Misadventures on Iceland's Laugevegur Trail

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Saturday

We're flirting with hypothermia, and we're lost in the fog on a featureless field of snow.

This isn't good.

Just hours earlier, at 4 a.m. local time, my son Gordon and I landed in Iceland's Keflavik airport. The flight was a short redeye from the U.S. East Coast. We had just enough time to get to Reykjavik, drop a bag, and catch a bus for Skógar on Iceland's south coast. By noon we were on the trail.

When we planned the trip, almost on the spur of the moment, we didn't really know what to expect. We had a week, and we figured that was just enough time for six days of hiking on the famous Laugavegur trail, including a southern extension that reached the sea at Skógar.

The Laugavegur trail regularly appears in lists of the world's great hking trails. It cuts across great swaths of austere Icelandic scenery—mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, boiling springs, fast rivers, quiet lakes. And damn few trees. Still, it didn't look too demanding. Most of the segments were ten miles each, and a couple were 7.5. There are communal huts along the way, and a hundred hikers or more complete the trail each day in high season.

Driven by bus and plane schedules, we decided to do the trail south to north, against the flow of most hikers. That meant a thirty-five-hundred-foot climb the first day, when our packs would be full of six days' rations and at their heaviest. Not to mention our legs, which would never be less ready. A ten-mile climb on no sleep wouldn't be exactly fun, we figured, but it would force us into hiking shape in a hurry, and the rest of the trip would be a piece of cake after one tough day.

And that's exactly how the hike shaped up. The day started out sweet—windy with sun and fast-moving clouds. That's as good as it gets in Iceland. (When we'd checked the ten-day forecast for this part of Iceland as the trip approached, the weather icons showed rain every day and temperatures rarely out of the forties.)

Stepping off the bus and retrieving our gear, we admire the powerful falls where the great Skóga river drops straight off a cliff onto the coastal plain. It's a classic of Iceland scenery and we milk the view for a twenty-minutes delay, since the first part of the trail is an apparently endless set of metal stairs curving out of sight along the falls. Climbing stairs with a heavy pack is hot work, and we soon strip down to light nylon clothes, sweating hard and grateful for the breeze.

Our task for the day is clear enough—just keep climbing, first along the river and then into the snowfields that linger all year near the mountaintop. The trail is easy to see in the grassy fields at the head of the falls, and in any event we only have to keep the river on our left. That is a pleasure. The river dives from one falls to another. It isn't hard to imagine the landscape as a series of decaying lava flows from volcanoes further inland. Each flow stalled further from the sea and higher on the mountain, creating the cliffs that the Skóga turns into falls in its downhill race. In places, the river carves out steep canyons whose bottom we cannot see. The canyon's cliffs hide the nests of fulmars—a northern Atlantic bird that looks like a bull-necked seagull.

The wildlife of Iceland, as far as I can see, consists almost entirely of birds. We hear there are reindeer and arctic foxes elsewhere on the island, but the only land animals we've seen are occasional handfuls of sheep and a remarkable number of horses. In fact, there is one horse for every four humans in Iceland—a remarkable statistic given that horses don't actually serve an economic function in the country any more. They all seem to be kept for sport, and the occasional export. (Stubby and hardy, the Icelandic horse evolved in isolation for nearly a thousand years and it's popular in Europe and North America for its naturally smooth paces.)

But even horses and sheep are scarce as we climb along the river, celebrating every tributary we pass. Not just because the streams often enter the Skóga in spectacular falls of their own, but for a less exalted reason. Our job is to walk this river into the ground; we won't be close to our destination for the night, the hut at Fimmvörðuháls, until the Skóga has been reduced first to a trickle and then to nothing but scattered snowfields. So we march from tributary to tributary, sweating and groaning occasionally under the unaccustomed weight of our packs. Meanwhile, Iceland's weather is reverting to the norm. The sun is gone, replaced by lowering clouds and a heavy, welcome wind.

