The Spirit of the Mountains

To conquer a mountain is to conquer life
Ascend to the heavens and stand on its peak
Reach forth and claim the seat of heroes
The mountain is catharsis
Let it break you and release your stress
Challenge you and mend your wounds
It carries the nurturing of a mother and brings the wrath of the father
But ultimately, the mountain is light for those who seek it

Call of the Wild

Growing up in San Diego, I remember most of our time being spent in the city. In such a developed area, we went out to restaurants, traveled to many famous amusement parks, and often attended local events and festivals. Like most kids, my connection to nature was often through recreation: visiting the local park, going to the beach, or fishing at the lakes with my Dad. A visit to the San Diego Zoo was a real treat, as you got to see all kinds of animals and creatures around the world in one place. One of my most exciting memories is when we would make the long road trip up to Southern Oregon to visit my great grandparents. This is where the desert landscape transformed into something I had only seen through nature magazines and television. I loved driving through the massive pillars of Giant Sequoias in Redwood National Park and seeing snow on the mountains in Northern California. The lush variety of color between the green of the forest and blue ocean water was like an adventure into paradise. When we finally arrived, the tall trees of evergreen forest soared liked giants around the small rural house. A back trail across a telephone service road led to a mysterious stream, where we scouted the ground for river rocks and tried to swim in the surprisingly deep and cold flowing rapids.

A trip out to Grants Pass would bring us face to face with the raw power of water. Tours led through the Class III rapids of the Rogue River are considered suitable for beginners, but it doesn’t take away from the danger inherent in the sport of whitewater rafting. On our first trip, we barely hit a bump and I fell backwards into the water. I was just a small kid and the current carried me right along side of the boat. Although my life vest was pushing up against the force of the water, it felt as if I was just stuck underneath, my head struggling to come up for air. My heart was rushing and in what felt like multiple minutes, a hand grabbed me from behind and pulled me up until we reached a more settled area to get back in. When we got back home, we received a video tape of the trip, and had a nice laugh of the whole thing. Telling the stories to my friends was as if I crossed a threshold beyond the safety of childhood, and passed in the footsteps of true explorers of these wild lands.

A couple years later we moved to Pennsylvania to be with my Dad’s side of the family, and although it was very sad to leave my friends and the life I knew behind, I again felt refreshed by the call of this unfamiliar landscape. In the back of our apartment, another service road was yet again waiting to be explored, but this time it was different. I had the freedom to set forth on this expedition on my own. I had no idea what I was doing, but the independence in these woods stirred a very different physiological and mental state within me. I was alert, using all of my senses—sight, touch, smell, and on more daring days maybe even taste. My eyes would hone in on the finest details; my imagination went wild with creativity and the possibilities that could be constructed. Sticks and logs became weapons and building materials for defensive forts against unwanted scoundrels. Sitting in silence under the trees, you would often spot the tiniest bug or hear small animals scurrying through the brush. You were always learning something new, but it was on your own without someone telling you authoritatively how you should process this new information. After some time getting comfortable with my bearings along the trail, I decided to do something daring: I would continue down the service road as far as I could reach. I didn’t tell my parents this at the time, but it had to be done in that moment, when the spirit of adventure was alive and well. I kept going and going until I found an intersection, where the trail either sloped down into a valley of dark woods or continued straight along the gravel road following the more comfortable marks of civilization. Yet, I just had to know what was down there. As I continued down, it was very quiet but I could hear the sound of a small stream flowing nearby. I worked my way towards it, and to my surprise, I found a bunch of broken pottery and old tobacco pipes washed up on the shores along the water—it was like a huge treasure find. We never did discover the mystery behind these shards of “artifacts”, but these are the stories kids dream of that make them feel alive with wonder and curiosity about life.

An Unexpected Journey

It was about 9AM on a Saturday morning in 2012 when I got a call from one of my good college buddies. He was living in New Hampshire at the time since it was closer to work, but on the weekends would come down to Boston to stay with friends. We would often hang out somewhere around the city, so whenever he had one of his spontaneous fits, it was just a quick hop on the train and we would be together in no time. However, this morning, it was quite different. The group of impromptu adventurers he was staying with had grand expectations of making the trek out for the great summit of Mt. Washington. I had no idea what to expect but agreed to meet with them for breakfast to come up with a game plan.

