The Mountain Factory
The Icelandic Mountain Factory is dedicated
to the children striking for climate
and the fight for tomorrow.
“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.”
-Greta Thunberg, Speech given to the World Economic Forum,
“And yes, we do need hope, of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”
-Greta Thunberg, TedxStockholm,
August 31st – Emma’s evening post
The camera phone is turned in a half circle, slowly and deliberately. It shows a snowfield streaked with black and gray, the veins of an immense, icy paw creeping down into the lagoon. The camera skims past broken pillars of ice floating in the water. It traces the surface of the lagoon and follows the churning water as it gushes under a bridge and out into the open sea. The water gurgles and sighs. Then the phone is slowly turned around and a brown, smiling face surrounded by bushy, black hair appears in the narrow frame. She looks good in close-up, this sunburnt girl. She has wide lips and sharp eyes, big, white teeth. She begins speaking in a tinkling American accent:
“Listen up! This is a live stream from Iceland’s Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. Take it in—enjoy it! The majesty of nature. This is all gonna go. These huge, peaceful glaciers are disappearing, the sea is rising. It’s your fault. And the warming sea—you’ve done that, too. You there, you greedy, old gluttons: the party’s over. Clean up your mess!”
The camera turns back around. The image freezes on the icebergs on the foreshore. It’s late summer twilight; the sky filled with beautiful clouds. Then these words run across the screen:
There is no Planet B.
When a person who isn’t afraid of anything
flies too close to the sun and gets burned.
A turquoise city of ice rises toward the heavens in the morning light. The lagoon is as smooth as a mirror. Several icebergs lumber along like glacial ships—iceboats going nowhere but disappearing slowly, either sinking down into the murky lagoon over time or sailing out into the ocean with the current. And then new icebergs calve and take up their places in the lagoon, floating before crowds of admirers until they, too, melt and disappear. And so on and so forth.
Red-throated divers wail piteously and in the distance, Arctic terns are squawking on the Fellsströnd beach. Over at the kayak rental hut, Stjáni is struggling with the boats, which are all strewn along the banks of the lagoon like hard candies in every color of the rainbow. The first tour bus is pulling into the lot, filled with tourists from the city. Stjáni zips up his drysuit and puts on his boots. He’s looking out over the water, thinking about whether the routes they’ll be taking today, when he sees a red kayak floating out in the lagoon—empty, or so it seems.
“What the hell?” he calls to Móri, who’s getting himself ready for the day. “Didn’t you tie up all the boats last night?”
“What? Yeah,” says Móri, putting on a life vest. I secured all the ones I had, but Emma took care of the last ones, I think. Have you seen her? She wasn’t at home when I left—she might have slept here last night,” he adds as he frees a green kayak from the chain keeping all the boats together.
“That’s pretty damn careless of you two,” snarls Stjáni.
“Calm down, old man.” Móri plunks the kayak into the water. “I’ll just go get it. It’s not a big deal.” He rows out, his paddle stroking the water. It slices through the mirror-smooth plane in short, decisive strokes as he gets further and further away from the shore. He hears only the echo of Stjáni’s grumbles as he approaches the red kayak, which is bobbing gently just outside the iceberg city.
It looks like there’s stuff in the boat, or maybe someone—or someones? Then it’s as if a shockwave goes through him, as if the heavens are splitting open when he realizes that it’s Emma in the boat. In that moment, his blood freezes and everything goes cold. She’s lying there like a water nymph, her arms crossed over her chest and an ice axe clenched in her fist. She’s not wearing a drysuit—just hiking pants, boots, and an orange parka, unzipped. Her dark, thick hair has been meticulously spread out like a halo around her head and pebbles have been arranged in a ring atop it, like an icon in a stone church window. Her expression is peaceful and it’s like she’s sleeping, but she’s not sleeping. He hears himself scream, hears himself screaming her name again and again. He feels himself beating on the kayak, shaking and rocking it. Then, for the briefest moment, he thinks logically and fastens a hook through the eyelet on the prow of the boat. He rows back to shore as if his life depended on it.
“Call an ambulance, Stjáni!” Móri is out of his mind with fear and horror. “Call the goddamn ambulance—and the police. Now! We need the police here, too!”
