British Students Received Death Threats After Failed Adventure Across Iceland. We Hear Their Side Of The Story...
Four Brits took on a challenge twice as gnarly as climbing Everest and enraged an entire country. But do they really deserve the hate they got?
Last month, four university students set off on an epic mission - to traverse Iceland from north to south, entirely unsupported.
Armed with skis and towing sleds filled with gear, Charlie Smith (team leader and BMC Expedition Guide), Angus Dowie, Stefan Rijnbeek and Archie Wilson set off on the 250-mile journey. They wanted to make a documentary of their experience called The Coldest Crossing.
However, just days into their first attempt, the biggest storm in 25 years hit Iceland. Winds reached up to 160mph as they were pummelled with rain and ice.
Crossing Iceland in summer is no mean feat, let alone in the dark cold winter months where temperatures dip to -25°C and storms ravage the interior.
Belgian adventurer Louis-Phillip Loncke, crossed Iceland back in the summer of 2010 but has yet to cross the island in winter.
"I would put summiting Mt. Everest at a 5 [10 being the hardest], traversing Antarctica at a 6, and crossing Iceland in winter at a 9.5," he told Vice Sports.
It seems the trip was fated from the beginning after poor weather conditions and team member Dowie was taken home by Iceland's search and rescue service, ICE-SAR after falling ill with a lung infection.
A week later, ICE-SAR was called again when another member was suffering from frostbite on his toes.
The trip was officially called off in the last week of December after the group called upon ICE-SAR for the third time.
Not long after the team were airlifted back to safety, they were heavily criticised by local Icelanders for being under-prepared and overly ambitious.
People were outraged that the Brits used ICE-SAR, a volunteer run organisation that operates on donations, so many times without seemingly repaying them for the cost of the rescue. (The team are in fact donating profits from their film to ICE-SAR.)
Comments on YouTube on their expedition pilot video included the following:
Death threats were directed at the lads through social media. Even Icelandic MPs started wading into the debate.
Karl Garðarsson, an Icelandic MP for the Progressive Party, wrote on Facebook: “This is becoming an expensive joke. Isn’t it normal that the hikers in question pay for their rescue?"
In the past few years, Iceland has seen a significant increase in the number of tourists visiting the island, many venturing out into the wilderness on adventurous expeditions.
Another MP noted that trips like this were just “excessively expensive fun".
Are there too many people wanting to be 'adventurers' and putting themselves in danger in some of the wildest places on earth?
We spoke to team leader Charlie Smith and team member Archie Wilson about their thoughts on the fated mission, the backlash from Icelanders online and whether it's something they would attempt again.
Were the Coldest Crossing team properly prepared for this treacherous mission?
"Yes, 100 per cent," says Smith. "We had been preparing as a team for almost a year and I maintain we were all up to the challenge. The rumours and incorrect statements made on social media only perpetuated the wrong story of our crossing."
Online comments voiced concerns that the boys were too young and inexperienced to be taking on the Icelandic wilderness unsupported.
Wilson admits there were a few mistakes. "We wrongly calculated how long it would take. We thought a month but I think 40-45 days would of been more realistic."
Smith insists the team had enough experience in places like Russia and Africa to take on a mission of this kind.
Looking at their backgrounds, it's clear they are a sporty crew - collectively they have previously run the London Marathon, crossed Iceland on foot in the summer, been involved in Tough Guy runs, ski racing and backcountry touring in the Alps. But is participation in school-run CCF expeditions and running marathons enough?
Wilson admits that Smith was the only member of the team that had taken on a mission of this length and endurance before. "I have done lots of one to two week long expeditions in the UK. We all have very high standards of First Aid, but Charlie had the most experience overall as he had [crossed Iceland] before."
No matter your age, you are capable of doing incredible things
Both agreed the media had blown the facts of the mission out of proportion. "The story of “three British boys needing saving by Iceland" was sexier than the facts," said Smith.
ICE-SAR released a statement showing the facts of what happened on the mission. The service continue to show their support for The Coldest Crossing crew, reiterating that the boys listened and followed to their safety advice - in contrast to the media hype suggesting the boys were reckless and foolish.
Was the Icelandic community's outrage at the triple rescues an over-reaction?
"Very limited information was reported early on which painted us as reckless explorers who didn’t care about the consequences of our actions or the people of Iceland. That is completely not true," says Smith.
"We have been thrown into a political issue that runs deeper than The Coldest Crossing. Debate around whether tourists should be charged for search and rescue is ongoing - not just in Iceland but worldwide."
There was public outcry in North Wales this week when the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team had to rescue walkers that attempted to climb Snowdon on New Year's Day.
"We were in almost constant communication with ICE-SAR, mainly so we could pre-empt any problems and we could follow their advice punctually."
ICE-SAR project manager Guðbrandur Örn Arnarson reiterated this in a report on the mission: "To be absolutely clear the team was not irrisponsible [sic] and poorly equipped."
When the team were forced to abandon their mission for the third time, they were contacted by ICE-SAR via. satellite phone who sent a helicopter over to rescue them which was training in the area nearby.
"If you listened every time someone told you not to do something, nothing great would ever be accomplished"
When asked whether they would attempt a similar mission again, both students said yes with Wilson adding, "But somewhere warmer, not Iceland!"
"The entire reason behind doing The Coldest Crossing was to show people that no matter your age, you are capable of doing incredible things," says Smith.
"We aren't the best adventurers or explorers - but we have something we believed in and managed to make it a reality. It took months of hard work, dedication and perseverance but we managed it."
"If you listened every time someone told you not to do something, nothing great would ever be accomplished. Learning from this experience, we can go back to the drawing board. "
Ultimately the mission did not go as planned, but Smith is not deterred from attempting another. "It doesn't detract from our fundamental mission: to get more people outside. If the world wants young people to sit at home on their phones, so be it, but I don’t think that’s what the world wants."
"For all the negativity around this story, we’ve received just as many comments of support. People are excited and proud about what we did. We have to listen to that."