I knew we were in a serious pickle when I saw Max coming back down the trail towards me. It was the last day of the trip (the GPS read something like 395.5 miles) and we were about two thirds up 1,000 meter climb, on the shoulder of Eyjafjallajokull, in between two good-sized glaciers. As everybody knows, an AT thru-hiker—and Max especially—never doubles back on trail—I don’t think I had ever seen him do it. But there he was coming down the steep headwall I was climbing, and he was moving briskly, too. I paused and waited. The wind was screaming and the rain, sleet, whatever it was, came stinging in horizontally. When he got close enough so that I could hear him over the cacophony, he said, “We’re going to fucking die up here!”
Now, if you know Max, you know that he is not a particularly demonstrative guy. After hiking with him for twenty days and almost 400 miles (not to mention other trips back home), this was by far the most excited I’d ever seen him. The winds, coming northerly off the Atlantic, were gusting so hard above the head wall that we could barely walk. They were actually picking us up and moving us, which was not especially good news, as we had traversed one knife’s edge ridge already, where you certainly did not want the wind moving you.
At various times over the past three weeks, we had joked about how Iceland acted like it didn’t want us to cross it, throwing day after day of bad, sometimes horrible, weather at us. Rain, sleet, snow, hail, perfect hypothermia conditions. And the wind. You read about the wind; you know it’s going to be windy. But you can’t really fathom what an antagonist it becomes until you’re out in it all the time. Out of twenty days, we had about four or five days of perfect hypothermia weather, all day long; we had two days of what I refer to as “the Arctic blast” days—a bitter wind out of the north with snow blowing horizontally, all day. I’d say we had two full days of good weather, probably two and a half total. We kept telling ourselves that it would clear eventually and we’d have four or five days of good walking weather, but that never happened. Eventually, you developed a dark sense of humor about it. In some ways, the horrible weather kept us walking. It was not unusual for us to find ourselves, at 2pm or 3pm, having walked 20 miles with only one 15 minute break. It was just too unpleasant, perhaps even dangerous, to stop.
Though we would have scarcely believed it at the time, we had had the best weather in the north. After landing in Reykjavik and arranging our resupply logistics, we flew to Akureyri, then took a bus for Raufarhofn on 8/17. The driver wouldn’t take us all the way to the lighthouse marking the northernmost point in Iceland, so we added six miles of road walking to our agenda. Our mood was high as we turned our noses southwards, camping our first night in a tussocky, tundra-like environment. For the next two days, we walked southwards and gained confidence as our navigation skills seemed solid (we found the lake that gave Jonathan Ley such problems), crossed the main roads in the area (one guarded by an electric fence to keep the sheep out!), climbed a mountain to get a sense for how profoundly alone we were in this place, and reached the national park at Asprgyi on our third day. Here we enjoyed an official campground with showers, and the next day, we set out on the trail to Detifoss—a truly remarkable waterfall reached by hiking along a series of sharply defined canyons.
Most backpackers take two to three days to walk this path, but we did it in one day: one gloriously sunny day—perfect walking weather. The landscape was really quite amazing (Max called it the best single trail he’s ever hiked), and as we neared the powerful waterfalls marking the southern border of the park, we opted to take the more difficult trail that ran close to the powerful torrents. This fairly sketchy trail included some badly eroded and crumbing traverses (everywhere in Iceland, the volcanic rock is rotten and poor for climbing), as well as some class IV terrain. By the time we reached Detifoss, we were exhausted but exhilarated.
On day 5, we walked cross country, making for the volcanically active area around Kraflos, and ultimately to Lake Myvatn, where we had planned our first resupply, which we reached midday on day 6. All the comforts of home—a hot restaurant meal, showers, beer, e-mail, and a little rest. Walking out of the village the next morning—with 12 days of consumables and 6 liters of water—was a definite low point of the hike for me. Carrying almost 50 pounds is a thing that I have definitely left behind me, psychologically speaking, though it was necessary for this trip. The 17 miles we walked on day 7—including up and over a volcano!—was one of the many times I thought, mistakenly, “Oh, this must be the crux of the trip!” You wouldn’t believe how many cruxes a single trip could have!
