Traversing Iceland - By Ben James
Traversing across a beautiful and scenic country, sounds quite simple in reflection, almost idyllic. It would involve crossing the Central Icelandic Desert, in the unpredictable Icelandic weather, across the high and exposed plateau the desert sits on. Of course, add into that the expedition would be unsupported, which meant carrying all our own food, equipment and tents for the duration, as well as the route being over 205 miles in 17 days, it became a bit more complicated. Did I mention the mountains we would be crossing too?
In the midst of planning and preparing a trip to Iceland in April this year, in which I successfully summited the highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, I for some reason got caught up with looking for my next trip. I ended up stumbling across an advert recruiting members for an audacious expedition, a combination of a pack rafting team and a trekking team, crossing the length of Iceland from North to South.
I sent in a speculative email to the organiser and leader, Neil Cox, not really expecting to be invited to attend with my limited experience. Albeit, I was accepted as part of the trek team. I can’t really describe what I thought at the time. I had prioritised my summit attempt in my head, and it seemed to me it would be the harder of the two, that turned out to be wrong.
I played no large part in planning, other than sharing kit ideas and advice with my fellow team members. We all got in contact via Facebook, as well as a pre expedition conference call. It was almost like a blind date, just on an expedition in the middle of nowhere.
The team consisted of Neil Cox, the expedition leader and part of the pack raft team, Leanne Dyke, his partner and also a pack rafter, Andrew Hamp and Neil Irwin, who along with myself, were the three trekkers. The plan would be that we would all start together at Akureyri in the North of Iceland, and for the first five days we would all walk together, ascending the mountains and onto the desert Plateau. At day five, we would then split; Neil Cox and Leanne leaving to pack raft from the source of the Thjorsa (þjórsá) river, with the three of us then heading further East to continue the trek across the desert, aiming to finish on the Sólheimajökull Salt Flats.
The reality started to dawn on me on my first trip to Iceland in April. Whilst on my mountaineering trip, I was exposed to the brutality and extremity of the Icelandic weather. There really is nothing like it. 60 mph winds are a standard windy day for Iceland, sometimes accompanied with pummelling hail stones or driving rain. It makes for an interesting trip. My climbing was luxury, having the fortune to crawl back to my accommodation each evening. On the Traverse, I would be carrying my room and pegging it out every night, hoping it stands up to the elements.
Pretty much as soon as I could, I began prepping my kit and planning my meals. Leanne’s knowledge was invaluable and she shared with us all her meal plans. I worked out from that what I could take and how much to allow for each day. In the end, it worked out I could carry enough to average about 1800 calories a day, with the exception of a few days where I had an extra dessert, taking me up to about 2100 calories. Essentially, there wouldn’t be enough food for the calories we were going to be burning, but we had to balance that with what we could carry. Everything was crammed into my rucksack. Even with an 80-litre bag it was a bit like a jigsaw in an effort to get it all to fit, every space was filled. It wasn’t until I weighed it the task dawned on me. 28kg. I had to haul this rucksack over Iceland for 17 days. The only small consolation being, that after each meal it would get ever so slightly lighter.
On the 30th of May, I flew out from Luton to Reykjavik, meeting Leanne and Neil on the plane en route. I got a few funny looks with a rucksack clingfilmed from top to bottom on my back, weaving my way in and out of the rush hour commuters bustling through Luton. We met Neil Irwin and Andy in Iceland at the airport, and drove North to the starting port, the Fjord at Akureyri.
The first part was short and sweet, mainly fuelled by enthusiasm, and unhindered by what we didn’t know was to come. The tarmac out of the Town led us straight into the Mountain passes. The first morning we had our first downpour whilst trying to pack up. A sign of what was to come perhaps, soggy tents are no fun to pack up, let alone set up again to sleep in.
We spent two days trudging on the road, until it turned into track, which was soon marked with “Impassable” warning signs as the track became gullies and scree, where the snow melt had ripped it away. In some places, the river had picked out this easier route, meaning we were introduced early to the art of river crossing. It was a learning point. Wet feet aren’t fun, but I stayed mostly dry. Andy’s technique was much better, an “My feet are wet already” approach, which meant he ploughed through the rivers much quicker than we did as we picked our way across. Trying to negotiate loose rocks under fast flowing water, whilst carrying a huge pack isn’t easy. Walking poles became extra limbs, and they were more stable than our feet. At some points, it was a bit of a jump and hope for the best, which worked for some and not all.