Not so welcome is what comes next. On average, Iceland's weather is a lot like Northern Scotland's, but without the balmy parts. The wind is soon driving a mist, then a rain, then a hard rain. We pull on raingear, but our warmest clothes will have to go under the outer layers, and changing out of my rainpants is nearly unthinkable. I bought new rainpants for this trip, especially because they have snaps at the cuffs to allow them to be taken off over shoes. Shoes, maybe, but not hiking boots, I've discovered. So putting on my heavy fleece tights would mean sitting down in a cold rain and pulling off my boots as well as my pants. I'd lose more heat than the fleece would supply, at least in the near term. The easier way to keep warm, conveniently enough, is just to keep climbing, which also brings us closer to the night's shelter.

At last, we climb the river into oblivion. It is nothing but an occasional snowbank now. Iceland has had a cool summer. There's more snow than usual for late August. And it's pretty clear that these snowbanks won't melt before they're reinforced by fresh snowfalls. In fact, the stuff that's coming out of the sky is distressingly close to snow already. It's gone from simple cold rain to something with a bit of internal structure—bouncing and wobbling off our parkas toward the ground. Not snow, exactly, but somewhere between sleet and freezing rain.

Meanwhile, the trail is adding to our discomfort. It has climbed to big, slanted plateaus leading toward the summit, or what we can only hope is the summit, since it's shrouded in blowing cloud.

By now, we're wearing all the clothes we can put on without stripping down in what has become a freezing gale. There's no shelter. We are above the tree line. Truth be told, all of Iceland is pretty much above the tree line. We haven't seen a tree all day.

In fact, we've practically run out of grass, and even moss. This is a sea of stones. Too many stones to show the trail. We are almost entirely dependent now on the trail markers—three-foot stakes topped with a splash of paint and spread out over an otherwise featureless plain.

We've got to keep moving. We haven't even reached the five-mile mark, and I'm already worrying about hypothermia. Once known as "exposure," hypothermia is a gradual loss of body heat that can easily occur even when temperatures are above freezing. When the body loses heat it first cuts blood circulation to the extremities, hoarding heat for core bodily functions. Shivering is followed by lethargy and poor coordination and then by mental confusion. In the last stages, as blood flow to the cortex is cut, the deep lizard brain stem takes over, telling victims to discard clothing and burrow deep under rocks and leaves. It works for reptiles, which can hibernate, but it just kills people more quickly.

We're flagging, but energetic hiking is the best way to keep our temperatures up. If we want to keep hiking, we need to eat. So we stop now and then for a few seconds, huddled away from the relentless wind and driving rain, trying to quickly shovel handfuls of trail mix into our mouths. I remember packing those bags of trail mix in the kitchen back in Virginia. We had lovingly chosen all the sweets and nuts and fruit that no weight-conscious desk jockey could eat without guilt, imagining ourselves gaily snacking on our favorites while hiking off the calories. Now, not so much. Now, we're chewing joylessly and swallowing out of duty. This once-prized trail mix is medicine, not dessert—utilitarian fuel for the engine that is keeping us alive as it drags us up the trail.

The climb is starting to cross ravines full of snow. The first time the trail ended in a snowfield we couldn't believe it. We looked everywhere for the next stake until we finally saw it on the far side of the snow. We've gotten used to crossing snow by now. Unless the snowfield is on an angle and poses the risk that a single slip will send us sliding to wherever the bottom may be, hiking on snow is at least as good as hiking on stones. Except that unlike stones, snow seems unable to hold the stakes that mark the trail. Instead, the trail is designated with a stake in the rocks at each end of the field, a distance that is getting further and further as we climb.

You might think there'd be footprints in the snow to follow. So did I. But any prints left on the snow are quickly erased by alternating sun and rain, leaving only smudges where dirt has dropped from other hikers' boots—dirt that's often indistinguishable from the grit left by the summer's melt.

As the hours drag on, the weather grows worse and the cold digs deeper. My hands are cold, despite my gloves. My feet are cold, the boots filled with half-frozen rain running down my leg. That's par for the course in mountain hiking. More worrying is the cold I feel along my backbone, and the incipient trembling of my lips and mouth. The next symptom is impaired judgment.