It turned out that we didn’t need the 6 liters of water we carried, but from this point forward, water became a serious issue on the trek. Days 7, 8, and 9 saw us walking, sometimes cross country, sometimes on 4 X 4 tracks, to the mountains of Askia. On day 9, we reached a shelter in a mountain pass where we intended to leave the tracks and go up and over the mountains into the volcanic bowl. Though I think we would have all enjoyed starting the pass, the weather was deteriorating, and we decided to stop at 18 miles and shelter in the hut (one of three nights Max and I spent in huts). This was the night Denise decided she couldn’t continue. One of my most vivid memories of the trip is Max and I looking down at Denise’s feet as she used a knife to root out a piece of lava rock that had become embedded in the nastiest looking blister I had ever seen. I was dumbfounded that Denise had managed to keep walking on feet that looked like that. It looked like something from the trenches of a war.
(Incidentally, Denise took a few days off, then picked up the trail from Landmannalaugur, including the portion from Thorsmark to Skogar. I won’t intrude on her story!)
On day 10, Max and I climbed over the mountains into Askia. Despite the fact that there was considerable fresh snow on the ground, we had bluebird skies for this climb and it was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. After a tricky little descent in the snow and about a quarter mile crossing a dangerously fresh and jagged lava field, we descended Askia and started to make for one of Iceland’s polar caps, which we intended to skirt as we headed southwards. The weather was insane. You could look to the left and see snow, look forward and see sunshine, and look to the right and see a rainstorm. We pitched in a terrible spot on the edge of a lake that was perhaps two inches deep. We drank grit (or, as we called it, “crunchy water”) and started to get a sense for how the volcanic grit was going to penetrate everything we owned. I am still picking it from between my teeth.
Days 11 and 12 are what I refer to as the “Arctic Blast” portion of our trip. We had a terrible wind from the north, and essentially walked into a blizzard. All throughout day 11, we walked westerly along the ice cap and started to realize one of the stranger features of the land. It could precipitate all day long, and yet the land was bone dry, no sign of even a puddle this time of the year. The volcanic soil drinks everything. We had anticipated that there would be some water off the ice cap, but water feature after water feature on our maps turned out to be dry. By late in the day, it was clear we were in a spot of bother concerning water, so we pushed on almost 27 miles through these conditions, including poor visibility, to reach an emergency shelter. There, we got the kerosene stove lit and managed to melt some snow.
Day 12 dawned more promising and we were off walking, happy to be descending and rounding south around the cap. By the afternoon, however, the howling wind was back, and our discomfort was compounded by the fact that we were crossing quite a few streams, which only added to our misery. Late in the day, I remember shouting to Max, over the wind, that we had to get the shelters up. We walked for three miles looking for some cover from the wind (another feature of Iceland is that good spots are few and far between). We found something that was adequate, though not ideal, and just pitched my Hilleberg directly into the gale. It stood up to the conditions, thankfully. I remember Max and I flinging ourselves in the tent and laughing, rather grimly. “Are we having an adventure yet?”
Day 13 was our coldest, with temperatures dropping into the 20s (consider that we always had quite a lot of wind chill as well). After thawing out our shoes, we continued southward, crossing another national park and reaching one of our better campsites on the shores of a lake we would walk around on Day 14. That walk was long and picturesque, but by the evening, we had walked ourselves out of water, again. We cut across lava fields and pushed into the evening, eventually reaching a roaring stream that plunged off a glacier above. I think we were so happy to find water that we forgot the lessons we had learned about pitching the shelters in this sort of wind. I pitched mine especially badly, the wind shifted during the night, and I spent hours listening to the sleet and holding up one wall of the tent against the wind, which was pummeling it broadside. Finally, early in the morning, I darted out to re-stake everything. By far, this was the worst night I have ever spent in a tent.