The moment passes. He remembers nothing, feels nothing, but throws himself out of his kayak and pulls the red one up onto land. Stjáni comes running from the hut, a glacier-white shipping container that houses a small café and the Lónalóma kayak rental company. Móri kneels over the red kayak, finding no signs of life in Emma. In his despair and panic, he shouts something about ambulances and the police again, but in that moment, he’s also strong and fearless and takes Emma into his arms. He’s filled with super strength, the kind of strength that people have when life hangs in the balance. Móri vigorously hefts the girl up as if she’s as light as a feather. Takes care with her head, making sure it doesn’t move too much and holds her under her arms. He rushes with her toward the hut, where he gently lies her on one of the lunch tables outside. Móri loosens the clothing from around Emma’s neck. There’s congealed blood on the back of her head. He lays a hand over her heart, places a finger on her pulse, feels her chest moving, maybe, just a tiny bit, but doesn’t know if that’s just wishful thinking.
She’s ice-cold, blue and otherworldly like an ice queen in a fairytale. He’s gone through this so many times—emergency first aid—he and Emma went over the things you’re supposed to do in their training, and he now tries to remember all of it, systematically, methodically, and in the right order. He conjures up the checklist in his mind. Stjáni stands a short distance away, stricken with fear. He feels as though he’s looking at himself from a distance, can’t believe that this absurd thing is really happening. But it is happening—right here, right now.
“Call someone!” screams Móri. “We need a helicopter! Right now!” He bends over Emma, blowing and massaging. “A doctor!” he shouts over the ice floes and the parking lot. “Doctor!”
“Call,” stammers Stjáni. “I’ll call.” He fumbles for his phone. “What’s the number?” he whispers, holding his head.
Stjáni makes the call. He delays the conversation a little at the beginning by repeating over and over that he needs a helicopter at Jökulsárlón. Finally, he manages to explain the situation, rather fitfully, but with the prompting of the person on the other end of the line, he manages to get most important information out. “Jökulsárlón. A girl in a kayak, she doesn’t seem to be breathing. An employee, a nineteen-year-old guide at the lagoon. I’m her boss. Someone’s trying to resuscitate her.”
People are hurrying over. The café employees try to fend off rubberneckers. Viktoría comes running. She’s just started her shift in the kitchen. Móri catches her eye but keeps up his efforts to resuscitate Emma.
“What’s happening?” she asks in English. Then again, in Icelandic, when she reaches his side. “Móri, what’s going on?” He doesn’t answer but is glad that she’s there.
“I just found her, out in a boat,” he says, distraught.
“I’m a doctor,” a firm voice says in English behind Móri. “I’m a doctor.”
A short man with a dark complexion determinedly pushes Móri aside. He’s a tourist from the bus. The man’s family is standing a little ways away. He examines Emma gingerly, with great care and thoroughness.
“She is alive,” he then says in English. “She has a pulse. Blankets. Bring her inside and get her a blanket! We’ve got to warm her up right away!” he commands. “Watch her head.”
“She’s alive!” shouts Stjáni. “She’s breathing!”
Móri lifts Emma, holding her carefully under her legs and back, bracing her head against his chest as he carries her into the hut. Stjáni runs ahead with his phone to his ear. He shoves shoes and chairs out of the way, kicks aside a pile of life vests, grabs a mylar emergency blanket and spreads it on the floor. Móri lies Emma on the blanket. The doctor holds her head and neck. Viktoría brings a wool blanket, a sleeping bag, and a down comforter from the staff quarters. Gvendur from the café comes in and helps Móri and the doctor wrap Emma in the covers and mylar blanket.
“Watch her head,” repeats the doctor cautiously. “Careful with her head.”
“Blanket, blanket, Emma, dear, oh, Emma, my love,” murmurs Móri over and over again, as if to calm himself with the simple mantra. “A blanket, Emma, Emma, a blanket. Here’s a blanket for you.”
He pulls off her gloves, inhales deeply and exhales, breathes in and blows out to keep his focus and do what needs to be done and not make any mistakes, even though the world has been turned on its head and become distorted in the blink of an eye.
“I’m sorry,” whispers Móri. “Dearest Emma, Emma, my love. Nothing else matters anymore, just you.”
Her hands are glacier-cold and Móri massages her fingers to bring them back to warmth and life.
“There’s a helicopter on the way,” says Stjáni, who’s still on the phone. “There’s a helicopter coming,” he repeats to the doctor in English as the man presses towels around Emma’s neck to keep it from moving.
“Emma, there’s a helicopter on the way,” whispers Móri, bending down to her pale face, which is almost unrecognizable, blue like porcelain, its expression distant and grave, shaded from the light, her eyes closed.
“You’re going to fly. Not to see the glacier from the sky like you want so badly. No. But there’s a helicopter coming so that you can get to the hospital as quickly as possible. It’s going to be okay. Hey! Listen, you’re going to be okay.”
“She’s suffered a serious blow,” says the doctor as he examines the congealed blood on the back of her head.