"Tell me if I start doing stupid things," I ask Gordon.

"How will I tell?" he shoots back. At least one of us doesn't have to worry about impairment yet.

As long as we can keep moving. But the mountain has one more surprise for us. We're so high now that we're in the rain clouds. As they scud past, thicker and thicker, they are condensing in the freezing temperatures of the snowfields, creating a local fog. Visibility shrinks from hundreds of yards to a hundred, then fifty. Now it's dropping to twenty or less. And most of the stakes that mark the trail here are more than twenty yards apart. In fact, when the trail crosses snow, the next marker could be a hundred yards away.

So now we're hiking, not on the trail but from stake to stake. When we can't see the next marker, we guess, usually continuing on in the same direction, scanning the soil between the rocks for a trace of recent travel—half a print or a bit more wear than elsewhere. I'm a firm believer in understanding the psychology of trail planners. Makers of trails often have a unique style, their own way of approaching the terrain. To find the next stake, we have to be inside the head of the team that placed it. No time to get stupid for sure.

So we make our best guess and soldier forward into the mist, trying not to lose sight of the marker behind us as we search for the next. That way we can stretch the distance between stakes from twenty to forty yards but it costs us in time and energy. Instead of hiking with purpose, we must walk slowly, peering into the rain with our heads lifted high because the stakes are easiest to see on ridge tops, where they stand silhouetted against the flowing, backlit clouds.

But none of that helps when we hit the big snowfields, stretching before us for hundreds of yards without a stake in sight. Now we have to guess, knowing that if we're wrong the only way to safety will be to trace our own foot prints back to the start. We can see our prints but not well; they are rarely more than a quarter-inch deep in the heavily compacted late summer snow. It is no time to get stupid, but we're getting colder every time we stop to search the horizon for stakes or the snow for prints.

Finally, we face the hardest choice yet. Perhaps the trail keeps going straight from here, but if so we simply cannot find the next stake. If it turns sharply down to a large snowfield, as I now suspect, we will have to rely on a few dirty smudges, praying they don't dwindle to nothing out in the middle of the field. Just standing in the wind and rain, trying to decide, is costing us body heat.

Since we're not moving, maybe the time has at last come to put on the last of my warm clothes. The struggle is every bit as bad as I feared. The pants simply won't come off. I start sawing away at the cuff with a knife, then try to pull them off. They're down around my ankles when we hear voices. Three Germans appear out of the mist, traveling the same path we've been on.

"What are you doing?" they ask, looking quizzically at me stripping down in the wind and rain. I explain, but I can tell they only half believe me. The other half thinks that maybe I'm already looking for a place to burrow under the rocks.

Like us, they see the choice the trail requires. Unlike us, they don't have much doubt.

"We've always gone right before by following the trail onto the snow," they say, and plunge across the field. For a few minutes, they're like human trail markers in the mist, then they vanish.

Human trail markers indeed. Gordon and I stop worrying about changing clothes and start to worry about losing the Germans in the fog. I pull up my half-ripped pants, and soon we're striding out at top speed over the snow. We can hear them and see their recent footprints. And when they lose the trail, they slow down enough for us to use them as trail markers again.

Within thirty minutes, we've found not just another stake but an actual signpost, telling us that a side trail leads to the Fimmvörðuháls hut, less than half a mile away. We're briefly buoyed. But this less frequented path is even harder to follow. We wander back and forth over snow, hoping for a footprint. We were been warned that a GPS might be needed, and Gordon pulls his out for the first time now, looking for the hut that we had waymarked before we left. We're very close, the GPS shows, but after arriving at the waymark, we still can't find it.

We head back to the snow, picking up another possible trail. This one ends at a stake. Climbing, we find another. Then another. Then the lead German disappears. The fog lifts briefly, and we see that he's entered a small stone hut at the top of the ridge.

We stumble in. It is tiny, filled by us, the Germans, and four women dressed only in blankets. They were apparently led to the hut from the other side of the mountain by their guide when they showed signs of hypothermia. The guide has gone back out to find the rest of her party. Meanwhile, there is a fire, a stove and hot water for cocoa.

