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Getting cross with Iceland

Two mens noodlee journey

all seasons in one day 5 °C

Four cars, two buses and one drunk guy in a banana costume later we arrived in Skogar, our start point for what we had been told by locals, park ranger and friends would probably be the last walk we ever did. These optimistic advisors failed to mention the real danger of crossing Iceland by foot. Giant. Flying. Cats. Sitting in the comfort of my sofa, with the adrenaline levels back to baseline and the benefit of hindsight and a rational mind, I am reasonably confident that these were in fact Skuas (all be it bloody big ones). Feeling like we were in some sort of West Side Story territorial face off, to get to the ocean we were going to have to cross a mine field of these birds swooping down and attacking us. If you have ever been swooped by a bird then you will know the fear, if you haven’t, then lucky you. They would fly up high and taunt us with fake swoops before diving down and aiming straight for our heads. By this stage Christer had found a piece of drift wood and was wielding it like it was William Wallace’s claymore, all the while I am hugging him from behind. And so it was that Christer and I, two young athletic (ish) men, supposedly in our prime, began our 400km walk across Iceland screaming like babies.

christer and his claymore

christer and his claymore


‘The worst hike of my fucking life’

These were the words of a fellow hiker as he described a 24km section of our walk. What did we call it? Day 2. It didn't start that well for us either as we had both suffered the worst night sleep of our lives. This also happened to be completely preventable and was the direct result of me persuading Christer that we should sleep on an elevated piece of ground which provided us absolutely no shelter from the infamous 'man stopping' Icelandic wind (as it is often referred to). I did however have very good reasoning for such a move. The area we slept on looked something akin to a castle (by my imagination at least). A few hours in to an entirely sleepless night of what felt like a group of people vigorously shaking our tent and I was waiting for Christer to get out his sleeping bag and kill me. It was also the day where I learned that you need to eat in order to be able to cross mountains. I hit the wall about half way through on our 2000 calorie a day diet, walking slowly and becoming unresponsive . At this point Christer began to worry that my months of inactivity prior to the hike (as a result of a broken ankle and laziness) was going to be a deal breaker, although he kindly reserved that opinion until later. On top of that we realised that neither of us had any idea how GPS co-ordinates worked. The fact that this revelation came as we set out into dense fog, trying to make it through a 2km gap between a set of glaciers made the timing a little less than ideal. The glaciers we were walking between acted like a funnel, channelling icy cold win between them. This powerful headwind made each step a conscious effort. On top of that, the wind picked up loose grains of ice and sandblasted us with them continually for a good 30 minutes. It was like being hosed down with a power washer and the pain was quite incredible. I imagine being pocked by thousands of sewing needles would feel similar and it left both Christer and I screaming like babies for the second time in as many days. After our free exfoliation treatment we moved down past a set of waterfalls. However unlike normal waterfalls, the ‘man stopping’ Icelandic wind was blowing these waterfalls right back up the mountain they had just flowed down.
Munro on his...'castle'.

Munro on his...'castle'.

Christer getting sandblasted by the ice (those are not clouds, that is a collection of ice granules being whipped up by the wind)

Christer getting sandblasted by the ice (those are not clouds, that is a collection of ice granules being whipped up by the wind)


