I’m sat in an intimate audience of approximately 20 to 30 people centred around a makeshift stage in Húsavík, listening to a softly-spoken woman calmly discuss climbing to the top of Mount Everest sans any additional oxygen. “Only 2% of people make it up to the summit without it,” she says. The crowd lets out a murmur. Edurne Pasaban smiles and carries on speaking. She is no stranger to tough environments. Hailing from Spain’s Basque Country, 44-year-old Edurne is the first—and so far only—woman in the world to have made it up all 14 of the world’s 8000 meter peaks.
“I lost two of my toes climbing K2,” she says. “It’s the hardest mountain in the world to climb.” The video footage shows her fighting her way through snow at the top of the world, looking tired and dazed, but still determined.
Battling with the elements
We’re here in Húsavík for the annual Explorers Festival, held at the charming Exploration Museum nestled in the heart of the fishing town. Now in its third year, the four-day festival celebrates the most tenacious and intrepid souls on our planet through a series of talks, workshops, art exhibitions and expeditions. The theme for 2017 is “Fire and Ice,” and we arrive on the third day for the main event: the Leif Erikson Exploration Awards ceremony and respective talks by the winners.
Edurne wins the 2017 Exploration Award for her impressive feats scaling the world’s toughest mountains, while Italian explorer Alex Bellini wins the 2017 Young Explorers award for crossing both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans using only a rowboat. The 2017 Exploration History Award was awarded to Icelandic geologist Haraldur Sigurðsson for his work on volcanoes, but he was unfortunately not in attendance.
Alex and Edurne are seriously impressive in their commitment and diligence to their work despite battling with the harshest conditions the planet can throw at you. Edurne spoke of her depression and how completing the 14 peak challenge helped her overcome some of her darkest times. During his presentation, Alex regaled us with an anecdote from his time spent crossing the Vatnajökul glacier through the winter. At one point, the visibility was so low due to the relentless snow, he accidentally skied over the edge of a cliff. Alex fell 25-30 meters into the crevasse below and had to climb back out. “My photographer called the rescue services for me,” he said. “But when they arrived, he decided to go home and I didn’t.”
In the evening over a dinner of local steamed fish and creamy mashed potato, the festival continued with another series of talks by explorers, scientists and local business owners. We hear from Vilborg Arna, the first Icelandic woman ever to reach the summit of Mount Everest. She finally managed it on her third attempt, after being thwarted the other times by the two most serious natural disasters ever to occur there: an avalanche and a earthquake.
She showed us pictures from after the avalanche; tents destroyed and belongings strewn across the mountain. Tragically, not everyone she had met there made it out alive. “It was the worst thing I had ever experienced,” she said. Nonetheless she persisted, and on her third attempt, finally reached the top on the 21st of May 2017.
Iceland’s mythical beauty
The next day the festival concluded with a jaunt to Ásbyrgi Canyon, a giant horseshoe-shaped rock formation curving around beautiful countryside, just a short drive away. According to legend, the vertiginous cliffs were formed when Odin’s mammoth eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, thundered through the valley. The walls of the cliffs are 100 metres high and 3.5km in length, so Sleipnir would be quite the impressive steed—but in fairness, that’s the only kind befitting of a Norse god.
We take a walk through a pretty wooded area and the cliffs tower around us as we centre around a peaceful green lake. A trail spirals up and around the lake, so I take a walk and perch on a rock overlooking the scene, enjoying the panoramic views.
All too soon it was time to leave Húsavík, but I left feeling a new respect for the resilience and determination of humans, and equally, for the power and sheer force of our natural world.