Staff Development Fund Trip Report: Iceland
–September 16 2015
COBS Course Director Mark Petty went on an expedition in Iceland last year with the support of our staff development fund. Each year staff can apply for funding to use toward professional development or training in order to develop their careers. Thanks Mark, for the photos and write-up!
At some point amid the intense and wild storms of Iceland, while traveling across the volcanic and glaciated landscape I realized that the Viking settlers of this amazing country were the first Outward Bounders in history. The grit, strength, and spirit they exhibited to make a life on the isolated island capture all the energy we instill in our students today. The visionary explorations of Iceland’s Leif Eriksson to the North American continent embody everything we teach, venturing into the unknown from safe harbors to gain a better understanding of the world and of self.
My own experience on this expedition was similar; I had to practice fortitude and tenacity, learn flexibility, and ultimately be reminded of the importance of a team and reliance on others for success. It quickly became apparent that the 90-120 mph winter winds and short four hours of daylight made my plans to climb solo on the upper glaciers of Hvannadalshnjúkur and Snæfellsjökull dangerously unsafe. At one point the gales blew a parked tour bus across a parking lot into my rental car. Later, as I traveled the lower reaches of the Vatnajökull ice cap, heavy gusts threatened to toss me in a crevasse so I took refuge in a tiny ice tunnel overnight. These were hard and humbling lessons. As a course director with COBS I had become very comfortable with solo travel in technical alpine terrain, yet in Iceland I was confronted with a reality that climbing without a team would be almost certainly fatal. I thought much of how we emphasize teamwork with our students and how critical the group is to individual success, and gained a deeper level of empathy for their experience as I had to let go of my own aspirations and create a new plan.
Because of the enormous level of risk in my original objectives, I changed my itinerary and found great joy and blessings in exploring other unglaciated mountains and areas. I had a terrific night ski tour on the slopes of Grísafell in the North, during which the northern lights erupted over my head in multiple ribbons stretching from horizon to horizon. I had an epic adventure skiing in to the more remote 400’ waterfall Háifoss. What started out as an innocent day tour turned into a whiteout cross-country climb through cliffy lava fields with a dark descent guided by far away village lights. The Icelandic waterfalls inspire with immense power, punctuating the landscape with extreme beauty.
I climbed on craggy basalt cliffs overlooking centuries-old pasture land, explored fascinating stretches of the Skaftafell glacier, watched the Vatnajökull cave into the sea, rode an Icelandic horse across the countryside, and developed a friendship on the lower flanks of Snæfellsjökull – still in driving winds that nearly lifted us off our feet.
I also found great success in the second component of the expedition, exploring how we can develop connections to the natural world with a sense of wonder, through music and other methods. Often beneath the northern lights I could somehow hear them singing, and at one point descending from the Skaftafell glacier I had a distinct feeling of being at home, of no longer being foreign to place but deeply connected to it. This was a powerful moment for me, and I again thought of our students and how their connection to place forms through their experience; I gained new tools to help them articulate that relationship.
Although my original climbing and ski objectives remained out of reach in the harsh environmental conditions, the expedition was still a great success for me. I honed many skills that directly affect my contributions to COBS:
• Creativity, self-reliance, and grit in extreme mountain conditions
• The importance of a team to maintain safety and create possibility
• How to facilitate connection to place – encouraging action to defend natural areas
• Glacier travel
• Cross country, nighttime navigation
• Reconnaissance for future adventures in Iceland, including possible COBS courses
I am grateful for the support of the COBS staff development fund in helping make this adventure and these learnings possible. I look forward to sharing these skills with staff and students, and to future adventures. A parting shot with Leif Eriksson in the town square in Reykjavík seemed a fitting tribute to the generations of Outward Bound, from the fearless Viking explorers of old to the modern, intrepid voyagers leaving their own safe harbors for the unknown.