representative of what we would be involved in on Everest.

Like the other country’s, the first week was spent learning about the local culture and ways of life of the Icelandic people. This was possibly the most fulfilling and fun week of the entire experience. My team of three stayed with a family that we soon became close friends with. Hjalmar, the father was a Power Company Lineman Supervisor. Ran, the mother, was a teacher at the local elementary school and Herman, the son, was a sophomore in school and a star on the swim team. For a week we ate meals, went to work and school with this family, and learned what it was like to live in a fairly remote village in the Northern part of Iceland. Days were spent learning that Iceland exists largely on geothermal power, while climbing power poles high in the mountains in a severe blizzard, in white-out conditions. Several days were spent in school, talking to classes of students about our travels and adventures, while answering questions about our feelings on George Bush and life in America. Far before the light of day and in sub zero temperatures, I walked with Herman to swim practice and swam laps, far behind the team. And, far after the light was gone, I ventured to the school dance to learn it was no different than when I was in school. There were boys flirting with girls and acting way too cool, while Bon Jovi blared in the background. And, always there was food. Mostly food that was alien to me and sometimes scary. Ran took great pride in concocting ways to make me eat things that I didn’t recognize or enjoy. The worst dish was rotten shark which is a traditional meal during mid-winter. It was horrible, and I told her so, and she laughed, then we all laughed as the next victim had to give it a try.

A week in Isafjordur is a time that I will never forget. My impressions of these friendly people living simply on the fringes of a very harsh environment are strong. Unlike life in the States, there seemed to be very little materialism and very little unhappiness. Hjalmar, Ran, and Herman were quite simply happy with where they were in life and what they had. They took great joy and happiness in each other and I am forever grateful they welcomed us into their home and life, and allowed us a glimpse of their amazing existence.

Soon thereafter, our group of teams flew to the south part of the island and a glaciated mountain paradise named Skatafel. Waterfalls poured off cliffs working their way to the sea. High, jagged peaks towered above large expansive glaciers. The teams spent a long day on a huge glacier practicing rope and climbing techniques that would be invaluable on Everest. These exercises were not only good practice for the athletes, but also an opportunity for the experts and guides to see what skills each individual possessed. The most exciting part was a ropes course set up traversing a section of the glacier. It involved ice climbing, rappelling, ascending the rope, passing knots, and crampon technique. It was old hat for me and great fun.

In the ensuing days we made preparations to make an attempt on the highest peak in Iceland. Hvannadalshnuker is 6952 feet and a fairly technical climb involving hiking, skiing, and roped up glacier travel. In order to get good footage the production team wanted the athletes to spend the night high on the mountain. This poised the teams for a summit bid early the next morning, rather than climbing the peak in a day, like most climbers do. It took a very long time to get film crew, production team, and athletes organized, packed, and started up the peak. For most of the day we climbed higher. By afternoon we clipped into skis and eventually into crampons as we moved onto the glaciated and possibly crevassed terrain. The higher we traveled the worse the weather became. By nightfall we were setting up camp at 6000 feet in frigid temperatures and a 40 mph wind with an accompanying whiteout. The camera crew was happy to finally be getting some “extreme” footage.

All the next day the weather raged on and we remained pinned down in our tents. Every few hours someone on my team would have to endure the elements to shovel out our tent. Everyone in camp had to go through the same exercise. By nightfall, the weather worsened, and our tent became buried beyond belief. Three of us shoveling could not keep up with how fast snow was drifting in. Just before our tent collapsed, I was able to retrieve sleeping bags so we could jump into other tents to spend the night.

By morning the weather was no better and actually seemed to be getting worse. At noon, the guides decided to make a move and attempt a retreat. We spent a long hour digging out tents and packing up gear with minimal visibility and minimal ability to stay on our feet in the strong winds. With everyone roped up, we started downhill, stopping frequently, when someone got blown off their feet from a gust of wind. With zero visibility this was a very long day but our Icelandic guides, with the help of a compass, in zero visibility, led us off the mountain and back to sea level. I was amazed no one had been hurt or lost, and even more impressed with the guides abilities. We would witness these exceptional skills throughout our time in Iceland, as stormy weather and white-out conditions would end up being the norm.

After a few days of drying out and reorganizing, we were ready for the culmination of Global Extremes. A six day ski traverse across a large icecap proved to be one of the most challenging events to date. For me, it was the trip of lifetime. A rare opportunity to travel across part of Iceland, on skis, in winter, with some of finest people I’ve ever met. The Global Extremes adventure would not get much better than this. For days we skied across landscapes covered with snow and studded with beautiful peaks. Being mid-winter, this playground was ours, with no other people to be found. Many nights were spent in beautiful, remote huts, situated near thermal hot springs. As polar sunset colors engulfed surrounding peaks, the Icelandic guides spun stories about their land, while soaking aching muscles in hot water streams.

For two days we had sunny, beautiful weather. Then a storm began to brew and we experienced some of the worst weather on the entire trip. Despite strong winds, cold temperatures, and low visibility, we were on a schedule and had to keep moving. By this point, we were situated on the ice field and very exposed to the ensuing storm. Each day started well enough, but by afternoon we were struggling through the worst of the storm searching for our next hut or camping destination, while fighting to keep hands and feet from freezing. As always, the guides saw us through in fine order.

Late, on the final day, amazingly we stumbled into the last hut. The storm had only gotten worse as we descended off the ice cap and visibility was literally only 10 feet. It was an immense display of tenacity and skill on the part of the guides to lead us through this storm. Not only was it done with professionalism, but also good humor. During one afternoon, as I was out front with our lead guide, Jon, struggling to find our way to a hut, I came up behind him to find him standing in confusion with his pants around his ankles. His sled had been rolling behind him because of the wind and steep angle of slope. The cord that he pulled the sled with tangled up and “grabbed” his gore-tex pants and yanked them to his knees. Unable to move, and not really knowing what had happened; he smiled at me and said, “I think I need some help here”. Jon began to get cold as the blowing snow accumulated on his thin layer of long underwear, as we both unraveled the sled and tangled line to release his pants. Jon never faltered or showed any signs of stress in all of this. He calmly saw the humor in the situation, fixed it, and moved on. My respect grew for Jon and after it was all over, we both had a good laugh about the incident.

In the warmth of the hut it was time to vote off two more members of the remaining nine. I made it past this vote and with seven athletes remaining, the expert and guides would pick the final five to make an attempt on Mt. Everest.

The entire group returned to Reykjavik, to warm up, dry out, and pack to go home, with the suspense still lingering of who would be picked. Our last night in Iceland would be at the final selection ceremony. At an authentic Viking restaurant, right on the ocean, the Polar Expert and our Everest Guide, announced the final five to advance to Mt. Everest. As my name was announced, it dawned on me; this journey was only half over. Although excited, the announcement was anticlimactic for me. I was tired and road weary. We had been traveling for nearly three months, racing every day, all over the world. Even though this was an amazing experience, it had taken its toll on everyone. The team needed some rest and down time. Especially the five of us headed to climb Everest. We had two weeks to prepare.

With excitement and trepidation, I headed home to Alaska. I had accomplished the unthinkable. In two weeks time I would be on Mt. Everest. I learned that being the middle of the road, average guy, sometimes might just pay off in the long run. This time it did. Traveling home, I buzzed with excitement, wondering what the next two months would hold? Only time would tell.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2004 Troy Henkels