We struggle to figure out what went wrong with our GPS and finally realized what happened. We had used Google Earth to set the coordinates of the hut, pinning our location on top of the one identified by Google Earth That process was pretty accurate, down to a few hundred yards. But a few hundred yards wasn't enough in this fog. The next morning, in a clear dawn, we realize that we spent at least half an hour wandering lost within three hundred yards of the hut.

By the time evening comes (blessedly late even at the end of August, thanks to Iceland's Arctic Circle latitude), we are thoroughly warm. The hut has about ten beds and more than ten sleepers, but no one will be turned out into the gale. (Well, except briefly the guys, who are asked to urinate outside because of plumbing difficulties in the hut.)

The Fimmvörðuháls warden turns out to be an aspiring singer-songwriter with a guitar. He serenades us in our bunks. Drifting off, I remember for the first time in hours that we got no sleep last night.

Fear.

Now that's a cure for jet lag I've never tried before.

Sunday

The next day breaks clear and still and warm. We can see everywhere, including the snowfields and rock outcrops where we wandered aimlessly in the fog a few hundred yards below. Our clothes are, if not dry, at least not dripping. Maybe they'll hike dry.

No such luck. By the time we depart, the rain is back, but the fog is lighter, and we've begun to develop some confidence in our trailfinding. Plus, today we're going downhill, which means more clothes to start and less whining and groaning all along the path.

We're headed today to Thórsmörk, where we'll begin the classic four-day Laugavegur trail, though still from the wrong end. We can again enjoy the trail and the scenery, which remains dramatic. The hike takes us over ground that was briefly the focus of world attention in 2010, when it was suddenly covered with hot lava and the air was filled with so much ash that transatlantic and European air traffic was halted. The volcano that caused the mess, Eyjafjallajökull, has stopped spewing, but it left behind a small new crater, a couple of new volcanic peaks, and a high plain full of ash and jagged, cooling lava.

Rested and warm, we leave the hut and pick up the side trail we should have seen yesterday. Even with decent visibility, we find the trail confusing as it crosses the snowfields. Once again it's easier to key on the Germans ahead of us than to spot the trail on our own. We cross high snow and rock plateaus, with views down to the new volcanic landscape. Glacial lakes glint blue in the occasional patch of sun.

We climb to the shoulder of a new peak created in 2010, drop our packs and hike to the summit. It's ferociously windy but there's no rain, and we can see the crater and the long path taken by the molten rock as it poured down on the plain below. A year or two ago, hikers could still make melted cheese sandwiches just by burying fail-wrapped cheese and bread in the dirt and rock atop the new hills. Today, though, the ground is no warmer than any other part of the trail. If you hadn't told us, we'd have been unable to tell this bleak landscape from a dozen others we'd already walked across. Apart from all those canceled flights, the eruption has left no trace.

Iceland's eruptions aren't always so kind. The island is being pulled apart along the great midAtlantic seam between America and Europe. It's moving at a geologic gallop - an inch a year - and pulling molten rock to the surface in the bargain. In 1783, as the United States was slowly moving toward a Constitutional Convention, a volcanic fissure opened about fifty miles from here. It sent fountains of lava almost a kilometer into the air and killed a quarter of Iceland's population with ash and poison gases. (Ironically, it killed more people elsewhere in the world, and the havoc it caused among French farmers probably set the stage for the French revolution.)

We drop to the plains, now far from the snow. The land is rolling and bare and suddenly cut by a steep canyon. The path heads straight across the chasm on a ridge that Americans call a knife-edge and Icelanders a cats-back. Either way, it's a bad idea to lean too far in either direction. More troubling once we get there, though, is the dangerously slippery and unstable descent to the cats-back. I'm glad to be wearing heavy boots as the earth slips out from under our feet and over the edge of the canyon wall. Soon we're slabbing along the side of a cliff, protected only by the usual European sop to nervous hikers - a cable laid along the cliff face and attached by metal supports so we have something to hang on to if our feet slide away from us. As usual with such gestures to the anxious, the supports turn out to be mostly security theater. Every other support seems already to have pulled free of the wall, leaving great doubt about whether the cable would provide more than moral support in a fall. Only later does it occur to me to ask exactly how the supports came to be pulled from the rock. I imagine a hiker clutching the cable in a fall and then watching first one, then another, metal rod pop from the ground, each time dropping him another few feet toward the bottom of the gorge. In the end, though, the supports didn't all come out, so perhaps it's just a hell of a story in some other family's hiking lore.

