“If we’re all going to die here, at least we’ll die somewhere interesting.”
The four of us stand at the base of a seismic beast that soars 5,000 feet above us. We stare at a sign scrawled with orthography and accents that we can make very little sense of. Parts of the extensive explanation printed onto the sign are translated into English. If you are caught in ash fall, move perpendicular to the wind direction. Lava flow can change its pathway abruptly. Frequent lightning near ash clouds.
As I read through the Guidelines to Avoid Death again and again, I try to imagine whether I’ll remember the difference between parallel and perpendicular lines when I’m caught in the middle of ash raining down from the sky.
By the time I finish memorizing the graphic of this demon of a mountain that is sure to swallow us all up without warning, the rest of my family has dispersed. My father hunches over the trunk of our small four-wheel drive, rummaging through our camping equipment for his hiking backpack. My mother sits in the passenger seat of the car, with one foot sans hiking boot playfully poking out the door, while my sister has devoured more than half of her granola bar, and now stands in front of a different sign, this one detailing the history of the volcano that looms before us.
“If we’re all going to die here,” she says to me, with her head cocked to the side, “at least we’ll die somewhere interesting.”
Mount Hekla has a reputation, but it’s certainly not one that precedes itself. In fact, of all the Icelandic sleeping giants, this is one that is often forgotten. In the social spectrum of Icelandic volcanoes, Hekla is the quiet, introverted child in the schoolyard that sits in the shade of a large oak tree, head buried in a book, keeping to itself. Except for when it awakens, and reminds the rest of the children that it too has a voice.
This mountain has been called many things, including “The Gateway to Hell”, “Hell’s Chimney”, and “The Prison of Judas”. In Icelandic, Hekla translates to hooded, as though the volcano itself is the physical manifestation of The Hooded One who, in the end, will come for each and every one of us.
But as we begin to climb up its ashen exterior, the name doesn’t quite seem to fit. There is very little life on the slopes of this creature, yet there isn’t exactly a cloud of death around us, either. Instead, there is only the wind, which is the most free of us all, circling between and around us, embracing us into its arms, grazing against our cheeks, coaxing us to keep climbing into the thin air.
Our ascent crawls up the south face of the mountain, and we hike for nearly a hour before stopping to look back. To our left, the deceptive peak of the volcano’s crater hides behind misty clouds, beckoning for our arrival. To our right lies a sea of black pebbles, stardust from a lava flow that cooled and hardened over a decade ago. The lava fields continue on forever, until all of a sudden, they stop abruptly at the lush Icelandic countryside, as though the artist who created this place began with a charcoal sketch but, midway through, abandoned it for a more colorful landscape.
With every fifty feet of elevation gained, we pass through an ice field, infant glaciers of snow packed from two or three winters ago. Our feet sink into the crust of ice, each of us stepping into the footsteps of the person walking ahead.
As we approach midday, the expected rays of warm sunlight that warmed our backs at the base are now nowhere to be found. Instead, from behind the mouth to Hell, we see a storm. The flirtatious zephyr that was lifting us up and up and up towards the summit has been eaten up and consumed by a dark tempest that refuses to let us continue. The higher we try to climb, the more forcefully it pushes us down. You shall not pass, it commands. You shall not continue.
In the middle of an ice field, just as we are about turn back, we see two orange specks in snowy patch that continues up into the clouds. The two dots reveal themselves to be two Spanish hikers who have just made their way down from the summit of the crater. The hoods of their neon jackets flap back and forth in the relentless gale, and the icepicks strapped to the backpacks swing back and forth, as though they too wished to fly free in the wind.
The six of us hike down the mountain together, sharing stories of other places we’ve been, and other mountains conquered. After awhile, it begins to rain, and at our altitude, it freezes just before it hits our faces. We stop talking, and focus instead on getting down safely and quickly. Hekla, which seemed timid and unconfident, now rears all of its powers, shoving us off its slopes with such force that each one of us is humped over, trying to maintain our balance in the face of the storm it has unleashed.
When we reach the base of the mountain, the six of us pack into the car, and breath a sigh of relief. We ask the Spanish hikers about the summit, and what all they saw from the top. One of them has climbed mountains, and is a professional guide who has summited El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite. I ask him what the most important rule is of climbing.
He pauses for a second, before turning to me and replying in Spanish, “Hay que escuchar a la montaña. Decide si se puede pasar.”
You have to listen to the mountain. Only it decides if you can pass.
After we drive out of the lava fields, we drop off our new friends at their hostel a few kilometers away from the road that leads to the base of the volcano.
By the time we reach our little farmhouse, black clouds have begun to roll in, one after another, unceasing in their weight upon our shoulders, unforgiving in their gravity in the sky. Day submerges itself into night, and soon even the monstrous clouds disappear. There is nothing to be seen, and everything to be heard.
That night, the wind screams for us to listen. Everyone else seems to fall asleep almost immediately, their bodies heaving up and down with their slow breaths. But I lay awake, listening to the metal paneling of our well-built, yet humble-in-the-face-of-nature farmhouse as it shakes with each gust. The storm dispatched by Hekla makes its way into my dreams, and when I finally do fall asleep, I toss and turn, trying to free myself from ash clouds and rivers of lava.
But when I awake the next morning, there’s not a sound to be heard. It’s just as quiet as it was when we began to climb the day before. The clouds have cleared and in the distance, I can see the glaciers that had otherwise been hidden by the mist. And beyond the countryside, I see a mountain that looks like an overturned boat, its crater finally visible for the empirical taking.
Hekla has forgiven us, and finally decides to shows itself. Even from miles away, its summit shines in the morning sunlight. At the small of my back, I feel that same light breeze, tugging at me gently, pulling me up towards the sky.