It was only day three when I had my first problem. My foot had been hurting all day, and come to the end of it, I removed my boot and sock, only to be greeted by a rather angry looking, credit card sized patch of raw flesh on my heel. Despite breaking my boots in, they’d still taken a chunk out of me. It was painful, uncomfortable, but manageable. We had camped by a river, about 500 metres above sea level, half way up into the mountains we were aiming for, with patches of snow becoming more frequent as we wound higher along the track. The route followed one of the infamous Icelandic F roads, but I can assure you, not even the best 4x4s would have made it passed the newly dumped boulders and trenches that had been gouged into the road.
The setting distracted me from my raw foot, and the discomfort I was starting to feel in my shoulders and back. I reminded myself that Neil and Leanne were actually carrying in excess of 32kg each, having to also carry their pack rafts. My load was nothing in comparison. Despite Leanne being half my build, she ploughed on without complaint or struggle throughout us all trekking together, and did so with a smile whilst encouraging us all to keep going. Neil Cox ploughed on similarly, setting the pace, but like me, I put this down to determination, and maybe a large chunk of insanity. Both help.
Between day four and five, the weight of my pack was getting to me. It was excruciating, every step I made was laboured. The straps of my rucksack cut into me and tore at my shoulders. We had a few big days to make up ground from day one, and to try and push higher up onto the Plateau. The elevation gain was nothing sudden, but the Plateau had been particularly hard. We had the choice of walking in snow patches, which meant taking in turns braking trail, shared by me and Neil Cox. It was hard work, and didn’t help when those patches of snow hid melt water underneath. The alternative was skirting along the black sand and ash in the desert, where in places you would simply sink down into it due to the amount of snow that had saturated the ground when melting, making it harder going than the snow itself. Those two days were very long and hard days. I have no shame in admitting that I struggled, and I was in pain most of the time. It didn’t really go away at any point for the duration of the expedition.
On the 4th of June, we spent our last night together as a group of five. It still seemed a little surreal. I had in my head up until then, that actually, we could still just turn back. Five days back to Akureyri was still quicker than the two weeks we had to continue to the South. I’m not a quitter by any means, but these thoughts do creep into your head, you just have to file them to one side and keep on towards your goal. The final night together was spent squeezed onto a small patch of mossy ground amongst the rocky desert, we’d set up with inter crossing pitches and lines. The location was exposed, but the views breath taking over a frozen lake and rolling tundra covered in patches of snow. Despite the agony, there were worse places to be. I think all the trekkers were struggling by now, and the thought of the task ahead had a massive psychological affect.
We broke camp the next morning, pinning everything down in strong winds until we could stuff it into our ruck sacks, then continued plodding across the desert. Our aim for the day was to get to the source of the Thjorsa, the point that Leanne and Neil Cox would be leaving us to continue their expedition, pack rafting from the source to the sea. I should point out at, that if successful, Leanne would become the first woman to Traverse Iceland on pack raft, as well as the first woman to pack raft the length of the Thjorsa. Quite an achievement!
About mid-day, we split and went on our separate ways. Just as the rain started drifting in again, we shook hands and departed. I took up the mantle of navigating the trekkers for the remainder of the trip, armed with the maps Neil Cox had provided. I had to limit the use of the GPS as much as possible, as I could only carry limited batteries. The rest would be done by compass and my watch, which tracked the distance we had walked each day. It turned out to be a winning combination.
Myself, Neil and Andy trudged on. The three of us had a further 12 days to spend together, a week of which was still in the desert. We developed a good system, mine would be that of ploughing ahead as my pace was faster, which allowed me to navigate ahead in time for the other two to catch up. This was also an opportunity for me to lean against a rock and relieve the pain my pack was causing me still. By now I was having problems with my neck due to the strain, and no amount of adjustment could help it. I took any reprieve I could. Neil tended to occupy the middle ground between us all. He’d had his own problems due to tendonitis in his achilles. When you’re walking over rocky and sandy tundra, any sort of foot discomfort is the last thing you want. He carried on, between pausing to take photos of our expedition, being our resident photographer. (His end count was in the thousands!) Andy had struggled by his own admission, but I can only say I have never seen anyone in so much discomfort and exhaustion, be so cheerful still. He carried on regardless of how tried he was, and did it without so much of a grumble. He showed true resilience.