Hypothermia. Significant blood loss. Serious head trauma. Surgery right away—this is some of what Móri hazily understands from where he’s sitting on the floor next to Emma. Then he hears a droning sound from the sky to the west, like the beating of a drum, and then the Coast Guard’s helicopter lands on the gravel in front of the Lómalóma container hut. A doctor and several Search and Rescue members jump out. They work fast and talk quickly with those assembled as Emma’s inanimate body is immobilized on a backboard. In the blink of an eye the helicopter has taken off, gone up and out over the sea, following the shoreline west to Reykjavík.
The crowd disperses. It’s remarkable how it all happens so fast, as if nothing had happened, even though the world has broken into a million pieces and lost blood and consciousness. The world was lying there, shattered and bleeding in the gravel, and yet most people forgot it in a moment, gotten back into the bus on their way to the next vista.
“It will be okay,” says Viktoría. “Everything will be fine,” she repeats in English, patting Móri on the back. He grabs her hand and holds it tight.
“We have to inform them,” mumbles Stjáni. “Let everyone know.”
Móri doesn’t hear either one of them, just wanders over to Emma’s kayak, collapses next to it, and hides his face in his hands. He sits like that, next to the boat in the gravel, for a long time and loses himself in his thoughts.
More visitors arrive in the lot and swarms of foreigners gather in front of the Lónalóma hut. Stjáni announces that there won’t be any tours today. He explains briefly that there’s been a serious accident and that the company will be closed for a short time. No kayak trips. He goes in and scribbles on a paper with a marker, then tapes the sign to the door: Closed today – all trips cancelled.
A middle-aged tour guide who arrived with a group in a small bus isn’t happy. An exacting German with a schedule to keep, he tells Stjáni that they’ve come a long way to kayak in the lagoon. If they can’t do that, he says, then Lónalóma is responsible for rectifying the situation in another way. Stjáni looks blearily at the irritable man who is going on and on about keeping one’s word, schedules, punctuality, dedication in the tourism industry and a lack of responsibility. Suddenly, Stjáni grabs the man’s coat collar, twists upwards, and tightens it around his neck as he hisses through gritted teeth.
“Shut up and piss off, you sonofabitch. I don’t give a shit about your stupid schedule!”
At that very moment, a police car drives up to the container hut. Almost an hour has passed since Emma was found. A tall, older policewoman steps out. A young policeman is close on her heels. Stjáni releases his grip on the tour guide but keeps holding him with a stony glare.
“What’s going on here?” asks the policewoman calmly.
“Nothing,” answers Stjáni. “I’ve closed for the day. Some people are having trouble understanding that.”
The tour guide has caught his breath and is really worked up. “You couldn’t have come at a better time. I want to press charges for assault.”
The young policeman picks up traffic cones and tables and then gets started roping off the area around the Lónalóma hut and down to the lagoon.
“Okay, okay, let’s not be foolish, buddy,” says the policewoman in her sober way. “I’d like to ask you and your people to step back from this area. Police business. I’ll thank you to act accordingly. A serious accident has taken place here and this is a closed crime scene now.”
When the tour guide finally understands that he’s not going to get any further with his complaint, he turns around and directs his group away from the area. The policewoman asks Stjáni and Móri to take a seat in her car with her. Móri stumbles to his feet. It’s as if he’s in a trance. They go over the event at length in the police car. The policewoman tells them that the helicopter has landed, and that Emma has been taken into surgery. That they’ve been in touch with her mother, who is on the way to the capital from Höfn, Emma’s hometown, about an hour east of the lagoon. She writes down the broad strokes of the situation as well as all the necessary information. Stjáni and Móri go over the morning’s events, taking pains over all the details. Meanwhile, the young policeman is busy as a bee out in the lot, taking photos and statements, writing things down as he goes. The police instruct that the area should remain restricted and the company closed while their investigation is underway.
Móri’s phone rings. It’s Ása, Emma’s mother.
She’s in a car with her sister on the way to Reykjavík. Móri goes over the events of the morning again. He describes every detail, every single breath, starting from when he overslept in the Nissen hut, ran out, and biked over to the lagoon, thinking that Emma had slept there. She did that sometimes when she wanted to wake up and enjoy the tranquility of the morning, take beautiful pictures and be by herself. Sometimes, she slept next to the lagoon, behind the sand dunes in a bivy sack—a special overlayer that’s like a tent around your sleeping bag.
