Traveling to the White Shirt - A Photo Adventure

The black sand squished between the lug soles of my hiking boots as I made my way down the coarse sand dune to the beach. I looked up from the undulating trail to see the inlet across from the beach and saw a line of about thirty seals lying side by side like uneven piano keys. The sky was a mixture of purple, grey and turquoise, not unusual sunset colors for Iceland winter. It was a frosty February afternoon about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and the astrological forecast was for a super moon, a time when the moon’s orbit brings it particularly close to the earth, appearing larger than normal in the sky.

As I looked to the left down the beach, I noticed a stark contrast between the footprint- laden black sand and the washed up chunks of ice broken off of a nearby glacier. My husband, Mark and I were hosting a photography workshop, traveling with a small group of photographers and our friend and Icelandic guide, Snorri. We were on the North coast of Iceland, on our way to capture the beauty of the sunset and the oversize super moon about a mile down the beach. The waves whispered as they guided the platter-sized chunks of ice up on to the sand.
 Out in the water stood an unusual basalt monolith named Hvítserkur. It is an eroded 50 foot high volcanic sea-stack standing on three legs looking like a huge Schnauzer drinking from the ocean. The rock is a nesting ground for seagulls, shag and fulmar birds. Its name is translated as the “White Shirt” in the matter-of-fact Icelandic language because of the large white stains of bird excrement covering the sides.

As we arrived at our shooting destination, the golden sun was dropping in to the horizon and the super moon was beginning to rise. I knelt down in the wet sand to set up a composition of the black sand, the ice, the “White Shirt” and the rising moon. Mark, always looking for a creative option, lined up his camera to photograph the moon in between the “legs” of the drinking animal. Other photographers on the beach took his lead, jamming in behind Mark to achieve the same composition. I relished in my time there, looking for designs in the sand and the sultry blue water. The ice crystals and the strange formation created an otherworldly image. After an hour or so of exploration, the light was waning.

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We began to walk the mile or so back up the beach and started climbing up the sand dune and dirt trail leading to the parking lot. The other five people in our group took off ahead of us with our Icelandic guide and were out of sight in a matter of moments.

We found that when walking in these slippery conditions, it was best for us sun-loving Californians to wear ice spikes, a type of rubber and plastic cleat that straps to the bottom of hiking boots to help give us traction.The rubber straps were hard and thick and required a strong pull to secure them to your foot. This had to be achieved sitting down, as there was no way to get leverage and attach the contraption standing on one leg.

I had a pair of cleats that were loosing their yellow spikes, and I slid and clambered up the hill leaving a trail of yellow dots behind me. One of our clients, Doris, who was making the trek back with us, noticed her cleats were faltering as well. Between all of us, we had three working cleats, so we decided to split them up, one per person. We would take one solid step with the cleats and that would grip the ice on the trail. Then, we took one sliding step on the foot without the cleats. This was slow going as we limped up the hill. To make matters worse, the cleat on the good foot would fall off altogether, forcing me to stop, sit down in the middle of the trail and reattach it. The trail was not difficult in summer conditions, but we were walking up wet volcanic rocks, snow covered sand, and slick ice.

It was growing dark, and our head lamps were losing power. Doris casually mentions she is having trouble seeing because she has night blindness. “Could I hold on to you so I feel safe walking up the trail?”, she asked.

“What? Night blindness?”, I thought. “What the heck was she thinking, not telling us about her night blindness? Doris never mentioned that in the pre-trip interview when everyone had been asked to privately disclose any medical conditions that might impact the trip for themselves or the others.” The trip’s itinerary outlined several other evenings out in the dark photographing the Icelandic Aurora Borealis. It was quite clear in the description that a requirement of embarking on this tour was the ability to see in the dark!

I was screaming inside, but out loud I said in a calming voice (more for me than for her), “We’ve got this, no problem”.

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Which way to the parking lot? Did we take the wrong trail? Did we need to retrace our steps and go back down to the beach?

We were fighting the darkness and the oncoming freezing night. We had one person who couldn’t see, and now we were lost. On top of that we were sliding around in the ice and mud, unable to get traction to make it up the hill. My insides were crumbling. I was doing everything I could to keep a level head. Mark’s cool attitude made me think he was not aware that I was having a problem at all, or was he hiding his stress as well? We needed to keep it together for our client.

We had been running these photography workshops for 13 years, and loved the adventure and nature’s unpredictability. Fortunately, we never had any serious accidents that would put our clients in any peril. I didn’t think like we were in any danger, but I started to feel panicked. I wasn’t going to let my companions know that.

Where was the rest of the group? I knew they wouldn’t leave without us, but I wondered where they had gone and where the van was. I scanned the horizon for some sign of light from the parking lot or their head lamps, but I couldn’t see anything.

Once again, my cleat ripped off my boot, and I plunked down in the cold wet sand with frustration. Are we going to spend the night out here?

Mark suggested, “Shall I run up ahead and see if we were going in the right direction?”

“Run up ahead without us?”, I asked. “How’s that going to work in the wet, icy conditions with no light and no traction?” No, we decided the best plan was for us all to stay together.

I sat there fumbling with my ineffective ice cleat and considered our options. Surveying the sand hill in in front of me, I saw a bobbing light in the distance heading in our direction. Relief flooded through me, I knew we were going to be OK and not have to spend the night out there. As the light got closer, I recognized Snorri’s ambling gate, puffy down jacket and large frame.

In his heavy Icelandic accent, he said, “What’s going on, guys?”

The sky had lost its pink, and turquoise. It was pitch black now. We couldn’t even see the outline of Hvítserkur or the beach behind us. I pushed my hands against the ice, heaved my body up into that darkness, and walked toward the light. We had an early start in the morning and a group to join.. No time to lose.

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