Whilst doing this sort of thing you really begin to realise that you are in fact just a big bag of chemicals. As I hit the wall and the exhaustion set in, both Christer and I were having serious doubts about the likely hood of us making it beyond day 2, never mind to the other side of the country. A bag of rice later (lets ignore the fact its day two and we have already eaten into our spare food supply) and I was right as rain and ready to crack on. And if a full belly won’t fix it then a good nights sleep probably will!
In order to gain as many calories as possible whilst carrying minimal weight, one of our main energy sources was lard. We added this to our porridge in the mornings and our chicken noodles at night (I say chicken because Christer in all his wisdom decided to buy 24 packs of the same flavour for the trip). On day 3, Christer realised that adding the fat to the porridge made him feel sick. But as we were already eating far fewer calories than we were burning off there was not much he could do but scoff it down and do his best to keep it down. It wasn’t long before the noodles and lard combo began to make Christer sick and the porridge and lard combo had become a highlight (the case of a lesser of two evils I believe). One night I was woken up by the unsettling words ‘Munro, I think I’m going to be sick’. This was immediately followed by Christer hurrying out the tent on his hands and knees as his dinner attempted to make an unwelcome re-appearance.
There was one particular part of our day that would brighten up even the most exhausting and strenuous of hours, and that was snickers time. We had one snickers each for every day of the trip and it was the highlight of both our days. However, having only one each day meant that debating the right time to utilize this wonder drug became a daily ritual. Should we save it for when we feel down or should we have it now before we feel down? Should we eat it before the hard part to help us power through or saver it until we have completed the hard part as a reward? The debates were endless but the euphoria of eating that snickers was as constant as the days were long.
Iceland is no stranger to the notorious Midges, and oh my word did they rustle Christer’s Jimmies, claiming that "These Icelandic midges are genetically modified to piss me off". There were clouds of them and eating our dinner looked like something out of a cartoon as we ran back and fourth with our bowl in one hand and our spoon in the other, trying to out run the midge’s whilst shoveling food into our mouth.

The landscape:

During the 60’s, Apollo astronauts used Iceland as a training ground for the moon landings. That should give you an idea of the desolation, vastness and uniqueness of the landscape that the country has to offer. Iceland sits where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. From this and all the resulting volcanic activity, in one panoramic view you can get a varied spectrum of scenery. We crossed great expanses of volcanic dessert. These are vast areas of flat, black, sand with dramatic peaks springing out of the ground at irregular intervals. An experience made even more interesting by the continual sideways rain which accompanied us whilst crossing them. At the other end of the spectrum are the so called Rainbow Mountains. In order to reach them we first had an extreme uphill, which brought us right up into the clouds. Uphill some more and we were standing above the clouds which not even an hour ago we had been underneath. From there we could view the mountains and their sulphur rich mud which gives them their yellow, orangey brown colour, although in our case the colour was mainly white due to the excessive snow cover. In one sweeping panorama we had snow capped peaks, vast open lava fields, and bright orange hills. With all this great expanse to cross, Christer and I were feeling rather over and ambitious and under-prepared. However, a few interactions with some fellow hikers and we began to feel positively over prepared. One French guy attempting the same hike as us had his sleeping bag tied to the outside of his rucksack, it would take no more than a bit of rain for his walk to be a write off. Another group, also French, forgot to bring a stove and their entire collection of maps consisted of a single tourist map of the whole country. I’m not sure whether the moral of this story is to prepare properly for a hike or to never go hiking with a Frenchie!

Munro forgets his birthday:

In the afternoon we stopped for some lunch and Christer introduced me to the wonder that is Soreen. A sugary banana loaf. As we were eating it I said ‘Well I guess this is my birthday cake’ to which Christer replied ‘Your birthday is the 29th?’ . Confused I replied ‘No, it’s the 28th’. As it turned out, my birthday was in fact the day before.

‘I hate Iceland’

Those are the first words written on our notes for day 4 and that pretty well sums up it up. We had planned to walk from Landmanalaugur to a highland centre (where we knew they served waffles!). A distance of 30km by our reckoning. In fact it was so not fun that my eyes began to ‘sweat’ at one point when the exhaustion was really setting in (tearing up from exhaustion was both a new and rather embarrassing experience). It felt like we were part of an elaborate practical joke where we had been thrown onto the moon. Around us was nothing but a bleak, never ending world of dust, with the only evidence of civilization being power lines and the occasional car. Towards the end of the day we had to make one big push across a 3km stretch of a dam. The infamous man stopping wind hit us once more as it skimmed across the lake, creating waves which crashed against the dam wall and sprayed us down. The most tiring day of my life just got a whole lot more difficult. We were walking into the wind, and my legs felt heavier and heavier with every step. The wind made it feel like I was trying to push my way through a brick wall. When we eventually made it across and to shelter we felt drunk as we stumbled about, losing our balance as our bodies had got so used to compensating for the now absent wind. Feeling like I had nothing left in the tank, I took a nap on Christer’s lap. Between that and the secret crème eggs Christer pulled out his bag I got enough energy to crack on and finish the job. When we arrived at the highland centre, I asked the receptionist how far it was back to Landmanalaugur where we had come from. ‘44km’ she replied.
Munro hating Iceland