The crossing behind us, our trail winds down through greening hills. As we descend into the valley that holds our next hut, we find a few willows. Some are even taller than we are. This, we think, must be Iceland's National Forest. Snark aside, it's not far wrong. Once we leave this valley, we won't see another tree for days.

The steady downhill is pounding our toes into hamburger. We make our way across a huge riverbed that is ninety percent rock and gravel, ten percent actual water The valley has steep sides and a dead flat gravel bottom with braided bits of stream wandering back and forth in it. The place reminds us both of Nepal, where we saw much the same kind of geography. It's the product of massive floods followed by long droughts. Here the worst floods seem to be the result of lava flowing up under the mountain glaciers and melting them in one catastrophic swoon. The floods leave mile-wide aprons of gravel from one side of the valley to the other, and the post-flood river has to hurry back and forth between the valley walls to fill its bed.

The hut at Thórsmörk is a big one. Unlike last night's tiny rock hut clinging to a mountain ridge, this is practically a Motel 8, with multiple rooms, an enormous kitchen, and even a big dining room. Somewhere in the valley, there's even a convenience store. A few of the hikers are having beer with their meals. Best of all, there is plenty of room to hang the damp gear that we lugged down the mountain all day. By tomorrow it will be truly dry, and we can begin the Laugavegur itself.

Monday

We are up early and get a good start on a day that will feature high winds and occasional showers. We're full of energy. Our packs are two days' lighter, and everything is dry.

For about a mile.

Then we hit the great river Thronga. It's too wide to jump, and there's no bridge. We'll have to ford. Remarkably, jammed on a post by the bank we find flip flops, obviously left so we can cross the rocky-bottomed river without cutting our feet. Nice, but there's only one pair. Many of the hikers we've seen carry light shoes for water crossings and use inside the huts, where boots are forbidden. But Gordon and I subscribe to a version of ultralight hiking which holds that the best way to cover ground is to ruthlessly reduce your pack's weight. In that world, bringing slippers on a hike is little short of sacrilege. Instead, we've developed a different way of protecting our feet as we ford mountain rivers. Boots. We take off our socks, put our boots back on, cross the river, pour out the water, then put on our socks and tboots back on. It's surprisingly comfortable. Boot leather doesn't really hold much water, and dry socks absorb most of that. We hike the rest of the day in mildly damp feet, but without booties our packs will be a good five ounces lighter throughout the hike.

We climb in sunny weather to a stony desert, then drop into bushy trees, crossing a steep-sided canyon by bridge. The path is easy and the day is fine. We move slowly past a looming series of great hills covered in grass. The grass gradually yields to barren sand and rock. It's like the American west, if the American west got rainfall every day and still managed to remain a desert.

We've nagged all day by a suggestion that the last couple of miles of trail will include another steep descent to the last bridge of the day. Here, we'll find more cables and another opportunity to contemplate our mortality. We hike at an angle toward the river. It has carved a deep vertical chasm through the volcanic rock. At last we arrive at the rim. There are cables as advertised, but the path seems safe enough, and we simply run our hands along the cable as we keep hiking. We reach the bridge with relief. That wasn't bad. But the path to the top has an ugly surprise. It leads straight up over wet and slippery rock and cannot be safely climbed unaided, since any slip would send the climber into the river, much the worse for wear.

To ease this passage, Icelanders have provided, not a cable but a fat rope hanging straight down from a length of chain. The only way to get up the path is to grasp the rope - or the chain if you've got entirely reasonable doubts about how well a hemp rope stands up to Iceland's weather - and pull yourself to the top, fully trusting your life to whatever you're holding onto. It's best at this stage not to think about all the iron rings and supports that pulled from rock walls on earlier parts of the path.