Since Mt. Washington is the highest peak in New England, it gets a considerable amount of tourist traffic, and along with that runs the risk of several naive travelers who don’t understand the threat that high elevation mountains pose to the unprepared. With it’s highly unpredictable weather and sudden drops in temperature, it is considered one of the most deadliest mountains in America. According to the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center, an average of 25 people need rescue assistance each year; whereas the most shocking statistic is the over 160 people who have died climbing the mountain since 1849, nearly half of the total death toll on Mount Everest. The trendy stickers that you see on car bumpers who make the drive up to the summit hide this dark reality, making this mountain seem like just another fun weekend attraction. I’ve seen it many times on other popular climbs, where inexperienced hikers start the ascent with little gear and limited knowledge. In March 2017, when I was on Mt. Snowdon in Wales, I was about halfway up before snowflakes starting fluttering down from the sky. Within minutes, it was a total whiteout and all I could see was a few feet in front of me. I decided to put on my rain gear, since I still had a long descent down the other side of the mountain, but up at the peak I was met with others wearing just tennis shoes and summer clothes. Later that year in Ireland, a friend and I took our chances on a difficult trail route in seemingly clear weather, but once we got about 2 hours into the trip, sunny skies turned to grey clouds, presenting us with a steady drizzle that would make things even more challenging. The rocky scramble which would have been really fun in dry weather, became so slippery that we made the decision to follow the grassy slope around it. Even with all the proper gear, the rain continued to beat us down, making the most interesting part of the climb a miserable slog to just get through to the end. As we finally got a nice break from the weather along the flat ridge, we were comfortably strolling on our way to the final ascent to the summit. This whole time we only saw one group come across this side of the mountain, so it was quite exciting to catch a glimpse of another person in the distance. We got closer, but it quickly became apparent that the person was in distress. We found out that she got separated from her group in the fog and rain. She took the main trail up, which was the easiest part of the climb, but was too scared to make her way back down the main path. I asked her about her hiking experience but the simple marked trails she ventured out on in her Austrian homeland were no match to prepare her for this rugged Irish ascent.

At this point, I could have been one of those people. Most of my experience with hiking before this was short two or three mile hikes on easy paths around state parks. My general level of fitness was pretty good, especially since I was in the military at the time, but mountain climbing can be really draining for even the most athletic people. I find that building up a tolerance for the sport is less about strengthening the leg muscles or training for distance, but just creating the muscle memory required to get used to the climb. During my backpacking journey from 2016-2017, I was often doing high elevation and long mileage in subsequent days. There’s no escaping the soreness that is delivered to your whole body after a challenging day, but recovery becomes much quicker and by morning the thirst to conquer another mountain pushes you towards the next pursuit. As we met for breakfast, it was already approaching 10:30AM; it was becoming clear that maybe our plans were too ambitious. By the time we would get up to Mt. Washington, it would already be the afternoon, and we would still have 6,000 feet of elevation to climb, descend, and still make our way back home. Anyone who visits the White Mountains knows that making a day trip requires a very early start, not only to be safe but just to make the whole thing worth it.

About 2 hours later, we passed through the small town of Jaffrey, NH, a stark contrast to the suburbs of Boston. Like much of small town America, these quaint places boast the usual sites: the one or two staple restaurants everyone goes to for a nice meal, the familiar chains slowly poisoning the locals, and shopping plazas with dollar stores and other low quality businesses selling you things you don’t need. Once you find yourself in the town center, the aesthetic can be quite pleasant and there might be a few gems here and there, but otherwise it just feels like one big retirement home. It sounds like a dream to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and move somewhere where a few people might actually know your name, but this isn’t the land of opportunity, this is where the farmer goes to die. There is no spirit or culture in a place like this; unfortunately the minds of men have been broken down and swallowed up by the homogenous behemoth of consumer capitalism. It is a shame to think that the great minds of the Transcendentalist movement would’ve likely passed through this same town on their travels, full of inspiration and life as they headed up to the mountain. Yet, the mountain is the one thing that never changes: centuries can pass by, towns are built and abandoned, children are born while adults grow decrepit, but it still stands tall.

We approach the head of the trail and it is thickly wooded, a deep abyss of challenges waiting to be discovered. A gentle climb teases us for what is to come, up until we cross a fork where we are presented with two options: the White Dot trail is shorter, but has a steeper ascent, whereas White Cross is similar, but can be a little less daunting for the beginner. Two of the guys I was with were marathon runners, so it didn’t surprise me that they were looking for a challenge that day. As we started up White Dot, the first 45 minutes was nice and steady, up until we reached the boulders. The 10 pounds on my back felt like a rock in itself weighing me down with each step. Breathing heavily and my legs burning, I had to block out the pain in my mind, focusing on just getting through the moment rather than being lost in the head games of wondering how much further you have to go. To the guys, it was still a breeze; they took their shoes off midway through to make things even harder and offered to take my backpack. You could probably load them down with bricks and would still be unlikely to slow them down much. When we finally reached the top, I was exhausted. This was definitely one of the most difficult physical challenges I had ever experienced—but I felt invigorated. The summit was a place of self realization, the ascent breaking down fears and doubts about the human potential to conquer the unknown. In our triumph over the face of Nature, we felt closer, an unbroken bond as if we had known each other for a lifetime. In the meantime, something primal was stirring within me, an instinct that needed release. As I looked out in the distance at the valley from which we came, I suddenly burst into a howl at the vast expanse. I let out another and the others followed in an uproar. We were the wild beasts of Mt. Monadnock. We were literally standing on top of the world.