Munro hating Iceland

Christer loving Iceland

Christer loving Iceland

Munro performs minor surgery on his feet:

Something I have spoken little of so far is the unfathomable number of blisters which I got on my feet. Due in part to the snowy conditions for the first three days of the hike meaning our feet were continually wet, I ended up with a grand total of 15 blisters on my feet at one time. With 12 blister plasters and a possible 18 days of hiking, simple maths dictates that regularly changing the dressings is not possible. As a result, when I removed my sock and accidentally pressed the plaster on the back of my right heal, some wonderfully thick and yellow fluid oozed out. I decided that changing the dressings may be a wise idea. On removing the blister plaster on my left heel it I saw a hole, which I am rather confident was not supposed to be there. It looked like someone had taken a teaspoon and gouged a bit out of my heel. Inside a two man tent it gets bad enough when one person farts, but removing the blister plaster on my right heel to reveal a lump of ear wax consistency puss along with a badly infected blister may just have been the worst thing I have ever smelled. Not to worry though, a spot of savalon later and we are back on the road!

"All I could do was watch as your little butt disappeared"

As a result of a bad winter there was a lot of snow melting in the highlands during our crossing. This, combined with the fact that Iceland apparently hasn’t heard of bridges, meant we had to get wet a lot. On top of that, glacial rivers are best crossed earlier in the day as by the afternoon the sun has began melting the glacier and increased the water level in the river. Unfortunately due to time constraints we did not have the luxury of waiting for the morning when the rivers would be at their lowest so we just had to crack on with it. As we arrived at what was to be the scariest and most naked crossing of the trip we saw a wide river, covered in white foaming rapids with a waterfall about 100m or so downstream just waiting for us to fall down. This raging torrent didn’t even look cross-able in boat. We walked upstream in the hopes that we could at the very least distance ourselves from the waterfall. Prior to leaving I had googled ‘how to cross rivers’ so I wouldn’t go as far as to call us experts, but we definitely knew what we were doing (does the sarcasm come through in text?). As we moved upstream we found an area with a weaker current but with the compromise of being significantly deeper, but just how deep we didn’t know. As a precautionary measure we decided to strip naked and eat a snickers. An ideal precautionary measure for almost any uncertain situation. It would have been a bizzare sight for any onlookers, two guys bollock naked aside from trainers, walking poles and a rucksack. Fortunately we were in the middle of no where so our new look could not be scrutinized. And so wearing nothing more than the trainers on our feet and the rucksacks on our backs we made the plunge, with me up front and Christer close behind. It is important to note here that Christer is a couple of inches shorter than me. There was little Christer could do but watch as the water moved further and further up, first passing my knees, then my thighs, until finally he saw my pale bum disappear from view. In these situation it is not so much the current depth that concerns you, but the unknown of what the next step will bring, of possible undercurrents or gaps in the river bed. If we were to fall with the 20kg rucksacks on our backs, that waterfall downstream could get awfully close awfully quick. The water level made it to at least 125cm as our walking poles were completely submerged. As the water was crept up to our chests we thought we might have to start swimming. A few man noises later, and with our gentlemen parts no where to be seen, the riverbed began to get shallow again and we could breathe a sigh of relief.
The irony of all this of course is that part of the reason we had picked the Kjolur route in the first place was because the lonely planet had informed us that there were in fact no river crossing there. Fantastic, I was sick of river crossings, not because of the cold or the worry of being swept away but because of the inconvenience of it all. Any time we reached a river we would walk about trying to find a crossing and inevitably have to change our shoes, take off our trousers, cross the river, sit down, dry our feet and get our trousers socks and shoes back on. What we failed to comprehend was that between us and the Kjolur route there were about 20 rivers to be forded.
If we were lucky then we managed to find a snow bridge to cross the rivers on, exchanging the certainty of getting our feet wet for the possibility of falling through the snow (which Christer did...twice). At one point I saw Christer hitting the snow next to his feet to test the strength of what he was standing on, apparently oblivious to the arguably obvious consequences of testing ground once you are already standing on it. It looked like he had just pressed a button for a trap door to open and he fell through. As soon as he struck the ground with his poles, the snow collapsed.
if it wasn't for the bridge we wouldn't have known there was a river there at all

if it wasn't for the bridge we wouldn't have known there was a river there at all

crossing a snow bridge...easy does it

crossing a snow bridge...easy does it

Short cuts:

