November 09, 2017

Iceland: We Come from the Land of the Ice and Snow

Cedrik Climbing Vatnajokull , Iceland's Largest Glacier , in his Pick-Pocket Proof Business Travel Pants!

By Cedrik - California, USA

"Dip your water bottles and drink," said the guide, "the water is clean and pure." We hesitated. Even in California‘s remote High Sierra mountain range, the standard is to filter or purify the water. But Iceland is different.

A remote land. Sparsely populated, Iceland has only 334,00 people, with 11 percent of the country covered in glaciers. You quickly get used to not being able to pronounce names in Iceland. The largest glacier in Iceland and all of Europe is called Vatnajokull while the infamous volcano that erupted in 2010, causing air traffic chaos in Europe, is called Eyjafjallajökull. You can buy the t-shirt and the friendly Icelanders will smile as they help you pronounce it over and over again until you get it right.  

It’s much easier to break into your best Led Zeppelin rendition of The Immigrant Song, "We come from the land of the ice and snow . . ." I lost count of the times someone in our small group sang some of the lyrics, but Iceland is a land of ice and snow. Even in June, a heavy snowfall meant pulling on that extra layer of clothing and zipping up the mountaineering jacket and exclaiming, "Well, it IS called Iceland." The puffins don't mind and if you visit make sure to bring foul weather gear.  

Did I mention the wind? The occasional howling gusts triggered another Zeppelin stanza... "The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands." But the stark beauty of the landscape and the remote vastness of the country are what draw many tourists. If you have the time, make sure to go beyond the one-day Golden Circle distance from Reykjavik so you can see the less-crowded part of the country in the north and east. There you will taste the best seafood soup ever and maybe even eat cod you just caught, which the captain filleted on the way to port then threw straight onto the grill. Melt in your mouth good. You’ll be drinking lots of that clean, clear stream water because beers are about a cool $10 each.  

You’ll need beer and more because it’s likely you’ll eat Kæstur hákarl, the Icelandic delicacy of fermented shark. Preparation consists of gutting and beheading the shark, then burying it in the ground for 6 to 12 weeks to ferment and cure. Wikipedia correctly notes, "Those new to it may gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it," while Anthony Bourdain says it‘s "...the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he has ever eaten. Moral of the story: you absolutely must try it. Of course. Shots of locally produced high test brennivin help sear any remaining taste buds after sampling this delicacy. The Icelanders are a hardy lot with regard to food, as well as the outdoors.

The best of Iceland is found by exploring nature. The fjords, open countryside, dockside villages, geysers, and glaciers. Random tidbit: Iceland is the home of Geysir, the original geyser. So why not climb up part of the Vatnajokull Glacier, which by now you’ve learned to pronounce? We got kitted up with mountain boots, crampons, and an ice ax. You can also rent waterproof overpants, but I opted to just stick with my Business Traveler pants, knowing they were windproof enough and water-resistant enough to hold up to Icelandic weather.

With no snow, little wind, and only a light intermittent rain, we considered the weather perfect for climbing up the glacier. Like most glaciers in the world, Vatnajokull is retreating, so we had to first hike to the toe of the glacier, then securely strap on crampons and start climbing up. You need to step carefully because a slip on the ice has three possibilities. If you are skilled in ice ax self-arrest you’ll stop yourself from hurtling down the glacier. If not you’ll either be lucky and go the hospital with broken bones after a long and fast slide to the bottom or you’ll be unlucky and fall into a crevasse, a split in the glacier, and most likely die. But don’t worry, it’s not that steep and we were told accidents are rare. You might even find glacier mice, small balls of moss that form over time and tumble around the glacier, pushed by the wind. And you thought a rolling stone forms no moss.

We continued higher, reaching a small open stream on the glacier. Since we were thirsty and knew the water was clean, we could do a Viking-style drink: use your ice ax to span the stream, have one foot on either side of the stream, then lower down in the push-up position, drink the literally ice cold water, then push up and repeat until your thirst is quenched. Not really sure if the Vikings actually did that or if the guides were just having fun with us, but the water sure tasted good. Sooner than we wanted the trip was over, but not before watching the setting midnight sun. With one last refrain, "We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow."

Farewell, beautiful Iceland.

August 31, 2017

Easter Island: The Mystery of the Moai

By Founder/Designer Adam Rapp

Adventure. Exploration. Mystery.
It’s all on Easter Island. This trip was planned since before I even knew what planning a trip was. I first saw the majestic statues and learned about the ancient mystery of the Moai from the pages of National Geographic, which brought the Moai across oceans and right into my living room. I knew someday I would have to go see it for myself.

Fast forward 20 years and there I was, under the stars, on a Chilean island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, completely alone with huge stone faces for company.

Our best scientific understanding tells us that the teams of people stood the Moai faces up and rocked them back and forth, using ropes to inch the statues forward. Local stories tell of the Moai walking to their final “Ahu,” or platforms. But pictures, and scientific knowledge are no match for the sheer power of seeing the statues in person.

My journey started at the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku. It’s a wonder to see the statues frozen in time, in various stages of completion, and standing in all manner of angles staring back at you on the cliffside. I retraced the well-worn path down from the quarry and saw an ancient Moai face down in the road, just where it had fallen hundreds of years ago. One could feel like they were discovering it for the first time.

Ahu Tangariki is the most impressive and awe-inspiring of the Moai groups on Easter Island. I visited on my first afternoon and went back two days later to watch the sunrise. It wasn’t enough. On the second to last night of my trip, the skies were predicted to be clear, and I couldn’t resist trying to see the Moai once more, silhouetted by black sky and bright stars. Sure, night viewing is not encouraged, and standard tours to the island don’t include it. But that didn’t stop me. If anything, it made me more determined. I found one of the few cabs and headed down the road that rings the island shortly after midnight. As my eyes adjusted to the absolute darkness, I saw the forms of fifteen faces. Slowly, the majesty of the stones against the night sky came into focus. The mystery of the Moai was clear that night.

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