Keep Walking

Within the following year, my friend set out on his own backpacking trip in East Asia, and I drifted back into my city ways. I was often going out to music shows, eating at different restaurants, and exploring cultural events in the local area. I barely used my vehicle on the weekends, as the T subway system was often just a walk away, quickly taking me anywhere I needed to go around Boston. Yet, I often felt like something in life was still missing. I was yearning to get to the root of things, trying to answer the big questions in life about what would make society feel less mundane. I felt like everything I had worked for wasn’t as impressive as I hoped it would be. I was just following the instructions that everyone else was telling me, without knowing who I really was and understanding my place in the world. I was lost, and it wasn’t until I discovered the story of Christopher McCandless that I regained any sort of consciousness in life. Maybe the metropolis really was draining us of our shining light: to find that connectedness with your fellow man and the passion inside our soul to achieve our dreams. One day, as I stepped off the train into Harvard Square, I walked past a large billboard advertising cheap flights from Boston to Iceland. I instantly remembered the Jules Verne classic I read as a kid, which first peaked my interest in the mysterious island: “Go down into the crater of Snaefells Jökull, which Scartaris’s shadow caresses just before the calends of July, O daring traveler, and you’ll make it to the center of the earth. I’ve done so.” I thought of Walter Mitty and daydreamed of the daring adventurer Sean O’Connell waving me on to this new task. This was my first time out of the country, first time staying in a hostel with other random strangers, and the very first big adventure in an unknown land—all alone.

At about 5am, I saw my first glimpse of this foreign landscape as we were touching down at Keflavík Airport. As we emerged out of the thick fog and the runway became clear, a solid black covered the ground, a reminder of the constant change the island faces due to regular volcanic activity. Before Nordic settlers arrived to the island in the 9th century, this place looked a lot different: 25-40% of the land was covered in birch forest and woodland; today down to a measly 2%. Much of this native forest was cut down to use as building materials, wood fuel, or to make way for farms. For centuries, sheep have been allowed to graze extensively in the surrounding hills, exhausting the native seed bank and inhibiting the natural regeneration of trees and woody plants. With this loss of habitat, nearly half of Iceland can be considered desert. In several areas, the once organic rich topsoil has eroded away, leaving a bare volcanic rock that becomes a colonizing ground for mats of moss and lichen. May is a perfect month to see this change: one week you arrive to what looks like a desolate landscape, but as the temperatures warm and soft rains bring a bit of moisture to the ground, clumps of green begin to grow within the rugged crevices. Although soil erosion and deforestation can be a somber introduction to a place hyped up for its unique beauty, many Icelanders are very active in environmental protection and continue to make efforts to plant trees and help restore the land. While degraded landscapes can help us reflect on conservation and sustainability, these manmade deserts can also tell another story. As you look out into the distance, you build a personal relationship with the land: visualizing the detailed curves of hills and valleys and contemplating its naked form—millions of years of geological development exposed to our brief existence. The lack of trees is a wanderer’s dream: the open landscape can feel endless, but at times comfortable when a glimpse of town or sea stumbles upon your path. Yet, the way forward is solid and difficult: rugged gravel spills underneath your feet, craggy rocks call out to the hands for leverage, and the often misty abyss strips us of our most familiar sense. In this barren place, the challenge is not just one of a physical nature, but tests you on how you have conquered yourself. It asks a very transcendental question: how well do you know your mind, body, and spirit in the face of adversity?

It seemed like forever before I arrived at the hostel. As I finally got into the room, the sun was fully shining, and there was a man just waking up to go to his morning shift. Struggling with pictures on his phone and the few English words that he knew, I learned that he was from the Czech Republic and worked at the hostel. After a few minutes of this limited conversation, he started to dial the phone and handed it to me. A girl answers and she tells me that Martin would like to know if I wanted to go camping with them. Standing there, I thought to myself, oh my, these were the kinds of stories they warned me about where people go missing and get their organs harvested right? Maybe it was the sleep deprivation or physical exhaustion, but I decided to make a bold move and agree to join them in a few days when they were ready to set off. I soon walked out into the dining area, and it was just in time for a very special Icelandic breakfast—after all the stories I had heard of eating rotten shark meat or lamb’s head on a plate, I was expecting something adventurous but was surprised to find an interesting blend of continental and what felt like lunch foods. The table was spread with various breads and crackers with cold cuts and cheeses. Yogurt and granola was paired with a delicious selection of fruit. One of my favorites was the smoked salmon and egg slices with the creamy yolk topped on some Rúgbrauð, a dense rye bread traditionally buried and baked in the geothermal hot springs. My stomach fully charged and body ready to go explore the city, I made my way towards Reykjavík town center. I passed by several buildings and residential houses—words and names of places in a strange language I had yet to learn—and as I turned the corner I could catch a glimpse of the open water. As I got closer and closer, I was immediately struck by the snow-capped mountain range that extended across the other side of the sea. Although it was 12 miles away, Mt. Esja felt so close, like it was a very personal part of the city. It’s immense size stood firm, a warrior ready for battle or a parent providing for a child. It was an ancient guardian watching over and protecting the city and all its citizens.