We were all tired by the half way point, but we had settled in well. Already the trip was taking its toll due to the lack of calories. It worked out we were burning on average 3000 calories a day, but we were only consuming on average 1900. My standard day would be two sachets of porridge for breakfast with a few raisins. Lunch consisted of a Protein Cookie, a Tribe Infinity bar, a handful of trail mix and a cereal bar of sorts. In the afternoon I had a snack, usually a Tribe protein bar and a snickers or Mars for a sugar and moral boost. The evening meal was the best bit. I had Expedition foods freeze dried meals, with some dried pasta to bulk them out ahead of hard days. I’d also allowed a few freeze-dried desserts, which I had when I felt I needed a reward, and they went down a treat. By now our clothing had started to get baggy, and our belts were done up an extra few notches, but we had allowed just enough to keep our bodies going.
There was one particular night that we had struggled to find a camp site. The rain was lashing down and we were extremely tired. After lugging ourselves through the first of many bigger river crossings, we finally found a camping spot and crashed out. Neil had shared my tent that night. The ripping winds had been battering his light tent, and effectively turned it into a wind tunnel. It turned out to be mutually beneficial, as when we woke up the following morning, getting out was hindered by a sudden blizzard that had hit us in the night, the temperature dropping to below zero. Our Icelandic experience was becoming everything you could expect and more, although we hadn’t really accounted for that amount of snow at this time of year.
Regardless we carried on well. I was still completely uncomfortable with my ruck sack, but the snow at least gave me something else to think about whilst navigating. Andy was good enough to swap rucksacks with me for a short while, just long enough for the pain to move somewhere else on my back. We had the unfortunate circumstance of then having to complete another river crossing in the snow. This was easily one of the worse we did. We had tried to divert around to no avail, and were all getting cold and tired. Eventually we just gritted our teeth and carried on with the crossing. It was a long day, and we lost a lot of time and ground, a lesson well and truly learnt. Sometimes we were going to have to put up with the discomfort and inconveniences we faced, and just push through them.
Despite there being many ups and downs through the expedition, at the end of each day, there was a feeling of elation as we removed our rucksacks, knowing we wouldn’t have to put them on again until the following morning. After some tired scrambling around, we got our tents up and looked forward to the small evening meal we would be having. My tent was my refuge, it became my little bubble, and no matter what had happened that day, once I was inside, it was all left outside. I felt safe, comfortable, and alleviated of any pressures or pain that I had experienced that day. Every day was the same, I carried on with the end goal of being in my tent. Despite spending 17 days in it, it was bliss.
It was also surprising the relief small things brought to us. At day 9, having only hand washed a few times, we camped next to two pools of melt water, which provided the ideal, if not insane opportunity, of a proper wash. All good ideas and all that, but standing half naked in a pool of melt water, whilst in the line of fire of the Icelandic wind, wasn’t the most enjoyable experience, but it was at least refreshing.
In all, we spent 10 days crossing the desert. Not a sight of anything green except the odd patch of moss, or where the sediment had built up enough for dune grass to grow. We’d even left that behind by the third day of being in the desert. The snow had broken up the monotony, but as we headed further south, it was like viewing our world in monochrome. The far off glacial caps looked like they were another world away, even though they flanked our route on the journey south. Water was a problem on some days, and we found ourselves digging out compacted snow so that we could melt it for cooking and drinking. This wasn’t helped by the last five days of our hike being uncharacteristically hot, made even harder by all we had to carry and trying to save our water as much as possible.