We pull ourselves up and climb the last mile to the campsite at Emstrur. Here we have been unable to reserve a spot inside the hut. We will camp. We've brought an extremely light tent - a dainty structure of wand-like poles supporting a gossamer half-dome of fabric. It's really light - three pounds or so. But we aren't sure the tissue-thin structure will survive in Iceland's winds.

So tonight we lie in the tent and listen as the wind buffets us, flattening the walls of the tent and threatening to turn it into a kite with us in it. But with the help of lots of rocks, inside and out, the night is undramatic. Our alcohol stove, also an experiment on this trip, performs less well in the wind, using large amounts of fuel to nearly boil a single pot of water. Still, we manage a warm, more or less rehydrated dinner and count ourselves lucky. But we wonder how well the stove will perform at high altitudes two days from now, when we'll again have to camp among the snowfields.

Camping means we don't pay the hut fees, which run around $70 a person. But there are camping fees of $35 to use the prepared campsites and the lavatories. You can take a five-minute hot shower, too, for another five bucks. Cell phones can be charged for the same price. Later, when I ask a tourist information stand whether I can make a local call to reserve my flight home, the charge is again five bucks. Like many tourist destinations, there's a palpable sense that visitors' cash is a seasonal resource; it has to be extracted to tide everyone over the long dark winter.

Tuesday

Our tent's thin dome of windblown nylon means that we can't miss the early dawn. I'm up early and find a sheltered spot to warm enough water for hot muesli, then we hit the trail by 7:15.

Much of today's landscape is austere - ash paths winding among barren hills. Gradually, though, the slopes grow greener, overcoming the sterility of the volcanic ash to grow a thin cover of organic matter. We cross a stretch of flatland between the hills that sports tiny islands of bright mountain flowers, all spaced evenly over the empty ground like sage in the American plains. Apart from moss and lichens, these are the first colonists, pioneers in an unpromising ecosystem.

This is our easiest day yet. We arrive at Álftavatn, an spattering of buildings on an unlovely rock plain that tilts gently down to the deep blue of a fine large lake. Several campers lost their tents last night in a gale here, but we're inside for the night. The hut here is large, and we have a reservation.

We sleep in a room with thirty other beds jammed cheek by jowl along each wall - "orgy style" one woman hiker calls it. Maybe that accounts for the French woman next to me. She periodically whips me with bits of clothing, groans, and hits the sloping ceiling with her fists. More likely though, it's her way of expressing unhappiness at the discovery that at least one of the thirty people she's sleeping with is a snorer. That a good deal of the snoring is coming from Gordon on my other side doesn't seem to prevent her from taking it out on me. Perhaps she knows it's my genes that are at fault. In the morning, I have to stifle a grave temptation to carry away her dainty little hut shoes and leave them jammed on a pole at the nearest river crossing.

Wednesday

We again get an early start, but this time our quick departure is driven by anxiety. We're climbing back into the snow tonight, camping at Hrafntinnusker outside an overbooked and notoriously wind-battered hut. We've been told that the fine morning will give way to bitter weather atop the ridge. We need to get to the campsites and set up our tent before the wind makes setting it up impossible.

So we grind out the climb at top speed. The whole day is meant to be a short 7.5 miles of climbing. We're again playing leapfrog with the Germans, and I'm comforted at the thought of using them as human trail markers if we hit fog again at the top. After a river ford that makes me long for the French woman's hut shoes all over again, we ascend bare ridge after bare ridge, with long views down to the lonely scattering of huts and outbuildings huddled at Álftavatn.

For the first time, we see hot pots and steam vents along the trail. The trail drops across a weird thermal feature in the form of white sucking mud. It will cling to our boots for the rest of the trip. We lose the trail a few times, even with good weather. Then we hit snow, and visibility predictably goes to hell. The fog drifts, thickening and thinning over a trail we are now only guessing at. The Germans and another early group of hikers spell us in picking out the route.