Your perception of time changes on an expedition. With no social or work commitments and no weekends, the days of the week loose relevance. Instead you count the days based on important landmarks, and for the past four days that land mark had been Hverivellir. It boasted the ‘best hot springs in Iceland’ according to the lonely planet and an apparent shop which meant the possibility of saying goodbye to noodles. Motivated by all this, the day appeared to be going from good to better when we realised that we could significantly shorten our day by taking a simple short cut. We had decided that whoever had built our path for the day clearly had no idea what they were doing and unnecessarily took a huge detour. Clearly we knew better so we decided to take a bearing and head directly to our destination, avoiding the completely unnecessary detour. About an hour into this master plan it soon became apparent why there was a large detour. We hit a lava field. Lava fields, although generally found on flat open ground, consist of continually undulating rocky ground, where every foot step must be considered in advance and absolutely no rhythm can be maintained whilst walking. This makes crossing them an exhausting and arduous task. We did eventually make it to Hverivellir, although the ‘shop’ only sold over priced rollos and kit cats so we could not wave goodbye to our beloved noodles just yet. The hot springs did however live up to its reputation, and we spent some hours soaking in the sulphurous 38 °C waters whilst overlooking Hoffsjokull glacier and the surrounding mountains. On top of that, some generous but over prepared Americans who took pity on us with our noodle and lard diet gave us dried vegetables, dried beans, some Mexican spices, Salami and CHEESE! I can’t even afford cheese when I am not hiking!
A big cheesy grin

A big cheesy grin

The final push:

Our last 3 days consisted of a 109km stretch to Blondous, our end point where we would meet the ocean and complete our coast to coast. That meant doing not far off 40km a day on relatively hard road surface. You know that feeling when you jump off something which was too high and your feet get that awful ache. Walking on a hard surface in stiff hiking boots creates a similar pain in your feet, but it lasts the entire time you walk. Nearing the end of our hike we were broken men. Knees were sore, feet were sore, shoulders were sore, nothing was pain free. On the plus side, as we had packed food for 18 days and were now set to complete the hike in 12, food was not on short supply. The down side was that Christer could no longer stomach the noodles, even with the veg and beans and goodness we got from the Americans. And I was certainly not looking for extra portions of anything.
On the last day, just about 10 or 15km from the end of our mammoth walk, Christer and I noticed that a large group of Arctic turns were flying nearer and nearer to us. Christer, remembering back to our nightmare experience at the beginning of the hike, warned me that ‘those birds are getting close’. I however was in some sort of snow white fairy-tale land and replied ‘They are giving us a homecoming!’. Well just to prove me wrong, as soon as I said that, one of them made a dive right for my skull! We were under attack once more. I see Christer shoot off in front of me, waving his sticks above his head as he makes his crippled attempts at a run. I on the other hand accepted my fate, not out of choice, but rather because I had no idea where Christer had mustered the energy for such acceleration.
At long last Blondous was finally in our sights, but getting to Blondous was one thing, making it to the ocean was something else. It may only be a small town but by the time we made it to the ocean it felt like we had crossed London, not a small Icelandic village. But 12 days later and 380km covered, we did in fact make it to the Ocean. Just like that we were thrown back into a world where we had to wait until we found a toilet to relieve ourselves, where showers are a daily reality, and where eating noodles is a matter of choice.

Christer about 3 seconds after we had completed the hike

Christer about 3 seconds after we had completed the hike

Posted by Venturediaries 12:40 Archived in Iceland Tagged hiking crossing iceland

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