We eventually descended from the plateau and into the flat open expanses of pumice fields, a tell-tale sign that we were now beneath the infamous Hekla, Iceland’s most active volcano. After days of nothing, I had mixed emotions over reaching a tarmacked road. It signalled the return to civilisation, and that we were coming closer to the end. It also meant easier going terrain. Amongst this harsh and unpitchable terrain, we had to force out one of our biggest days, 30 km in all. The previous night we had been battered by the winds on our exposed camp, leaving us with very little sleep. Andy twice had to call for help as his tent took the brunt and decided to try and leave the ground. Eventually we spotted greenery in the distance, almost like a mirage, but as we drew closer, we were greeted by rows upon rows of Lupins, lining up beneath the snow topped Hekla. Finally, after a week, we camped for our first night on grass.
The foot hills of Hekla were a completely different place. We followed a dusty track that led through vast waves of solidified lava and rich volcanic soils, that allowed lush grass to grow. One of our camp sites was nestled in between these towering waves of lava, a sign of the truly destructive nature that this volcano could wield. For miles we could see where the lava had poured from the volcano, leaving us and the small farms feeling very insignificant. Rivers were now abundant, and getting wider. We were getting closer to the end. The same day, we heard that Neil and Leanne had completed their part of the expedition
Our planned route would take us up and over the impressive Thórsmörk (þórsmörk) a picturesque and stunning area in the Mountains of Iceland, and then following the Mountain pass, we would descend into Skógar, and on to the coast. As a group, we had discussed this route a few days before, and it was decided that with the amount of snow fall we’d had, and the injuries some of us were carrying, we would have to divert around, adding an extra 30km onto our route. We had accounted for this and put in some big days. Unfortunately, this also meant leaving the scenic routes we had been on behind, and hand railing along the route 1 ring road to our finish point. The penultimate night was a nightmare, we struggled to find a camping spot, and ended up pushing over the 30km mark. When we finally found somewhere, we ended up being invaded by Icelandic Horses and had to push on further.
All of this was forgotten by the last night of our expedition. We clambered across a boggy field, from the ring road, and headed for the impressive cliffs that seemed like mountains themselves. As it happened, these were in fact the ancient Icelandic sea cliffs, but due to glacial melts and eruptions, the coast was now a further mile away. I have simply never seen any other place quite like this. Nestled between large boulders and the cliffs themselves, our camp site was below an impressive water fall, on vivid green fields. A total contrast to our trip in the desert, even the rain didn’t bother us. The following morning it was hard to leave, who would want to leave a place like that? It was the best place I have ever camped, not only because of the stunning location, but what our final night camping symbolised.
On the final morning, we all eventually packed up and got on our way, the latest start we’d had the whole time. We trudged on knowing the end was about 15km away. We could see, and smell the sea. Our usual system was abandoned for the last 3 km, and we walked together as a three. Our first view of the black sand of the Sólheimajökull flats came into view through a gap in the hedge, and the mighty waves of the Atlantic were crashing in beyond that. This was it, the end of our expedition. 16 days of slogging through all sorts of terrain. Agony, blisters, hunger and fatigue, and we had finally got this far. We ditched our rucksacks and walked together across the black sand. On a well-timed breaking wave, we all stuck a boot in the sea to mark the end of our journey.
We had done it. A completely unsupported traverse of Iceland from North to South. It had taken us 16 days, a day earlier than planned despite our massive diversion. We had walked 359km, with over 4050 metres of ascent, whilst carrying all of our gear and food, weighing up to 30kg. Through rain, wind, snow, desert, rivers, ice and mountains we had pushed on and completed it. There was a solemn atmosphere as we finished, and we all sat down to reflect, disturbed only by Neil’s directions as he tried to capture a last few photos. It was a sobering moment as I ran through in my head all we had accomplished. A few weeks ago I was questioning if we could do it, now I was questioning if I wanted it to end.
The expedition was hard work, mentally and physically. Not only are you battling the terrain and elements, but you’re fighting against the desire to call it a day when you’re struggling, even though there was no way out other than to plough on. Not only that, but throwing complete strangers, and crossing a country together could go completely wrong. Trying to keep everything in balance is important, and not bickering or falling out is essential, after all, you’ve got the best part of a month to spend all together. The three of us had done well, and we all played some part in keeping each other going.
I thought I would learn my limits on this trip, but instead learnt how much more I could push them, and how far I could now push myself. I think we all will look back on this trip and take from it what a life changing experience it was. I feel my hunger for more adventures and challenges is now greater than ever, and the struggle to reject the normality of day to day life will be even harder.
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