It’s a beautiful place, Iceland. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The landscapes are magnificent and serene. You can travel for miles on end, undisturbed, free to daydream gently as you go. You are free to pitch your tent wherever you please in that big empty silence and sit and watch the long summer evenings slide slowly by.
I remember an expedition I made there fondly as being one in which I was genuinely happy and at peace. I was doing something I loved, doing it proficiently, and doing it somewhere truly special. So it feels surprising that the closest I ever came to dying was out there in that beautiful wilderness. What a shame it would be to die at a time like that. But that’s part of the deal we make, isn’t it? We folk who thrive on adventure and the wild places of the world. We understand that these beautiful landscapes that fulfill us and nourish us can turn and bite and kill us. It’s part of the deal we make.
We were alone. We were afraid. The river was muscular and our packrafts felt very small.
I was crossing Iceland—north to south—by foot and by packraft, with my friend Chris. Our packs were heavy, the journey was hard, but we were making excellent progress. We were really happy on that morning when I nearly died. We were about to paddle a spectacular canyon. We’d scouted ahead. We’d talked and talked and talked about the risks and rewards, about the fine line between risk and recklessness, and we’d decided to go for it. It was exciting.
Down in the canyon, the sky shrank to a narrow strip above us. The day felt darker. The river was loud down there, grey and swollen with meltwater from the glacier we had recently crossed. Nobody on earth knew where we were. We were alone. We were afraid. The river was muscular and our packrafts felt very small. I look back now and know we were stupid. We should not have been there. The river was too big, too difficult, too frightening. But this is another part of the deal we make on adventures. We want to walk the line of fear. We want to squeeze every last drop of our nerve, to test the depths of our mental and physical capacity. But you have to do that without the wisdom of hindsight or the counseling ear of friends and family. You make your decision. And then you live or die by it.
I go first. I push the nose of my packraft out into the current and then I am gone. The river grabs my boat and drags me away. I know Chris is there but I don’t see him anymore. I am alone. I am committed. Utterly committed in a way that never ever happens in the safe blandness of real life where almost nothing is irreversible, where almost nothing really, truly matters. I remember every moment. My thumping heart, the soaring rush of adrenalin, paddling with every ounce of strength, judging my route, scanning the rocks, picking my lines, committing to decisions every single second, living with the consequences, leaving them behind and galloping wildly on to the next one. Hell, there’s everything that makes life worth living crammed into every magical, maniacal second. There really is. I am more alive than I have ever been before.
And I am about to die.
There’s a huge boulder ahead of me now. I try to go right. The river wants me to go left. I change my mind. I try to go left. I paddle with every drop of my soul. Left, left, left! Have I ever wanted anything more in life? Have I ever needed anything more? And now I rise so slowly up this boulder. This is really happening. Now. Here. Me. And the river flips me upside down and I’m submerged so fast in glacial meltwater so dark and cold spinning this way and that way and clinging so hard to my boat and holding so tight to the breath in my lungs and nobody on earth can help me. Even Chris can’t see me at the moment, let alone everyone I love in the world who at this moment are brushing their teeth or scratching their nose or waiting for a bus completely unaware that I am dying.
Nobody that has ever lived, nothing in this vast and beautiful world I love so much, nothing can help me now. I have never felt such fear. I am about to die.
But now suddenly I am above the surface again, hurtling down the river. I breathe hard (someone should open a restaurant serving the most delicious sensation of that one single mouthful of cold, beautiful air) and I’m hurtling so fast down this river and with some crazy random cocktail of luck and terror and primitive animal strength I get hold of a rock and haul myself to the side and back to the world and back to this beautiful life.
Follow Alastair Humphrey’s adventures at his website and on Instagram. You can read more of his work in Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes. All photos courtesy of Humphreys.