After a couple days of exploring the town, I came back to the room and a group of people were huddled around Martin, trying to figure out how to manage some new trip. It was one of the popular tourist routes to travel south down the Ring Road and then stay a night in Vík, near the black beaches and basalt columns of Reynisfjara. On our way back we would spend a night camping in the “hot springs hills” of Reykjadalur Valley. I had already booked my time in Reykjavík for the 10 days I would stay there, so this sudden planning was a difficult choice to make—I really didn’t want to pay twice. However, since it was the off season and they weren’t yet fully booked up, they were very accommodating in letting me substitute my stay for their partner hostel in Vík. It felt like a true adventure. At the first stop, we approached the enormous waterfall Seljalandsfoss, and then suddenly I saw the guys off to the side climbing straight up the hill. I was a little hesitant at first since all I could see is what looked like a sheep trail. I had heard that many natural areas in Iceland were very sensitive, especially the moss which can be damaged just by touching it, so I wanted to respect the place with what little knowledge I had. We did find some others up there as well, and our friend mentioned that he was looking for a hidden geocaching box up at the top. Looking down at all the tourists on the main strip, it definitely felt like we were explorers off the beaten path, but were we doing something wrong? Later, we passed by a sign for Sólheimajökull—loosely translated to sun, home, and glacier—and I told the group that it was mandatory to see at least one glacier before going back home. Again we approached the base, and the impulse was automatic: we just started climbing again. I expected the whole surface to be ice, but it was more of a chunky snow covering the top. My jeans, work boots, and light jacket contrasted greatly with the full gear that the tour groups had on, but it seemed excessive—microspikes of some kind would definitely be helpful but as long as you watched your step it didn’t seem too bad. We got about halfway up, and the tour leader didn’t really yell at us or seem alarmed. He just calmly approached and asked what we were doing; he warned us of the recklessness of our activities and let us know that we didn’t have the proper gear to continue much further. At that point, I snapped back to reality and realized it was time to go. We were getting in a little too much over our heads. As we finally arrived at Vík, we checked into the hostel and ventured our way down to the beach. We just had a bit of rain pass through, so we weren’t even sure if we would make it out to much else in the evening. What a surprise that this lonely beach would be grounds to see flocks of puffins! They were flying and circling above our heads, one of them landing on the beach just in time to be caught and held by Martin. As he let it go, it sped down the beach like a runway, diving straight into the waves of the ocean. I knew very little about these creatures so I hoped the little guy was okay.

I tell these stories not as something to boast about or specifically be praised, but a place to consider our respect for nature and how we connect with it. With the financial crash of 2008 and the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, media attention brought Iceland to the worldwide spotlight. Within a few years, the country would see a rise from only 500,000 to nearly 2 million visitors, greatly outshining the existing population that lives there. This “untouched” land of volcanoes, glaciers, and hot springs would come to be a top destination for fascinated tourists, and with that the burden of providing the resources to handle this flux of visitors. When I was returning from my backpacking trip in 2017, the airline was already announcing that they were collecting donations to fund environmental management and restoration. This problem is occurring all over the world, where many of these precious natural resources are becoming accessible to the general public. You can drive to the top of some of the tallest mountains or park your car right in front of geological formations that are millions of years old. No longer reserved for the experienced hiker or the knowledgable naturalist, it’s just another box to check on the “top 100 list of sights you must see”. Even seasoned hikers have become swept away in the pure aesthetic feeling of the “tourist mind”. Hikers go to great lengths to pick up the latest gear at the nearest overpriced outdoor store, ranting and raving about how much they love going there. When these hikers do hit the trails or ascend the peaks, much of what is talked about is the challenge of the hike, the views on top, or how many destinations they’ve visited in their lifetime. Many outdoor clubs promote group hikes that are often so rushed, you completely forget to take in the changing landscape or learn the importance of the natural history surrounding you. You miss out on that personal relationship with the land: the unique personality that each place gives to us and the stories that it holds. When one truly connects with nature, understanding and respect is at the forefront of the experience, and it no longer becomes about our selfish desires but one of cooperation and love for the land. I look back at this time in Iceland as the beginning of a deep learning experience: being comfortable with making mistakes and growing through them is fundamental to the process.

Out in the hot springs of Reykjadalur Valley, one of our adventure buddies from Japan had just made his own mistake. Packing his bag with at least 5 days worth of clothes, he completely misunderstood what exactly we were doing out there. The thing was so big and heavy it could manage as a suitcase, and every so often we would check in on him to see how he was doing. One time we asked him how he was, but all he said was “Keep Walking”. I thought about it often throughout my travels: walking for miles with a 40 pound bag on my back trying to hitch a ride to the next town; getting stranded in places where I had to rough it and sleep outside; or just making the wrong choices during the journey that made my life more difficult. Many times in the past, I had let my errors cripple me: my faults weighed me down, squirmed inside my head, and kept me from taking the action I needed to move forward in life. “Keep Walking” encompassed a new vision: it was not just a mantra to tough it out through physical hardship, but to never let mistakes or challenges disorient you from the goals you strive for. Reflecting on these moments and being able to take away the lessons—or maybe no lessons at all—from each part of life is key to maintaining your compass towards its true direction.

The Old Man of the Hills

The first leg of the journey back to Iceland in April 2016, I got back in touch with Martin and the Czech friends I met previously to see if they were planning any more adventures. They told me that in a few days they were on their way to Mývatn, where there lies a beautiful lake and geothermal hot springs to bathe in. To get there, we pushed north towards the Snæfellsnes peninsula: the elusive end of the earth that started it all. We kept seeing signs for the glacier, but as we made the turn, we ended up on a dirt road that was difficult to traverse for our small car and seemed to lead to nowhere. We attempted to get out of the vehicle but the wind was whipping so hard we could barely even open the doors. The guys did their usual routine of just finding the nearest thing to climb and go up, but it was impossible for me; I really felt like I was just going to be blown away and what became the start of a grand adventure might just quickly become my end. We continued down the main road and eventually the snowy-white cap emerged atop this dormant volcano way off in the distance. That night, I curled into my sleeping bag embracing the cool April air and thinking about this sight and the beauty of the coast. I had crossed the threshold of my call to adventure, a pivotal point in my current life and an exciting symbol for the journey ahead.

