Walking, Hiking & Trail Running

Hiking in Iceland | Tackling the Gruelling Traverse – A Photo Story

When three ordinary guys set off to cross Iceland unsupported, they had little idea of what lay ahead...

Words and pictures by Neil Irwin

What do you think of when you think of Iceland? Waterfalls surrounded by papping tourists? Rugged scenery? Icy sea waters perhaps or even the infamous DC-3 plane that’s featured on many an Instagram feed?

How about a desert? Perhaps not the first thought that springs to mind, but that’s exactly what I encountered when I traversed Iceland from the north coast to the south. I was travelling by foot in a small group, unsupported. It was a barren, wind-swept, ash-filled landscape, where you can encounter all four seasons in the space of 15 minutes.

Our crew was just three ordinary guys wanting to do something extraordinary; Ben is a police officer, Andy is an outdoor leisure pursuits manager and I’m a photographer. All of us had relatively few long-distance hikes under our belts, but saw this opportunity and thought, “Why not?”

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the tourist trail. I want to be able to do something different and unique, while also seeing parts of a country that the average person wouldn’t. Traversing Iceland fit that bill perfectly.

It was no easy feat. Our packs were stuffed to the brim with absolutely everything we would need for our 16-day yomp. No resupplies, no extras – what if you’ve forgotten something, then that’s just tough luck.

We could only carry the bare essentials needed for hiking – which, in my case, included only two pairs of underwear and the second were designated for the flight home in over two weeks’ time. You’d be surprised how far you can get on just one pair.

There was no rest from day one. We had our schedule, which included the approximate daily distance that we needed to cover to reach the end on time. We had allowed one day of contingency should we encounter any problems along the way, as we had already booked our return flight.

As soon as we touched down, we jumped into the hire car for a four-hour road trip to Akureyri. Once we arrived, we had to load ourselves up like Sherpas and hit the main road heading inland to rack up some needed kilometres before the day was done.

Thankfully, as it was June, we at least had the midnight sun to help with motivation throughout the journey – I certainly wouldn’t like to even think what an undertaking would be like in the cold harshness of winter.

Pavement pounding wasn’t exactly my idea of an expedition, but it was our only way to get to where we needed to be. We followed the main road from Akureyri, before diverting off road and heading up on to the plateau where we’d be for over a solid week.

This road offered us our last sights of civilization, passing farm after farm with sheep pens and inquisitive horse-filled fields. Little did we realize what lay ahead of us.

My mind was not prepared for the barren landscape. I had researched what we’d be letting ourselves in for, but actually seeing it was a whole different story. I’d never experienced such desolate scenery, so it was a complete shock to the system.

Iceland is a sparsely populated country and we knew our chances of seeing anyone else in the up on the plateau would be extremely remote. The scenery was otherworldly – like a scene from ‘Star Wars’.

Crops of rock were poking through the glacier in the distance, and some days you couldn’t distinguish the clouds from the glacier – they appeared to merge into one solid mass.

Some days were harder than others. Being blasted with strong gusts of wind in the face, while holding your head down staring at the ground wasn’t my idea of fun. Then again we knew it wouldn’t be all fun.

Even more annoying was the ‘sludge’, as I liked to call it – a combination of ash, silt, sand and stones. You would never know if your next step would sink or not, sapping precious energy from an already calorie-deprived body.

The ‘sludge’ was also annoying when it came to trying to find a spot to camp. Having a tent that relies on firm ground in order to have structural support was not ideal to say the least, and we found they would flap horrendously in the wind. Not fun.

The weather was certainly a treat, because it was simply unpredictable. One morning, we awoke to the patter of snow with two inches lying on the ground amongst a whiteout. This was in stark contrast to the previous night’s moody, cloudy skies.

It wouldn’t be uncommon to have all four seasons pass in the space of an hour either – we’d watch, then be engulfed by passing rain and snow showers, before it opened up to glaring sun.

All this walking was taking its toll on our bodies. Pursuing a minimum of 25 kilometres every day to keep to our tight schedule began to slowly wear us down. We all had problems – Ben had some should and back problems due to his pack, Andy’s pace slackened as days progressed and I developed tendonitis on my Achilles about half way through.

The impact of being completely self-sufficient was also evident. All three of us were craving certain foods and we could actually see the weight dropping off us. I, for one, craved steak – a rich, juicy sirloin with blue cheese sauce and duck-fat chips. It’s amazing how vivid your imagination becomes when you can’t have something. Dehydrated expedition foods were a welcome respite at the end of a long day, but were by no means filling our calorie deficit.

Before the trip, we each approximated an appropriate balance of meals and calorie intake, compared to weight and calorie exertion. It was a tricky task and one that I had to learn the hard way. With lunch consisting of some protein cookies and nuts, hunger was a constant companion.

Walking down off the plateau and in to the green surroundings was a lush sight. We had seen nothing but stones, rocks and ash for days, so to see such vivid colours, bushes and trees certainly put a smile on our faces.

It also meant a return to civilisation, as we began passing farms again and, soon, through small towns. It was surreal to have converted vans with 4×4 tyres and bus-loads of tourists pass us on their day trips, after being on the plateau with nothing but ourselves and our thoughts.

Our final day meant only one thing – the sea. We had dipped our boots into the sea on the north coast as a sign of starting our journey, which meant we could only finish if we did the same on the south.

Going around an old, run-down house at the end of the track and across a small grassy patch, we found our way on to the beach. Leaving our packs, slowly but surely, we wandered over to the pounding waves. After taking it all in and coming to realise what we had achieved, there was just one thing on our minds – beer!

To read the rest of our March ‘Space’ issue, click here.

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