Max had wanted us to do some trail blazing and find our way around the Tungaa River to Landmannalaugar by some creative new means, but the storm had worn us down a bit, and we agreed to take the tried and true path, which involved a lot of road walking. Day 15 saw us to Jokulheimar (an abandoned glacier research station) where we stopped due to really frightening hypothermia conditions—Max’s jacket was no longer really waterproof, which meant that we had to be conservative. On days 16 and 17, we walked about 53 miles, crossing the countryside to reach Landmannalaugur—at least the weather was warm and sunny on day 17.
At Landmannalaugur, I think I was expecting Rivendell and elf maidens to bathe my feet. I was disappointed: even the fellow running the little shop practically shut his door in my face, since we arrived at 6pm, after a 28 mile day. Here, we learned that Denise had proceeded us and was somewhere walking the Laugevur trail southwards. We tented the night among the crowds of European hikers, and the next morning, in the drizzling rain, of course, we headed south.
The Laugevur trail is probably the best true backpacking trail in Iceland. Most people come and do it over four days, resting in the very well appointed huts along the way. Max and I did it in two days, but again my enjoyment of the trail was severely hampered by the fact that we walked 75 percent of it in quite dangerous hypothermia weather. Often, even stopping to take photos was out of the question. On day 19, as we walked into Thorsmark, though, the weather lifted, and we enjoyed a truly nice day for walking. Here, as you approach the Atlantic, Iceland is its most alpine, and you could almost imagine yourself in France or Switzerland. Some small forests even started to appear late in the day, quite unusual for Iceland. I deluded myself into thinking that Iceland would give us a break and let our last day—the trip over the pass into Skogar—be a pleasant one.
But the weather rose again, and we found ourselves high in the pass and worried about what worsening conditions might bring. Max and I quickly agreed that the winds made the trip over the pass too dangerous. We concluded that the best thing was to re-descend to Thorsmark and call our trip there—we wouldn’t reach Skogar, but we’d get our 400 miles. Naively, I recall thinking that once we turned around, Iceland would let up on us. She did not. Re-crossing the knife’s edge traverse, the wind rose, and I think Max and I both feared the other might be blown off. I was in front and the thought clearly ran through my head, “I am going to turn around and he is not going to be there.” He was, however, and we both sighed in relief. Once we reached the bottom of the climb, we joked and congratulated ourselves on our prudence. But with all the rain, the rivers were rising fast.
We walked along till we saw a tourist bus approaching. Even the bus didn’t dare to cross the torrent between us, but Max and I paired up and went across, with the tourists filming as we came on. Towards the end, I got a bit wet, but managed to drag myself from the water. We both looked at each other and raised our eyebrows: we wouldn’t do that again. We talked the tourists—a group of Germans, it turned out—into giving us a lift to a place where we could catch a bus into Reykjavik. I think they thought we were a bit mad. Maybe we were, by that stage. These German grandmother types concluded that the only thing to do was feed us, as we sat, dripping wet, in the wells of their bus. So we literally made a meal on German snackfood.
We ended up reaching Reykjavik that night, in time, in my case, for a hot shower, Thai food, and a few beers. We also had a few days of rest and relaxation ahead of us, which was much appreciated.
All in all, it was a heck of an adventure. The weather did not cooperate with us much, but we toughed it out and held everything together. It was certainly the most difficult backpacking trip I’ve ever done. If it worked out, it was only because of the quality of the company. If the world were a fair place, Denise would have knocked out the whole distance—she was certainly tougher than me. I had been whining about this ache and that pain, but Denise covered some serious mileage on feet that were much worse than any of my little issues. And, of course, without Max, the trip would never have happened at all. While I was able to endure out there, Max was able to thrive. It seemed that, no matter what I knew, Max always knew a way to do things better: I swear he must have doubled my knowledge of backpacking on this trip. A really great group, all around! And a fantastic, if extremely challenging, adventure!
