In England, Tom is dying.
Midnight, Látrabjarg. The spring sky is pink and grey; the frost sharp and silver. Silver sparkles across the cliff tops, a hundred thousand silvery seabirds tumble in a crazy dance of instinct and desire, but I can hear nothing other than my boot fall and my breath.
One foot after another. This journey, this mission, this test of myself. It’s started. Climbing high, a mist descends. I cannot see ahead of me. The mist is heavy, swirling; the strange midnight light glowing then fading, my hands are numb and my face frozen. Two hours pass. I climb higher, further. It’s minus ten degrees.
I am a tiny speck in this immeasurable universe. I cannot see the path. I cannot see the future. I am walking into infinity.
Is this what it’s like?
5 am. Cliff top. I crawl out of the tiny tent and stretch, try to generate some heat in my muscles. I face a sunrise so golden and heavenly I find it hard to think. I feel solidified from the cold, feel that the earth would pull me into her if I didn’t move. I feel closer to the earth than to my own heart.
But the mist has cleared and now I can see what lies ahead. The cliffs stretching between Látrabjarg and Raudisandur are vast, bleak, astonishing. It’s as if a giant has bitten into the edge of the world and spat it out way over the horizon. Ahead, ribbons of snow lie in treacherous dips and hollows, and the mossy grass sparkles with ice and dew.
Breakfast is a handful of trail mix and water.
My toilet is a hole scraped into the hard earth.
I will walk for eight hours today. The forecast is bad. I have roughly twelve hours before a storm makes landfall.
The path grips the edge of the cliffs then turns inland for a few kilometres. The clouds thicken and swell, but after another hour’s climb into a bitter wind, I’m thrilled by the sudden sight of ptarmigan. Life will thrive, even up here. My hands are too numb to handle my camera properly, though, and the battery is infuriatingly sluggish. I give up, stand still and watch them for a few minutes. They’re beautiful. All I can think of is survival. When I reach the snow it’s shin-deep.
Three hours later, I rest, eat more trail mix, take stock. I’m exhausted and it’s only the second day. There’s not much in the way of options, though: turn around, or carry on. But that’s exactly why I’m here: to temporarily remove every comfort except those essential for survival. To find some sort of perspective, to feel a part of the infinite, to feel the fierce, tiny, still-aliveness of me. To reduce all my decisions to the binary. Forwards / backwards. Stop / start. Awake / asleep. Alive / not alive.
To try and understand where Tom is going.
It is luxury, pure luxury, to indulge myself in this hardship.
I’m very scared that my body will fail.
Is this what it’s it like?
The website spoke of the need for excellent physical fitness, for the ability to walk for long stretches in unpredictable weather over rough terrain with a 20kg pack, to be able to wild camp for seven days and nights, to be ready for the rhythms and rare beauty of Iceland’s Westfjords. I have a bunion and rotten knees. I’m in my fifties and unfortunately in the grip of menstrual chaos. But I’ll be fine, I reasoned. I love this sort of thing. It’s really exactly my sort of thing.
The path turns into a steep stony track. The knee-wrecking descent will lead eventually to a cove, to a black sand beach, where I intend to pitch the tent, eat, be horizontal and ride out the weather. This storm was not in the plan. No shit, Sherlock, storms are never in the plan.
Pain is interesting.
Pain is unpleasant.
Pain has a purpose.
I can’t lift my right leg without yowling. There is a hot, muscular brokenness at the side of my kneecap. I negotiate the scree and boulders hopping and skidding, and finally when the rocks flatten out I stop to breathe and rest. I look down to the deserted beach where I’ll sleep. I can hear the boom of the surf smashing below me.
The whale is lying on a thick bed of bladderwrack. The suddenness of his huge, solitary body, even from this height, from this distance, shocks me. Thirty minutes later I am beside him.
He is on his back. His mouth is wide open, the long thin jaw flopping like a broken leg. A few yellow pegs protrude from the wet mess. His huge fluked tail is wider than I am tall.The smell of his decay mixes with the thick stew of seaweed and the biting salt wind.Under his skin are bright pools of blood and streaks of fatty yellow. There are holes where, I imagine, foxes and birds have fed.
Did he die here, on this beach? Did he struggle, try to get back to the waves? Alone, belly up, did he watch the upside down sky, the shifting stars? A golden sunrise?
Did he know?
Did he know it was the end?
The surf keeps crashing and the sticky, salty spray fills my nose and mouth. On the horizon the clouds are seal-grey, darkening by the minute. The wind picks up mucky foam and hurls it along the black sand.
I hear them before I see them, the beating wings of six Whooper swans, the otherworldly wump wump of air whistling over feathers. Momentarily they’re above me, flashes of yellow faces, necks rippling, bodies steady and strong and, unlike mine, so perfectly made for this place. Then they’re away out to sea and I stare and stare and stare until I can see nothing, nothing at all.
Perhaps this is what it’s like.