Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Has anyone seen Tom? Tom, are you there? Where the **** is Tom? (part 4c of 5)

We drove a couple of 8 ½ hours days and we felt every single one of those hours. The main difference between this Contiki tour and my last one was that in Scandinavia you don’t stop in cities and towns everyday. On the Western Europe tours you usually see a different major city each day. On the Scandinavian ones you see a lot of trees, rocks and hills. Our campsite in Mo I Rana was by the side of the major E6 highway. There was a lake, a couple of camping cabins, a service station and a shop selling ski-dos and that’s all! It’s pretty boring and mundane, until you look at the lake. Not just glance at it, but really look at it. The water is like glass. You can see the reflection of life on planet earth staring straight back at you.

The days started to get longer with the sun travelling with us as we moved further north. It wasn’t unusual to have the sun up until 11pm and rise again at 3am. Whilst Wellsey (our camp cook) cooked dinner in the wonderfully erected tent, Andy, Mick, Mark and Matt threw a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy Frisbee around and there was a group of people playing cards at a nearby picnic table. After this stop, my fingers started to become increasingly number as the cold set in, and the names of places started to mesh together in my brain as individual ones begin to get lost in the connection between my brain and my mouth.

When you do a Contiki trip you get a list of optional extras and one of the ones I was looking forward to the most was climbing the Svartisen Glacier. It took over 1 ¼ hours to climb up rocky terrain and cliff face to it but it was worth every single moment. You know how you have those moments in your life that you feel so proud to be alive and to be exactly where you are at that moment in time. That glacier was life affirming for me.

To get to it you catch a small ferry boat 20 minutes up river where it pulls into a dock flanked by a rusty tin shed and a thunderous waterfall. The only clue that there is even a glacier there is a combination of the obvious (huge waterfall) and not so obvious (small hand sketched sign reading “this way”). My hiking boots at this point became the best investment I had ever made because weaving, almost haphazardly, behind the shed is the trail that signifies the beginning of your journey. The first part of the trail heads up the hill beside the waterfall. It is loose underfoot, and your feet flex over the oddly shaped rocks easily with a few hiccups where my trousers kept getting snagged on my heels. But it’s not too hard going, especially for American Matt (Army doctor currently serving in Germany) who powers up the track at lightning speed. For the rest of us mere mortals it doesn’t take long before you reach the next stage of the trek - the cliff face. To navigate along the cliff you need to follow the orange flags waving in the cool breeze. Problem with that is I am currently blind as a bat without glasses and couldn’t see an orange weather worn flag on a makeshift flag pole anywhere. Luckily Lee (tour driver) and Sarah were just in front of me and my very intelligent theory was to just follow them. I wasn’t a very graceful climber either and provided much entertainment as I stumbled, slid and stacked it towards each of the markers. Despite the many avalanche and falling ice warning signs most people continue past the “Stop Here” sign and continue their climb up to the actual glacier itself.

It kind of sneaks up at you. There are a few indicators that it’s coming, signs being one and huge chunks of ice floating in the lake another, but when it finally pops up over the next cliff platform it steals the breath right from your throat. Just like in a cyclone, hurricane or twister, you get the feeling of being inside the eye of a storm. There is an almost reverent silence. You can no longer hear the waterfall tumbling down towards the river system in the background. People’s voices seem hushed and the silence envelops you. Silence is, I now believe, nature’s version of the drumroll. Just before I saw it, I lost my footing and blindly grabbed onto the rock and looked up to find my next hand hold and instead I saw…

Actually touching it defies all words associated with feeling. Anything I attempt to write here will not do it justice, or describe it accurately. The colour is a thick, gluggy blue with splits in the ice that look as if a bear has clawed at it and scratched deep into its core. Touching it is, as you’d expect, cold but you can hear the ice crackling under the heat of your hand as the top layers melt away. I’ve climbed to the top of the world before (Jungfraujoch, 2003) but this is something different. Awe inspiring maybe… but so much more than that. Sitting there looking at this creation of nature you start to think about how it would have been so much bigger in just as little as 10 years ago. You also start to look at yourself and realise what a huge accomplishment it is for a kindy teacher from Sydney is climbing on, touching and yes, I licked it, a glacier that was formed when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It’s very easy to get lost in your own thoughts up there.

It’s also easy to get lost if you are a Japanese tourist on our tour too apparently. Instead of meeting back at 2pm as we were all supposed to, a quick head count revealed Tom and Jessica (both travelling Asian tourists) were missing). With the ferry coming only every 2 hours we realised that this was serious. Never can it be said that we left someone behind as 8 of us volunteered to stay back to start a search team. I have scribbled in the pages of my notebook times or departure, names of people in teams and what people were wearing as we set off up the track again. Wish I could drag it out for you but it was a fizzer really as one of the teams found Tom and Jessica within 25 minutes. Was very exciting though and I think we missed our callings with mountain rescue! It’s also good to see that the age old fire fighting tradition of “Hurry Up and Wait” is traversable into glacier rescue work. We got to sit on our butts for 1½ hours until the next ferry turned up.

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