This morning I got up early and got on a bus and put on a lot of clothes (stripey long underwear shirt, Fat Freddy’s shirt which confused my Kiwi guide a little–“where are you from?”– capri pants, fuzzy, big huge socks, big huge boots, big huge crampons, and stripey hat) and climbed up a glacier. I only fell on my face once so I am counting the day a complete success.
I was still feeling a little low when I got to Franz Josef yesterday and wasn’t really sure what to do with myself for the two days I was planning to spend here–in face the only reason I stopped here at all was because I thought I may as well break the journey to Nelson, where I am meeting Alice for our kayak trip in a little over two weeks, and see a wee bit of the west coast. You know, while I’m here. I rolled into town and checked into my hostel (dominated, for some reason, by people traveling on the good old Magic Bus, which is similar to but apparently not as crazy as the so-called Shag Experience.) and sort of toodled around. Obviously the glacier is the big draw around here–you can go heli-hiking, even, which sort of seems like cheating–but I didn’t think I would be fit enough to do a glacier hike. I mean, a glacier. A huge wall of ice, just like in The Valley Of Horses, you know? And you know how I am a delicate little flower who likes tea and bickies and books, you know–someone who is not really conversant with Gore-Tex and ice axes at this stage in her career.
So I booked a two-hour horse ride for today, figuring that I could just look at the glacier from a safe distance, which would be plenty, right? I was walking back to the hostel, pretty pleased with myself, and planning to go to an interpretive exhibit, thinking that I was beign rather clever in doing something well within my limited abilities…when all of a sudden I was just consumed by this weird desire to climb that ice mountain my damn self, to get cold and tired and to see the ice break over me in waves and ridges. So–and this is the beauty of traveling alone, by the way–I turned around and canceled the ride and booked the full day hike and found myself crunching up a set of stairs cut into the ice in the pouring down rain, happy as any clam you’ve ever met. No one is more surprised than me by this revelation.
They’re very good, these glacier hike people, at getting inexperienced hikers up on the ice quickly and efficiently and all that. They give you all the gear and assign you into groups (I was in the easiest-but-one group) and throw you on the bus and there you are. I thought it would be pretty hard hiking, and it was, for me at least–a lot of scrambling over rocks on top of ice, wearing very heavy and blunt crampons. We strumped up and up and up and up and squeezed through tiny little tunnels in the ice (for which I am sure there is some sort of technical name) and pulled ourselves over cliff faces with ropes and got very cold and wet indeed. The fog rolled in and the waterfalls poured down and I looked and looked at the brilliant blue of the frozen centuries, cool and smooth and crusted with dirt, implacable under my reddened hands as I pushed and pulled my way through and around and over and above.
I fell down because my crampon got stuck in my bootlace by mistake and I torqued my knee and got some specatacular bruises, I’m sure, and wondered if we weren’t going too high and if I would be able to make it up that far and then back again. I thought about all the times in college where I would go on hikes with my ridiculously outdoorsy friends and not be able to keep up, not be able to enjoy myself at all because it was too hard and it hurt too much and I couldn’t go fast enough, and I got a little nervous one time when I fell to the back of the group, thinking that no one would know if I fell into one of the impossible crevasses. My trousers got completely soaked, between the ice and the rain, and I remembered someone saying “It’s better to be naked in a rainstorm than to wear cotton!” and I felt heavy and encumbered and uncomfortable, part of the time.
But I didn’t care, actually. It was a little like times I’ve been diving or snorkeling, when I just got very…concentrated. Left foot on the step, push up; right foot on the step, push up. Ice walls all around me, smooth and rough at the same time. Left foot, right foot; left foot, right foot. On and on, one step at a time, until we were at the top, and then until we were at the bottom and I was able to look up and see I’d done something I thought I’d never be able to do, that my body and mind had conspired to bring me to cold and clarity, to the infintisimal flow of time’s river, as simple and extraordinary as that.