We can tell that the sky is still clear above the fog but the howling wind leaves us off balance, under siege. The hill are sometimes covered in grass and moss, sometimes bare. Their shapes are vaguely volcanic - sharper and less worn than most hills we've hiked, but none with a classic cone shape. Unlike a patient volcano, Iceland's lava builds in a more slapdash style.

We keep pressing as long as the weather is clear. A few spits of rain remind us that "clear" is a matter of degree in Iceland, and spurred by worry, we manage to reach Hrafntinnusker by 11 in the morning. We have our pick of campsites, so we take a tour. Each one is built like a bombproof machine gun nest, surrounded by rock walls that range from waist to chest height. It's reassuring in one way: These sites look like they can protect us from the worst weather imaginable. But what they say about the experience of past hikers is not comforting.

We talk to the hut warden. She asks why we'd stay. The weather will deteriorate during the day, and to hear her tell it, there's not much to see or do here now that the ice cliffs have all collapsed. It occurs to us that another four or five hours of hiking would knock off the section of trail we'd planned for tomorrow. When the warden says she can get us a bunk at the Landmannalaugar hut, and the Germans set off for the same destination, our minds are made up. It means hiking 15 miles today instead of our usual ten, but our next stop has one irresistible feature - a pool where cold and hot streams merge, creating an ideal temperature for bathing. Even here on the mountaintop, it calls to us.

So we march on, quickly reaching the high point o the trail, and a memorial to a hiker who perished in the rain and fog less than a mile from the hut. It's the second we've seen today. The snow seems to go on and on. There isn't even a pretense of trail markers now. Luckily, the southbound hikers have begun to reach us in great numbers. When puzzled over the trail, we only need to wait for another group to loom out of the fog somewhere ahead and rush to meet them. Sometimes the fog lifts and we can spot a distant stake. We're tempted to shortcut the trail, until we find that the shortcuts often take us to the edge of snow cliffs. Only once does the trail itself ask us to leap across a crevasse. It's more a step than a leap, and the crevasse doesn't look all that deep. Another shortcut takes us across a slushy puddle that we soon realize is the slushy top of a lake that would be over our heads if we fell through, which looks surprisingly likely as our boots sink deeper into the slush with each step. The trail, we realize again, went around this section for a good reason.

In an hour, the snow has dwindled to an occasional presence. The hillside rock and gravel varies in hue, and every low spot holds the remains of the winter's snow, in patches that emphasize the stark geometry of the landscape. Only a spot or two of green leavens the scene. It's as though God had been called away to the telephone on the afternoon of the fourth day and never got around to finishing creation in this part of the world.

Now our ambition is taking its toll. My big toe has grown increasingly painful, and the downhill sections jam it into the front of my boot without mercy. I usually hike in the world's lightest running shoes, on the theory that the weight I carry at the ends of my legs is far more burdensome than anything I carry on my back. I brought boots on this trip for the snow and the slippery descents, and I was glad it did. But I'm paying for it now. I'll find out after the trip that I've sprained my toe. I didn't even know you could do that.

We can't be too far from the end. We're starting to run into daytrippers. At one of the lower snowfields we even encounter a biker trying to spin his way through the snow, pedalling frantically as though in an impossibly high gear as his wheels slip in the slush. It doesn't look like fun.

At last we take a break looking into the valley and realize that we're just minutes from the huts. We sit and enjoy the view, as the Germans pass us one last time. I ask them if their arrival means I have to take off my pants again.

Minutes later, dog tired, we drop our gear at the hut, then shamble off the to hot pool. It's cold and rainy and yes, windy, so stripping down to nylon shorts to step into a lukewarm stream lacks intuitive appeal. It gets warmer as we struggle upstream over the sharp and awkward rocks of the streambed, but the water barely reaches our knees. Only when we reach the confluence of the hot and cold streams can we drop to a sitting position and gradually scoot into the precise right spot for our heat tolerance. The Germans are already there. They remark that, once again, they find me with my pants off.

Bit by bit our kinks unwind in the drifting heat, and we ease further up toward the hottest part of the pool. We have nothing to do now but heal.

It feels good.

Advertisement