70 km of trackless wilderness, Iceland’s second largest ice cap and 3 days to cross it. Why the hell not!
Gunilla and I had been talking about going on a mission together for ages. Finally, it seems like our calendars aligned enough to turn words into action. So, what do glacier guides do on their time off? Find a bigger glacier!
The most obvious candidate for a crossing is Vatnajökull, Iceland’s biggest ice cap. Unfortunately, crossing Vatna easily takes up to a week in good conditions. Time we didn’t have. Moving our finger down the list, we thought we could probably squeeze in a Langjökull traverse if a lot of if’s turned into our favor.
Late May is a difficult time. There’s always snow up on the ice caps, but the fringe areas can be very challenging as the melting snows soak the land. Simply getting there takes expensive specialized off-road vehicles + someone that knows how to drive them. If you can move on snow/ice the whole way, you can rely on ski’s and pulkas, including just 1km of potentially snowless terrain involves planning to be able to carry everything you have. It complicates things immensely. Being Iceland, you could be faced with all kinds of extreme weather. Iceland is one of the windiest places on Earth and the ice caps are home to winds that can blow a chastity belt off a nun.
Well… “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome” (Samuel Johnson), so I sat down across my maps and started planning routes, gear lists… The skies opened up for us when Gunilla’s friend Jón from Amazing Tours offered to drive us in and out for what it cost him to run the vehicle. This enabled me to decide on Klaki basecamp and Hveravellir desert station as start/finish. Maximum amount of time on snow and then hopefully as little as possible no man’s land to cross without snow until Hveravellir where Jón’s ATV could pick us up. Icelandic Mountain Guides always encourages us to go on our own private missions and Hlynur happily supplied us with pulkas, ropes, and North Face VE25 tents. Once things seemed to be coming together we put the word out and Belgian Flo, French Flo, English Flo and Arnaud joined us. It’s good to have friends in Iceland!
Day 1: Into the veils 16km, 700m of ascent
Shortly after Klaki basecamp, Jóns customized truck started to struggle with the terrain and we decided to skin up our ski’s and start going. As we were slowly climbing the slopes, we could catch our last glimpses of the dark and barren mountains before the clouds wrapped around us as a veil. There was not much wind and all was quite peaceful, but navigating became increasingly difficult..
We literally couldn’t see any further than a couple of meters. In truth, the person leading had almost zero visual reference to anything. Everything else was endless white. Up, and down seemed to blend together. Pretty soon it became obvious that we’d need to keep a close eye on our GPS the whole time. Wind, uneven terrain, small differences in leg strength or even only using one pole to hold the GPS in the other hand would send us off course within seconds. I was struggling to find a rhytm of body movement while also staying on course. It took great concentration to keep us on course while still maintaining a good rhytm. Even with a compass duct taped to my wrist, it was easy to get off course. I did it for a couple of hours, French Flo tried his hand at it for a bit and Arnaud finished the day.
We found a nice flat spot, split up tent teams of 3’s and smoothly built our homes for the night. Before going to sleep, we talked through the next two days and I pointed out that we’d have to make the best out of tomorrow to get a head start on the difficulties of day 3.
Camping on an ice cap takes a little bit of discipline and teamwork. Luckily most of us have experience with this, so pretty soon burners were melting snow and a poo hole with a small snow wall was dug not much further. It takes about 2 hours to wake up, melt snow, pack up etc… so we agreed on a 9 am start.
Day 2: The long haul 33.5km, 390m up, 530m down
Gooooood morning endless white! Still on the inside of a ping pong ball, I wasn’t looking forward to struggling with the navigation again, so my mind was trying to find solutions. I needed to have something that would allow me to check bearings every minute or so, while having my whole body free to get into a steady rhytm of motion that would keep me moving comfortably on ski’s for hours and hours.
I remembered seeing veteran expedition guides like Maxime and Jón Yngvi using some kind of improvised chest harness in Fjallabak, so I duct taped the end of a snow shovel to two empty dry food packages and improvised a small chest harness out of a sling and a prussik. There was some laughing, but the setup turned out to work perfectly well and for the next few hours, I had my whole body free to keep a steady rhytm while still being able to see the GPS’s screen to stay on course.
