We came to Iceland in the ambitious attempt of crossing the island on nordic skis. Traversing the highlands – an uninhabitable volcanic desert – in midst winter. A place that even during the summer months can only be accessed by special vehicles, since there leads no paved road nor bridge.
We started our journey in a glacial valley, Garðsárdalur, delimited on the East and the West by steep mountain slopes that climb up to the altitude of the highlands. Following this valley to the South, towards the source of the river that divides it, we would reach an accessible pass to the highlands. The landscape was treeless, the ground covered in stones of all sizes mostly coated in moss. Some small bushes and tufts of grass created a bumpy surface. All this covered in a thin layer of fresh snow, that had fallen in the previous days.
The conditions weren’t too favorable at the start. It was really windy, in fact our tent poles bent during the first night. Furthermore, the terrain was rough and stony, without any path to follow. The snow, that usually flattens all type of ground in winter, was almost entirely absent drastically increasing the friction of our pulks – the sleds we used to carry our equipment – on the ground. We have been told, that we encountered the warmest winter since the beginning of weather records. Little creeks that supplied the river down the valley with water lay in our way. It was time consuming to cross them since over the years, they created deep trenches by flushing away the soil. We struggled to proceeded and advanced much slower than anticipated. Also, being near the Arctic Circle, caused the disadvantage, that in this season we had only few hours of daylight to seize for walking.
As we continued things seemed to be changing for a better. After the second night, there was no wind and it snowed enough to permit us to put on our skis for the first time. As we woke up, the birds were singing. We skied along the flat shore of the river we were following upstream, allowing us to cover a greater distance with ease. That evening we celebrated New Year’s Eve with hot tea, a chocolate bar and the glimpse of a dim aurora. At that point we weren’t expecting it to be the calm before the storm.
As we started the next morning – our goal for the day was to reach the highland – the terrain slowly started getting steeper. We had to procced along the river, that had decreased significantly in size since we were now near its source. Using snow bridges eventually we had to cross from one bank of the creek to the other several times.
Meanwhile, the wind rose and was getting stronger. It lifted the powdery snow up in the air reducing the visibility noticeably – from time to time we couldn’t see further than the tips of our skis. We were forced to put on our ski-goggles to protect our eyes from the flying particles. The constant howling made it difficult to communicate. Even when standing right next to each other we had to shout to make sure that our words wouldn’t just be carried away by the wind before arriving at the receiver. Suddenly, a gust of wind lifted one of our pulks blowing it away for several meters upon some stone nearby. Considering that we started our trip just several days earlier we still had most of our food and fuel supplies in our sleds, making our pulks 35-40 kg heavy! This was no isolated event. The pulks got tipped over and over by the wind. It impeded our movements and turning over the pulks costed us time and force every single time. We barely proceeded under this conditions.
At about 4 p.m. there was no sign the wind would have stopped anytime soon. In contrary, it was getting stronger and the sun slowly started to sink below the horizon. At this point we realized we had to search shelter for the night. It was already too late and we had walked too far to return safely to the emergency hut we passed on the way. Furthermore, our tent was no match for the wind. Without enough snow to build a snow-wall the exposed tent would not have endured for long.
Our only option left was to “save our strength and dig a shelter in the snow”, as the Norwegian mountain code suggests. We shoveled a hole just big enough to fit us both lying next to each other in the little snow there was. This already provided a comforting cover from the wind. However, to give us shelter from the windblown snow we secured a bivy-bag inside the snow-hole, using our skis as dead-man anchors for preventing it from flying away. We secured our pulks and crawled into our improvised shelter. Now that we escaped the wind, we finally slipped into our sleeping bags to keep warm and started restoring our energy supplies by eating some of the all organic cereal-bars from Forestia.
The night seemed to take no end. Repeatedly we had to push away the snow that the wind accumulated upon us on the other side of the thin fabric. And every now and then we had to shovel free the entrance to ensure proper air circulation. It seemed like an eternity in our sleeping bags alternating between disturbed sleep and shear boredom, it doesn’t take long before the warmest coziest sleeping bag starts to feel more like a straitjacket. With the violent noise of the wind perpetuating and the cold wet fabric of the bivy-bag sticking to our faces it wasn’t easy, however, to rest properly.
In winter time the nights in Iceland are especially long. But eventually, the first rays of light broke the darkness and in that moment the wind ceased – everything became silent. We crawled out of our shelter and for the first time we had a clear sight of our surroundings. Clearly, we could see the edge were the highlands started – less than a kilometer away, but nonetheless out of our reach. The storm had changed the landscape: most of the snow had been carried away.
All of you who have spent a night in a bivy-bag already know that it is a wet matter. And since clammy down compromises its insulation capability it was an undisputed decision to fall back to the mountain hut we had passed the previous day. We headed back, following our tracks from the previous day. The snow was scarce and our skis stayed once again tied to our sleds. Shortly before we reached the hut the wind returned. It was a fight not getting tipped over on the last few hundred meters – we even had to use our ski-poles for extra stability.
We hung our gear in the hut for drying. With our satellite communication device we checked the weather forecast. The prediction: a short time window of one and a half days before the stormy winds would have started again. Enough time to reach the highlands… but what then? Sooner or later we would have gotten into an unpleasant situation, again. This time much further away from civilization.
This was not the right season nor the right year for our undertaking. We did not want to put ourselves or the search-and-rescue team deliberately in danger. So, we decided – after about a week in the backcountry – to return to civilization for regrouping and overthinking our possibilities. After considering several options for shorter ski-trips in the southern regions of Iceland the snow and weather conditions did not seem to become favorable anytime soon. Consequently, we fully switched to plan B – going on a road trip!
We ditched our skis and pulks at a friend’s place in Reykjavik and started without losing time. After all there are many beautiful locations to see. Being on a road trip offers many opportunities to explore nature. Due to the freedom of mobility given by your own vehicle you can visit very different places distant from each other in a short amount of time, since you can travel way faster than by foot or on skis.
On our trip we stopped at many memorable places. For the sake of brevity however, I will only mention the longer excursions we did.