The next morning we cooked up a “camp style” breakfast and set off for a long journey through the northern territories of the country. At this point, I was honestly doubting my decision to go on this trip with these guys. In the many hours we spent in the car, I barely got a chance to connect with them and speak English, as they were mostly talking in Czech the whole time. Many instances I felt scared for my safety as they were flying down these dirt roads at unimaginable speeds—I was holding on to the handle of the door just to steady myself. On top of that, I swear they just never ate: one time we stopped at a market around lunchtime and all the guy got was a cucumber. That was one of the hardest parts I would learn about backpacking through Europe without a car, since you never knew where or when you could eat. Food in many of these countries was very expensive and it wasn’t always too practical to be able to cook all the time, and with all the moving around, your appetite was twice the size of whatever restaurant portions they could give you. When we made a stop in Akureyri to fill up for gas, I told them this would be where we part ways, and they were kind enough to drive me to the nearest hostel. I felt bad, but I had to do what was best for me. I wasn’t feeling very satisfied, but I also didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to find other people to connect with and let go: to feel that sense of freedom that I had just the year before. However, everything was different now. I was constantly tired and hungry. I often felt lonely just being around tourists all the time. Things were much harder than expected and I constantly questioned whether I was making the right decisions: not just with the whole trip but my confidence from day to day was waning.

It had been about 3 weeks on the road when I first arrived in Seyðisfjörður, a port town that was both quiet and busy due to the regularly scheduled ferry visits to Denmark. Here I just felt all the stress and exhaustion hit me, and I was compelled to take a break: no need to spend every day constantly seeing things or going on crazy adventures, just a couple days to maybe read a book or relax in the hostel. Nestled between two hills on each side, it had a cozy feeling and was perfect for just getting away from the popular sites crowded with visitors. I mostly spent the time talking to locals and I met an American kid who I shared time with jamming on guitar and talking about our lives. We made the impromptu decision to climb up one of the hills, only to be surprised by a pack of reindeer, turning back around the way we came and wandering the long way up. I still wanted to spend a little bit more time in the country, so I worked my way south down the Ring Road, returning back to town in about a week’s time. Originally I was just going to cross the sea straight to Denmark, but the ride offered a brief layover in the Faroe Islands if you would like to explore the capital city of Torshavn before heading back for the evening departure. I was still feeling that sense of burn out from before. It unfortunately never went away, so I contemplated whether staying in one place for some time would be a better match for my travel style. It was also an added advantage to stay here if I wanted to extend my visa time in mainland Europe, as you are only allowed 3 months stay in the Schengen Zone every 180 day period. Knowing absolutely nothing about this tiny country and only a few hours to make a final decision, I said screw it and told the customs official I would stay there for 3 months and take the latest ride out. While I was here, I made my best effort to live like a local. I checked out many of the local shops. I talked with many people around town and even met some famous musicians. By putting more emphasis on day to day activities rather than following the tourist crowd, I became involved in the local music scene, playing weekly at an Open Mic and being invited to go “on tour” across the islands and play in a small folk festival. It was a really exciting and unique way to visit places I hadn’t explored yet, have that human connection, and be able to eat local food and partake in the culture of this country. I even joined a hiking club which granted me access to hidden gems that many tourists didn’t even know about.

For my first hike, I arrived by bus and spotted a crowd of people at the meeting location that were at least three times my age. My first impression was that this was going to be a slow and easy hike following a clearly blazed and designated trail. I introduced myself to the leader—a short, skinny guy smoking a cigarette, who looked like he was approaching nearly 80—letting him know that I don’t really speak the language and have little hiking experience, but I’m fit and should be able to keep up. The lady at the tourist office assured me that my experience level was fine, so I felt pretty confident moving forward. The leader called out to everyone in Faroese and guided us all in one direction. We scurried down the road for a bit but then almost immediately veer off into an open field. After about 20 minutes, I kept asking myself, where is the trail? The pace was considerably slow, so I had no trouble walking on this terrain, but it felt like hours just following the guide through this endless grassy and rocky landscape. We stirred up several birds along the way, some of them getting so aggressive to the point that hikers were using their walking sticks to keep them away. The guide had a map in hand, and I saw him briefly explaining to another member the route that we were taking, following the contours of the landscape until we got out to the edge of the cliffs where we could see some unique views. These were the training grounds for what I would call “free hiking”, and it would prove to be tremendously helpful when I got out to places in the UK, where many of the “trails” are just suggestions and a simple sheep path can easily steer you off course. Other hikes would get me used to steep gradients where it almost seemed impossible to climb straight up, and then once you got to the top, the next challenge was finding the easiest way down. I often observed the shoes that other hikers were wearing, with many just using simple rain boots as the grassy hills can get quite damp. They assured me that it is best for grip, but I saw many of them take some nice tumbles on the backside. It’s not like I had much to brag about either, as my old hiking shoes were just getting destroyed from all the walking. My insoles became so bare that I ended up stuffing them with balls of sheep wool I found lying out in the fields.