Rule #1 in the Mountain Factory is that everyone is free to be and do what they want. Móri tells Ása this, even though he knows that she knows all about it. He says it to explain why he wasn’t with her, why he wasn’t looking out for her. He doesn’t mention that they were unhappy. There’s no reason to bring talk about that. It feels restorative and therapeutic to recall the events over and over. There’s a kind of peace in it, a peace for his soul, which is so frantic and unbalanced deep down inside of him. When they say their goodbyes, Ása promises to give him an update after Emma’s surgery is over.
Lóa’s yellow delivery van speeds into the Jökulsárlón parking lot as he hangs up the phone. It drives straight toward the Lónalóma container hut and screeches to a stop. Lóa gets out of the car. She was working in the new hotel at Hnappavellir when she got the news. Lóa picked up the others, as per usual. She assembles the team, shepherds the group together. The four residents of the Mountain Factory are with her: Eiríka, Frída, Fitz, and Daníel. Móri is numb. They embrace one another and the questions fly as they make their way into the Lónalóma hut. What happened? Where was the boat? What did the doctor say? Is her life in danger? When did it happen? What happened? Móri tries to answer but can only moan out disconnected words. Stjáni busies himself with the coffeepot.
“We’ll wait and have some coffee,” he mumbles. “Wait for news. There’s nothing else to be done.”
Jökull then comes speeding up in the Skaftafell National Park staff vehicle. The little hut becomes crowded. They sit on stools and on top of dry suits and life vests. The policewoman introduces herself. She says her name is Karitas. But no one hears and no one remembers her name. She stands to the side and watches them, reads them like books although she tries to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. Móri tries to get a hold of himself and organize his account. But he keeps repeating himself and rambling about one thing or another. But finally, with assistance and interruptions from Stjáni, he manages to put together a full story of what happened. Viktoría stands behind him and rubs his shoulders and he feels like that gives him strength. They listen in silence. None of them expresses their sadness in the same way. Jökull leans on the wall by the door with his hands in his pockets, staring at his shoes as if trying to fix every detail in his memory. Eiríka stares out the window. Fitz takes a stone out of his pocket and turns it in his palm. There’s an evil eye painted on it, an eye that’s supposed to protect against bad luck. He clenches his fist around the stone and then sticks it back in his pocket. Lóa listens intently and asks if she’s missing something.
“What do you mean, she was arranged in the boat?” she asks.
“I don’t know—sort of like she’d been posed. Her arms crossed over her chest.” Móri puts his hands over his chest to show them.
“And she had an ice axe. She was holding it like this. And then the stones, all in a ring on top of her outspread hair, like a crown or a halo.”
“Who could have done it?” Lóa then asks a different question. “And what does it mean?”
Móri holds his face in his hands and sighs deeply.
Frída bursts into tears. She is inconsolable. She starts speaking in English. Frída, who never speaks English, who always speaks this flawless Icelandic that no one can understand how she could have learned in just over a year. She’s a human sponge, says Fitz, who himself speaks Icelandic with a mesmerizing Spanish accent, an accent like melted chocolate; his mother tongue a blend of Icelandic and a soft, South American Spanish.
“Why?” says Frída over and over. “Why? What happened? Where is her phone? Did you find her phone?” she asks with a sniffle.
“No, or what now? I don’t know,” says Móri confused. Her phone? He hadn’t thought about her phone. “I’m sure she had it with her,” he then says.
“Yes, but what was her last story? What was her last story?” asks Frída, drying her nose.
“Frída, you know you’re speaking English, right?” asks Lóa gently.
“Yes, I know. I just need to right now,” answers Frída, pulling her phone out of her pocket.
They all do it, take their phones out of their pockets and look up Emma’s page, a page that has 350,000 followers and is popular all over the whole world.
“What was the last thing she did?” mumbles Fitz as he scrolls through his phone.
Now the policewoman enters the conversation. They’d forgotten she was there. “Do last? What do you mean?”
Stjáni piles coffee cups on the table and sets the pot down next to them. “I have milk somewhere,” he says, immediately realizing how pointless and strange it is to be talking about milk and how little anyone cares about that now.
“Emma is an influencer. You haven’t seen her?” Danni turns on the video, the last thing Emma uploaded, and turns it toward Karitas. Emma’s voice streams out of the phones of everyone in the room, reverberating in the hut.
“Listen up! This is a live stream from Iceland’s Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. Take it in—enjoy it! The majesty of nature. This is all gonna go. These huge, peaceful glaciers are disappearing, the sea is rising. It’s your fault. And the warming sea—you’ve done that, too. You there, you greedy, old gluttons: the party’s over. Clean up your mess! The party’s over. Clean up your mess.”
Emma’s voice echoes the refrain until each of their phones goes silent.
Pages 7-21. Translation: Larissa Kyzer