PS If you’re interested, our splits were 18.5 (half day), 19.75, 25.5, 22, 19, 14 (half day into resupply 1), 17 (heaviest packs), 23.8, 18, 20, 26.5, 20.5, 18.5, 25, 14 (stopped early due to hypothermia danger), 25, 28.3, 17, 21, 10 (half day). That gives out at about 403.35 miles total and an average of 20-21 miles/day, depending on how you count the half days.
PPS Pictures forthcoming.
I have to say, in reading that trip write-up, you all showed some true grit on the trail! I don't know if I would be able to continue on in that relentless onslaught of weather, and can only wait to see the pictures and hear more about the route in detail. Congratulations on finishing strong and getting out alive!
We probably showed a little grit here and there, but there were lots of points where we really had no choice. There was no way to bail in the center of the country--where we went almost five days without seeing another person--short of pushing the button on the rescue beacon. The solution to everything seemed to be, "Just keep on walking!"
I did tell Max that, if I had known what the weather was going to be like, I might well have passed on this trip. He did not disagree.
Here are some "Lessons Learned" that I had thought to include with the initial post:
[*]Go earlier in the season. Anyone contemplating a similar trip should go in July. We were continually taunted by people describing very warm weather, immediately prior to our arrival. If you do go late in the season, you must really prepare for fairly serious winter weather, especially with the wind chill factored in. Max and I both wished for one extra warm layer each.
[*]The individualistic approach that us DC UL people take to gear (everyone with their own equipment) is fine for a weekend in the Mid-Atlantic, but we should have taken a more group approach. This applies especially to the tent situation.
[*]I carried a Hilleberg Nallo 2 GT tent, a 4-season tent. This is the sort of shelter you want for this situation, and it performed admirably over 16 nights, even in a full on gale. Its problems were either my fault, pitching it badly one night, or minor ... it had a zipper malfunction late in the trip, which was caused by the volcanic dust. The gigantic vestibule is awesome. While it is rather heavy for one person, we should have bought the three or four person version and all slept together. If we divided up the weight between 2 or 3 people, its weight would have been quite good. Trying to pitch multiple tents of varying levels of sturdiness was a hassle, especially given the limited cover from the wind.
[*]Similarly, our little alcohol stoves functioned great ... for providing one person a small quantity of boiling water. When we started to get into a position where we needed to melt snow for water, we needed a stronger stove. We should have considered bringing a single more powerful stove.
[*]I do not want to rag too much about my Salomon trail runners, but ... They were a constant issue. Although they were purchased for Memorial Day weekend, and had perhaps 200-300 miles on them, they were basically falling apart the entire trip. The outer lining ripped on both shoes, making the Goretex a joke. Rocks got inside constantly. The laces broke and had to be replaced by guyline. Most troublesome was the wearing away of the treads, which made the descents much trickier. And the only injury I am nursing is a heel rubbing spot that occurred for no good reason I can see. They got me home, but my quest for the ideal shoe continues.
[*]One needs a serious hardshell. I was carrying Arc'Teryx jacket and pants. They stayed on my body about 60 percent of the time, and they kept my core warm and relatively dry in day after day of constant hypothermia weather. The inner lining on Max's Patagonia rain jacket failed, which made things dangerous. Apparently, that is an age issue, but it wasn't good.
I'm sure Max and Denise have their own observations. The thing is ... Our gear was good enough. If the weather was better we would might have found, say, my hardshell and the 4-season tent excessive. But it wasn't, and so we ended up wanting more winter-style gear than we actually had.
I learned living in Northern Norway that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. It sounds like you've experienced that first hand! I have to say that your descriptions of the weather remind me exactly of Northern Norway and make the trip actually sound enticing to me. That kind of exposure and weather really remind you that you are alive, even if it seems miserable at times.
Thanks for the trip report! If I had more free time/money, I definitely would have liked to go on an adventure like this.