There are actual trails you can do in the Faroe Islands, but most of the markers are just old walking routes between towns. You can follow stone cairns that point the way and mark certain points of interest, but you really need in depth topographical maps if you want to safely explore the place. The library became my home for obtaining these, and I poured through each of them trying to find uncharted places that piqued my interest. Many times when I was out there I was the only one, and the quiet surroundings had an eerie but serene feeling to them. You could almost hear the ghosts of lost souls who regularly walked in these hills, and if you listened even more closely, the song of nature calling out in a language that was begging to be understood. There was a real danger to being alone in these places, but my mind was always hyper focused on all of the smallest details, ready to take on any challenge that was thrown my way.

Island in the Sky

One place in particular that caught my eye was off the southwest coast of the main island—Hestur. It was a place shrouded in secrecy, as there were very few ferry trips that you could take to visit the area. From the sea, the sharp contours of elevation around the flat dome were intimidating; to the common person, it looks nearly impossible to climb, let alone get back down. The maps indicated a trail on the far left side of the village, but knowing what the Faroese call a trail, it really just means you have a slightly better opportunity here than anywhere else to navigate. On arrival it felt like a ghost town. I took a brief walk through the village just to see how people can survive. There is no grocery store or market, no supplies, no sources of entertainment besides a swimming pool, but even in the most remotely inhabited region, there stood a local church. The population here is small, supposedly less than 40 people, but it sure didn’t seem like they lived here full time. As I finished the walk through town and started heading towards the trail, I was surprised to finally see someone: a guy dressed in farmer’s clothes, but you had to wonder where his farm actually was on this oddly shaped island. I asked him if he knew the best way up there, as the trail on the map still seemed a bit too steep to believe. He told me that it was the correct path but you might want to go a little further down as it could be easier. He also showed me an unmarked passage on the other side that I could use to get down. This was a common theme throughout my backpacking journey: with limited hiking experience, I still felt the need to talk to locals to get the best information about the area. It was also a good way to just have conversations and discover new places and perspectives. When you are moving between countries so quickly, it becomes too exhausting to pick up a guide book, spend all this time reading through it, and then hope you have the necessary resources to even get there. Hostels are often fully booked in popular destinations, transportation is limited to certain places, and obstacles often appear out of nowhere when you are outside the comforts of home.

I looked to where I needed to go, calculating which direction or which maneuvers would be most useful to get up there. Pacing back and forth, it was still not becoming any clearer. Like my brave Czech friends in Iceland, the mind was useless. I just had to turn my brain off and take action; enough thinking, there was only one decision to make and that was to go up. I began to climb, my eyes pinned down and looking forward. The cool wind rushed through my body, reminding me of the surrounding ocean seas waiting for a fresh meal to swallow up. Halfway, I needed to use my hands to brace myself on the ground below, scrambling now to continue. Here though, I lost track of the momentum, a distraction breaking me from my concentration. I had a tickling thought compelling me to seek the curiosity of looking back. How far have we come? Am I confident that I can continue? One quick glance behind me and I could see the village below, just a tiny speck compared to the open water and the large shores of Streymoy across the way. This moment felt like a mistake, a realization of the ultimate danger of my surroundings, but it also became the motivation I needed to keep going. By facing this reality, I knew now that there was no turning back.

My head poked beyond the horizon of the summit, landing on the surface of this new world waiting to be explored. Beneath my feet, the ground was soggy and ahead of me pools of water dotted this wetland landscape. The stale grasses along the cliff transformed into boggy peat moss and heathland that was challenging to navigate. Sloshing about past a large pond, my eyes were pointed south, a seemingly easy traverse over to the lighthouse on the southern tip. As I broke through, I am back on the familiar grass again and this open terrain looks calm. I can see the lighthouse way out in the distance, but suddenly one of those damn birds gets spooked and takes flight above me. The Great Skua has a notorious reputation for aggressive defense of their nesting habitat. It gives me a familiar call, one that I’ve heard many times walking through the hills, warning me to get back. As it creeps closer, its body swoops down, dive-bombing straight towards my head. I quickly ducked, nearly laying flat on my back to ensure this thing doesn’t take my head off. I needed to come up with another plan; the lighthouse would be inaccessible from this route, but maybe I could work towards the western cliffs and cut around. Only a short trek down the hill, I quickly stumbled upon a large gap in the cliff face which offered a stunning view down to the sea. Flocks of birds were a beautiful sight to watch, constantly soaring between the walls of the gorge. Their sound amidst the crash of the ocean waves cast a sacred spell over the hearts of earthly men like myself. Its sermon released my soul of the heavy emotions weighing me down: the fears, doubts, and insecurities about my current path in life. On this summit, I spent hours wandering, absorbing everything I saw and reflecting upon many thoughts. I sat down and stared off into the sea, getting out my little sketchbook and drawing the outline of the island I could see in the distance. Being completely alone in this secluded place, it was a space for inspiration, an automatic spark of creativity. I could see life more clearly: the journey that I went through these past few months and my own personal journey was starting to develop into a more transparent story. Returning to the hostel, I would sit with my guitar, plucking a few strings and singing the words that came to mind. Moments went by and they would come to me:

When your hopes and dreams are lost in the fog
The misty mountain rains they soak you to the bone
You want to cry and shout but only the birds can hear your screams
But if you hesitate, the gorge will echo your pain

