Naked Ankles

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Another windy night left me wide awake at sunny 4 AM, but at least it was sunny! Clear blue skies and real sunshine made Norway feel all new again, and so it was with at least a little enthusiasm that we climbed aboard our unloaded bikes to the Nigardsbreen glacier.

A quick stop in the visitor’s center yielded us two tickets for a two hour “ice walk” which would take us on a safely guided three and a half hour tour of a tiny portion of the huge glacier. From there, it was another three kilometers up to the parking lot where we were to meet our guide.

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Though the day was sunny, the wind coming down off the ice was basically a Norwegian swamp cooler and it was immediately clear that we weren’t adequately attired. Others in our group were sporting full winter gear, and everyone had full grade hiking boots, instead of the lightweight running shoes that we were sporting. As I shivered in the wind, it struck me as amusing that though we’ve been living in a tent for two months and wandering around Europe for the entire summer, we were quite inadequately prepared for the adventure at hand.

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A half hour later, fitted with crampons and an ice axe, I got the sense that we were in for more than the advertised “glacier walk.” I’ve never been on any “walk” in which an axe of any kind seemed like a necessity. Still shivering in the artic wind, we boarded the boat which delivered us to the base of a twenty minute hike over rocks and rivers before we finally reached the actual glacier. After all of this, I was already cold and tired and ready to call it a day, and technically our hike hadn’t even begun yet!

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Next, we were fitted with harnesses and then roped up in a line, ten of us at a time tied together a few feet apart to begin our “walk”. Now my nightmare was really complete. Not only were we going to take a walk on a slick mountain of ice, full of crevasses and sink holes wearing spikes on our feet holding big spikes in our hands, we were going to get to do it while tied up to ten other incompetent strangers equipped with equally obtrusive weapons.

From the bottom, we could see dozens of people on their ropes, crossing across the precarious ice, tiny ants on the towering ice pinnacles. This glacier has shrunk considerably in recent years, and neighboring glaciers have all but disappeared. As it is, the glacier is still enormous but it was wild to imagine it as it was in the 1950’s stretching three kilometers east to where the visitor’s center now stands.

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The guide came around to verify that we’d all installed our crampons correctly and at our check, he was horrified to note that Ben and I were wearing ankle socks (the only kind we have with us) with our athletic shoes, leaving us with what he called “naked ankles.” His choice of wording was entertaining enough the first time but he kept repeating it over and over again as he rerouted Ben’s crampon ties to avoid the bare skin around his shoes. The adjustments helped, but weren’t perfect, and I knew after about five steps that I’d spend most of my hike with metal pieces digging into the top of my ankles.

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Luckily, the Dutch family tied in front of us had an entertaining sense of humor, the older guy in front of me making jokes as we stumbled up the crunchy ice mounds. His crampons kept falling off (his feet were too big) and we kept stopping while he adjusted them.

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Though I’d feared it might be dull to walk on a big pile of leftover greying snow, I’d failed to consider the magnitude and the dyamic nature of a glacier, always moving and changing, the brilliant blue towers and canyons flashing in the sun. I also hadn’t considered that they might allow us to walk right around big crevasses, sinkholes with rivers and waterfalls atop the ice, and even to climb through narrow slots. There was so much to see! I was terribly nervous I’d lose my footing and take down the whole line of hikers with me, but everything turned out all right. We were making good use of our ice axes!

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Though the hike was really interesting, the wind was freezing cold and the going was tricky. Pebbly ice rolled beneath our feat as we headed through slits in the ice barely wide enough for us to walk and over precarious ridges, all the while, I was trying to avoid any position that would cause my crampons to jam themselves into my bare ankles. I was torn between the sheer drudgery of climbing up an ice mountain carrying a big axe and trying not to trip over the lead rope between us, and also the magnificence of the glacier we were hiking on. As non-technical hikers, it is unlikely we will ever get that kind of experience on a glacier again. It was so cool!

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Ben: We eventually crested a large, flat plane of ice that extended up the canyon to meet the ice cap. Once there, we were instructed that we could take a few minutes to eat our lunch that we brought with us. The problem was that Bree and I didn’t bring lunch. We hadn’t even thought of it. (Bree’s note: I thought of it, but in our mad morning rush, just didn’t quite get that far. I figured we could eat a late lunch when we got done!) We stood atop the ice, where the wind was howling across the unobstructed terrain, snapping a few pictures and trying to stay warm all the while. Once again, we were totally unprepared. I didn’t care though – I absolutely loved the glacier walk and was totally glad that we splurged for it.

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Not soon enough the lunch break was over and we started to head back down off the glacier into the protected canyons and crevasses which sheltered us a bit from the biting wind. The Dutch man’s crampons still kept popping off – sometimes in relatively precarious places. Bree became stranded on all fours on a steep ridgeline for far longer than was comfortable (remember that we were all roped together so she couldn’t move) while the guide trotted over gracefully to help repair the crampons yet again.

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We were both getting pretty hungry by this time and were ready to get off the mountain in order to track down some snacks. It didn’t take long, and eventually we were crossing the torrential melt-off via the shaky suspension bridge (Bree’s note: Positively terrifying). Another boat ride back and we were back to the bikes.

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* The astute observer will note large chunks of ice in place of rocks in this photo
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Bree: As we turned in our gear, the Dutch family that we’d been hitched to all afternoon saw us with our bikes and came to ask Ben if we’d really ridden there (to the park). Amused, he told them that yes, we had. Then, they wanted to know where we’d ridden from. Unsure how to answer such a question, Ben responded, “Athens?” leading to an amusing explanation of our trip. They were wildly impressed and sent us on our way with congratulations and well wishes for our journey. You bond with people really fast after being tied together on a glacier for two hours!

Ben: Soon we were making good time downhill with a stiff wind at our backs. Before we knew it we were back the campsite where we quickly packed up (four hours after checkout, though nobody seemed to mind) and headed down the canyon.

The ride down the canyon was much more pleasant in the cool sunshine. We had hoped to camp at an awesome spot that we found on our ride up the canyon – but it was already taken. The Norwegians enjoy “everyman’s right”, or the right to camp almost anywhere so long as it isn’t in view of someone’s home or on a cultivated field. Tonight we joined in on the fun and it didn’t take long to find another spot to tuck away for the night.

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7 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    What a cool (literally and figuratively) adventure! It made me laugh to see the somber picture of Bree placed next to a giddy picture of Ben. You can tell you were loving it, Ben. And Bree, you perked up in the next picture. I would be terrified on that bridge, too.

  2. Amanda says:

    What an awesome experience! I want to do that someday 🙂

  3. Debbie says:

    I was both frightened and excited for you when I read this! The glacier is beautiful!

  4. Megan Barrick says:

    Your first clue that things were going to be an adventure should have been that it was a three hour tour. Those never seem to turn out as planned:)

  5. Miara says:

    It’s already been commented on, but I just laughed at the opposite expressions on both of your faces. Bree looks like she wants to die and Ben looks like a little kid at Christmas.

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