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According to popular tradition, Grettir ascended to the highest point of this ridge, and placed his belt and knife on the rock needle as a prize for the next who could reach the summit. Grimr had a rooted objection to my making sketches or gathering flowers, and when he saw me engaged in either of these pursuits, it was his wont to urge the horses on, and not draw rein till he was out of sight, thereby causing me considerable annoyance, as I repeatedly lost my way in following him, whilst he, with eagle eye, watched me from a rock, behind which he had secreted the baggage-horses.
During the first part of my journey I used to give way to my irritation, but eventually I hit upon a better plan. I rode up to the model student, singing or whistling, as though nothing had happened to disturb my equanimity, and he immediately sucked because I was not put out. Whilst making the sketch of the rock needle, Grimr attempted his usual trick, but was restrained by Jon, who feared losing me altogether. As it was, I missed the guides and passed through a couple of farms, whilst they kept down by the river. The good farmpeople, who were then hay-making, stared with astonishment at me, much puzzled to know who the stranger in knickerbockers could possibly be, who was riding towards the worst pass in Iceland without guide or baggage. I found my train of horses at last, halting on the shingly bank of the river, Jon having positively refused to advance till I rejoined them. We were detained for half an hour on this spot by one of the ponies deliberately wading across the river and scrambling up the mountain on the opposite side, whilst another horse set off as hard as it could gallop on its way back to Akureyri. Grimr and I pursued one, and J6n went after the other. When we had brought them back, the rest of the ponies were found to have strayed, though fortunately to no great distances.
On reaching the head of the vale, we stopped to bait at a little sel or mountain cottage, used only during the summer, when the cattle are driven up the heights for pasture. Here we supped, cooking our food and eating it in the Bath-stofa, seated on the beds and using horn spoons neatly carved, provided by the peasants. The place was unfortunately so swarming with vermin that all my peace and comfort for many a day were destroyed by what I carried away with me from that sel.
We were told here that Hjaltadals-heithi was quite impassable; one man only had crossed it this summer, and he had been on foot. Jon began to show signs of recusance, but I protested that go on we must and should, and Grimr brandished his whip ominously. So Jon submitted, and we saddled and bridled our horses, put on the packs, and started up the ravine which opens out above the sel.
After we had toiled for some time over all but precipitous rocks, which would have strained the backs of any but Icelandic horses, I asked hesitatingly whether the worst were over.
"Over! bless you!" exclaimed Jon; "why, we have not reached the pass yet! only wait till we come out upon the snow!" At the same moment a white ridge soared up before us, crowned by terraced sugar-loaves of basalt. "There!" said Jon, pointing to the snowy range; "we have to cross that."
My heart almost failed me at the sight, for the horses were tired, and there was before us the work of several hours.
We came upon the basin of a dried-up lake, traversed by a river wending towards a portal of black rock which it had cut for itself to the level of the silt which filled the bed of the lake.
Suddenly, we found ourselves in the angle between two gorges, down which roared torrents of milky water, floating off masses of dislodged snow, and sharp fragments of ice. That on the right cut us off from a mountain cone shooting up several thousand feet, and jauntily capped with snow, though too precipitous to allow of any resting on its sides. The ravine immediately before us was arched over with a snow bridge, in a very insecure condition. In winter the whole gorge had been choked with snow, through which the torrent had worked itself a tunnel. During the spring and summer, portion after portion of this snow-bed had fallen through, and been swept off by the stream, leaving at intervals, white bridges about twenty feet wide, spanning the gulf. Jon boldly rode over the bridge, and reached the farther side in safety; seeing this, the rest of the horses were driven over by Grimr and me. This was succeeded by a desperate clamber up a crag, slippery with ice. The baggage horses could scarcely get on, and we were obliged to stand by the poor brutes, as they rested on the ledges in the ascent, and support the box which was towards the precipice, clinging on to the rock with one hand, and lifting the box with the other. We allowed the unencumbered ponies, and our own riding horses, to find their own way, being very careful first to tie up the bridles and halters, lest the animals should get them entangled in their legs. On reaching a long steep slant of loose rockfragments, which had to be surmounted, the most heavily laden of the pack-horses seemed inclined to give it up in despair, so Jon dragged at his halter, ascending just before him, whilst Grimr and I put our shoulders to the boxes and relieved him, to a certain extent, of their weight.
On reaching the top, we found that we had a tract of stone-bog, through which to trudge. The stone-bog, as mentioned in my Introduction, is formed by the thawed snow percolating through the crevices of the rock, then freezing and splitting it up, till complete morasses of stone and mud are formed. These are not dangerous, but are very trying, as one sinks in them to the knees, and the angular fragments of stone cut the horses' legs and rend one's own shoes and stockings. After labouring through the bog, we came upon unbroken snow, and paused to take breath.
The view was striking. Looking back, we saw that the vale from which we had come was now filled with white fog, and looked like an extensive winding lake. To our left rose the cone already mentioned, and to our right lay swell and sweep of undinted snow in soft grey shadow, rising in smooth slopes to some curious horns or pyramids, barred black and white, behind which the slanting crescent moon shone golden in the sky. It was midnight, and the sun was down, but the heavens were still lighted with his rays, which turned their blue to the tenderest ice-green. An eagle (Faleo albicilla), perched on a crag, watched our cavalcade, and then plunged down through the mist, disappearing in it like a stone dropped into water. The air was intensely cold, and the line of demarcation between mist and mountain was extraordinarily sharp. The snow was soft, so that we sank to our knees at every step. We were obliged to walk, as the horses had as much to do as they could well manage to pull themselves along. Sometimes the poor brutes refused to advance, and stood up to their bellies with their desponding heads bent to the white surface. Ponies will, at times, make up their minds to go no farther, and then there is no stirring them; they will stand in the same position till they are frozen, and then fall over on their sides to die. Happily none of my train became quite in this condition, though they were very near it, and we had the greatest difficulty in getting the baggage horses to move on. My pony floundered into a hole, and sank over the saddle, so that he could not get out without assistance. The snow is very cavernous in the neighbourhood of protruding rocks, and, as the horses invariably make for the least black speck in the white waste, as a drowning man would strike out for a skerry, the consequence is, that they are continually sinking into holes which are perfectly concealed beneath a smooth surface. We had now a steep incline to overcome; up this we were obliged to crawl in a zigzag course, dislodging masses of snow, which slid down and vanished in the mist below, forming miniature avalanches. As we reached the top, the sun broke over a marquee-shaped mountain opposite, and cut off from us by another lake of fog.
We rested for half an hour on the summit of the pass, lying thoroughly exhausted on the snow, beside our fagged horses, which stood before us in a line rapt in a brown study, without moving a muscle.
The descent was through dense fog, and was so precipitous that we were obliged to leave a considerable space