Clash with the Gods

“Well, it’s no surprise. These lakes don’t fill themselves.” the man said as I was munching down my breakfast in the hostel kitchen. It had been raining for a couple days now and I was itching to get back on the trail. I had already counted number two of the highest peaks in the UK: my first ascent was the whiteout encountered on Mount Snowdon in Wales and the next, the long precarious climb up to Scafell Pike. Things had already taken a rocky start in the Lake District: a team of hikers tried to resuscitate a man who only made an hour into the climb before collapsing; I became stranded on the other side of the mountain due to bad information from a local; and I slept on the cold concrete floor of an abandoned barn, waiting for the morning bus to take me back to my warm comfortable bed. It’s not like this was the first time I’ve encountered rough conditions, as I had been hitchhiking for months through much of Europe. At this point, I’ve slept in train stations, on park benches, and between walkways of parking garages. You name it, I probably considered sleeping there at some point. Yet, I didn’t always have to go about it so rough. I had the money to be able to get a hotel for the night, but it just didn’t feel pure. It felt like taking the easy route to escape from hardship was a poison to the spirit of the adventurer. I took off from the civilized society to live this kind of life, not to let the familiarity of creature comforts sneak their way back in.

About mid-day the rain stopped. The skies started to clear and although it was a bit late to begin a hike, I thought I would try something close to home and a bit less complicated. The receptionist mentioned the Fairfield Horseshoe as a popular path that would make a good day trip. The trail starts and ends in Ambleside, where I was conveniently staying, and if I needed an escape route to shorten the hike, I could cut off towards the main road at Fairfield Peak and take the bus back from Grasmere. I walked all the way through the backstreets of town to the head of the trail—a 30 minute trek—but overcast skies yet again started to creep in overhead. It had looked quite possible that rain could strike at any time, but I was so motivated to get back out there again that I didn’t want to turn back. I continued forward but the weather would steadily degrade from here, the first bit of rain drops soon falling from the sky. I donned my rain gear preparing for the worst, dead set on pushing on through whatever the day would bring. Low Pike was an easy warmup, the rolling fog adding an extra challenge of reading the local topography and staying on track. Nearing High Peak, an abrupt change of grade signalled the upcoming intensity of the climb. Of course here the rain started to pick up. A heavy downpour would almost be a blessing; this light, stable rain was like a form of water torture. It is slow but relentless, its weight gradually bearing you down with each step. For hours I was only able to see a few feet away from me, just following a straight line forward—up and up. According to the map, it didn’t seem like I should be climbing for this long. I assumed the border of a farm wall on my left was some kind of waypoint, but solid signs of a trail were very few and far between. Finally I reached the flat summit at Dove Crag, and I ran across a steady sequence of cairns guiding the way. Unfortunately, I can only see them from about 20 feet away, and one missed cairn on this route could spell disaster. I spent multiple hours just following these stacks of stones but then suddenly they stopped. Left followed a sharp decline down the mountain. The craggy rocks ahead of me seemed way too dense to be part of the trail system. Right could possibly take me around these rocks or it could just be a simple sheep trail. For at least a solid hour, I paced back and forth in each direction. I even attempted to go backwards to see if I missed something, but nothing made sense. At this point, I only had one choice but to plow straight through and hope that something appears. The cairns were still nonexistent but eventually I stumbled upon another path that looked like it led quite far down the hill. Honestly, I was fine with anything that would get me off this forsaken mountain. As I get further and further down, I see an odd sight. The absurd hazy thoughts in my mind wondered if I had been lost for so long that I reached the sea. I didn’t remember the possibility of encountering water during this hike, so I turned to the segment of map that I took a picture of on my tablet. At first I saw nothing, but as I drifted my eyes into the uppermost corner, I could see a neat little pond named Grisedale Tarn. Legend has it that the golden crown of Dunmail, the last king of Cumbria can be found at the bottom of this body of water. After a brutal battle between the Scots and Saxons, the king was slain during the fighting, but his warriors saved the crown from the hands of his enemies and threw it into the water. Every year, the warriors return to this location to retrieve his crown and visit the site where he is buried, urging him to rise and reclaim the throne of his rightful land. However, each time the king responds with only two words, “Not yet”.