We ski’d for hours on end and found a nice flow of steady motion. My mind was a mess of incoherent fragmented thoughts, but my body settled in flowing motion and we covered a lot of ground very efficiently.
Around early afternoon I could feel the sun burning my skin. The veils started lifting and I could see something that resembled a horizon. Seeing the endless white opening up to reveal a horizon of pure nothingness in all directions filled me with very mixed emotions.
As long as you can’t see anything, you’re purely focused on your body, navigation and the others. The clouds opening up felt like someone pulling away a blanket. All of the sudden you feel very naked and vulnerable. I became acutely aware that we were in a very remote place, far away from everyone and everything and that we depended solely on ourselves. I was hoping the clouds would stay, because being on the ice without cloud cover, means being fried like an ant under a looking glass.
As we were taking a lunch break, the clouds dissolved completely and we had clear views on our surroundings. We were straight East of Eiriksjökull and just West of a rocky outcrop in the ice cap around 1350m high. We were filled with optimism and people were smiling all around, but once we started moving again, I reminded us that we still had a long way ahead of us.
Act on what you know, not on what you assume. I had seen the weather forecast for the next day and it predicted rain. From the map, I knew that we had potentially max 11km from the edge to the ice cap to Hveravellir and that the combination of terrain, weather and exhaustion could make for a potent nightmare.
In guiding, everything revolves around conditions, terrain and the human factor. The conditions were good today, the terrain was good today, the human factor was reasonably good today. All three of them could potentially turn red tomorrow. So: set pace, keep going, use what you have. Hope is a bad advisor. Everyone agreed easily as the nice weather was giving us a positive mindset.
Late afternoon the veils came back and once again wrapped us up in complete nothingness. Group morale was being taxed as some people were still nearly untouched by the accumulated effort while others were starting to feel the strain. I felt caught between trying to pace the strong ones while motivating the ones that were starting to get worn down.
At this point we had almost skied 30km and there was still 1 – 2 hours to go before we would reach the point I had in mind. People wanted to stop and camp for the day, but my mind was on the difficulties that were to come and my goal was to use what we had today, to save us on suffering tomorrow.
Ultra runner Arnaud took over leading the second part of the day, everyone pulled through and after nearly 34km, we reached the point we had in mind. Even though one tent pole broke, setting up camp went smooth as ever and we settled in for the night.
Day 3: Stronger together 19km 650m descent
Next morning, we were greeted by wind and rain and more whiteout. It’s funny how even the smallest things turn into prepping for a space walk. Needing to take a poop in the morning involves putting on multiple layers, preparing slices of toilet paper (taking out the full roll on the rain is guaranteed toilet roll death) and thinking ahead of where you’re going to dig. A quick high five with the rest of the tent team, opening up the tent and then facing being punched by wind and horizontal rain as you find a good place to dig. I’ll leave the dropping the pants part to your imagination, haha.
Spirits were high and we were laughing and joking as we were taking down camp. After a good hour of skiing, the glacier started to slope downhill. We had great fun skiing down and got lucky with the amount of snow left on the ground. By the time we ran out of continuous snow, we “only” had about 5km of ground left to cover. The predicted rain wasn’t there, but the wind was a lot stronger than the weather maps predicted.
Before us now, was 5km of wetlands. Rocks covered with moss, intertwined with mud, small streams and mud, mud, mud. In between there were some old snow patches left and we’d learn to love them.
Even though it wasn’t raining, the wind was a curse. We’d have to put a heavy backpack, ski’s, ski poles and a large plastic basket onto our backs. So you’re basically an overloaded walking wind catcher trying to cross an obstacle course.
It was obvious to me that not everyone in the group was going to have an equally easy time trying to cross these couple of thousand meters, so I suggested we’d share the load and minimize the wind surface by building a carrying system with the ski’s. The next hours, we moved at a speed of less than 1km per hour. This was exactly the terrain and the conditions I had been warning about for days. We settled into helping each other put on packs, transitioning from carrying to dragging and fording streams.
Late afternoon, we finally reached the volcanically active desert station of Hveravellir. High fives, food, plenty of alcohol and hot baths in the natural hot pool until we were joined by Jón who came to bring us back to society!
This was a great adventure and it was only possible because I was surrounded by the best of friends and because we were logistically helped out by the best of people! On to the next mission!