Keeping the pond to my right, all I needed to do was set my direction southward. It seemed simple enough. One trail curved west around the south side of the pond and continuing straight would lead me to a fork that would take me back to the main road. The fog finally cleared as I got higher up and the view of the water was absolutely beautiful. With the recent arrival of the sun, the light sparkled across the surface of the water, but it also startled me to how many hours I had been walking up until this point. It was already past 5PM, but my escape route should only be a couple hours to civilization, still cutting it close before dark. I get past my first intersection but then shortly afterwards I find another crossroads. Is this the fork I need to turn on? It seems way too soon, but there’s no other trails highlighted on the map, so I figured it must be correct. I bear right and walk for a distance when unexpectedly, I start climbing again. The trail is quite steep, but I don’t remember this kind of elevation on the map; the terrain was planned to be flat for most of the way until I dropped down into the valley. Something didn’t feel right, but with only a few more hours of sunlight, I didn’t have the time to waste to try all these different choices. At least this was some kind of defined trail and its bound to lead somewhere. 7PM rolled around and I sensed that same feeling earlier, just walking around with limited understanding and confidence for the way ahead. I’m racing against the clock, just watching the light wane over the horizon with the gradual setting of the sun. 8PM I’m climbing yet again, trying to get as much distance until the last inkling of light is lost. In these moments my movements are automatic; my body operates more like a machine than a man. On my left, I catch a marker—700m. At 800 meters, it is pitch black and I turn on my small, but handy flashlight to light the way. The mountains have been relentless thus far, so it is no surprise that the rain is back again in full force. I don’t know which gods I have disturbed to deserve this. With my flashlight I shine it every which way, investigating every stone or marker I can find, but I am still bewildered about where the hell I’ve gone. I enter the summit—950 meters in the air—and collapse exhausted on the nearest rock. My rain gear, hiking pants, and even my underclothes are so soaked, I can feel the water directly on my skin. I had been walking for 9 hours, at least 3 of them extremely lost, and I just summited another peak that was just as large as what I had already climbed up at Fairfield. I was ready to accept my fate. I had lived a good life and followed my passions to the end. I grabbed ahold of danger and wrestled with the unknown, exploring a life of adventure that would challenge every part of my mind and body. I shunned the passive lullaby of comfort slowly singing our society to sleep. Even in my death, I had touched the brink of immortality, a completeness in body and spirit that embodied the heroic soul. As my life flashed before me, a voice faintly stirred. “Keep walking.” I sit up, curiously staring out in the dark abyss. Another voice calls to me. “Not yet!” A surge of adrenaline electrifies my legs up to my head. “It is not your time.” I jolt up with a newfound sense of strength, an unbreakable determination to get through the night. I will not die loathing in self pity. I will walk all damn night if I have to!

After about two more hours I finally reached town. A nice group of people brought me inside and served me a hot meal and some tea, but the night was not yet over. I had another feat to accomplish—finding a decent bed to crash on. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay here, since the leaders were in charge of a camp for children and could get in serious trouble for letting a stranger in unsupervised. I headed down to the local hostel, but the doorman told me a group had fully booked the place and he didn’t want to disturb them so late at night. Next stop was the pub, but yet again he sent me down the road to the hotel at the lake. This was my last chance. If this was a bust, there was no other place to go. Soaking wet, I couldn’t sleep outside and I wasn’t going to make it this far, just to die from hypothermia. When I got there, I told the man what happened and I said I would pay any price to get a room. He looked at me and sighed: they were fully booked. I was screwed big time, but after a moments hesitation, he told me he would offer me the couch in the waiting room, as long as I was out before his boss showed up in the morning. He took my wet clothes to hang them in the laundry room. I would’ve loved a dryer but Europe has this thing where they either dry their clothes on a line or have these “eco-friendly” units that really do nothing at all—a complete waste of materials in my opinion. He handed me a couple towels that I wrapped myself in on the couch. I was still cold and shivering, but I was so thankful that I was no longer outside. The next morning I woke up very lethargic, but the world around me looked so different. It was an odd feeling, as my mind and emotions felt numb, but I could see the world in such finer detail. I found a sense of awe in the beauty of the simple things around me, just the strange fact of being given the gift of life in this unique body. I had let go of all the things which had previously weighed down my mind. I was just existing, free of worry and anxiety about the road ahead. Like the trials of the mountain, life has its own moods and tempers, and I was no longer trying to fight against these currents, but slowly learning how to work with it.

Meditations on the Peaks

The mountain is an adventure, the prominent epoch of the heroes journey. At the base of the trail, you are stripped of the familiar world in the valley below. The comforts of civilization—safety from danger, security living a stable life, and the accessibility of our basic needs—become immaterial; the systems of men are no longer reliable in the understanding of this foreign entity. You are at the hands of Nature, a chaotic force of transformation for the steadfast initiate or a fateful end for the unlucky traveler. Staring into the infinite sky, you become intoxicated by its mystery, enthralled by the sheer display of raw power. You yearn to feel the trail underneath your feet, to connect your body with its unfamiliar forms and sharp geometries. With each step you feel the increasing weight of your legs and body, compelled to pull together every ounce of strength to overcome the mountain’s greatest challenges. The mind manifests the trickster, attempting to impede all physical endurance, but soon the instincts of the psyche and movements of the body are forged into one. While actions become automatic—challenging, but nearly effortless—the senses focus in on the smallest details. Observing every rock and crevice, and listening in on the stories the mountain has to share, the spirit is lifted beyond the trivial feelings of suffering and anxiety in the land below. Here you are more than just material substance. You are climbing towards the divine, ascending to a greater and stronger version of yourself in these sacred peaks.

High above civilization, away from the tropes of everyday life, it becomes easier to see things more clearly. We can recognize the unique beauty of Nature and the important role it plays to shape our society. We are given the space to reflect on our own lives: the challenges on the trail representing the personal struggles that we wish to conquer. As we look out into the distance, we feel an odd sensation of closeness to humankind and the communities in which we live. We bring back a greater wisdom to our regular lives, filled with a duty to become exceptional examples to the lost and broken elements of our society. When we become strong, we empower those around us, conjuring up the forces of good in the world and inspiring a collective search for our very own heroes journey. The climax of conquering the summit is but one of many: a continuous shedding of the old self towards a greater and more confident being in the world. The unique personality of each mountain is a different tool for the many stages we see ourselves on the road ahead.