The First Day
Early breakfast at the Reykjavik hotel with my French speaking companions, then loaded into the old VW to the airport and a short flight to Akureyri. There we were met by our Icelandic guide Sveinn, who also happened to be fluent in French. A forty minute 4 wheel drive took us beyond the 'Impassable' sign to the base of the rugged highland slopes.
Now came the agonising way to start a trek across Iceland; in pairs up a steep and alternately rocky and boggy track we had to carry our pulkas laden with gear and ten days of food to ascend 500m to reach the snow. Then return to the bottom and do it all again with the other three pulkas. Then there was enough snow and grass that we could begin to drag our pulkas up the slopes before finally we could put on our skis, skins and packs and start ski-trekking the way nature intended it.
Climbing steadily, we lost sight of the valleys to the north and were surrounded by the snow covered highland landscape for the next ten days. Eight km's brought us within sight of our hut and the end of an incredibly strenuous day. Sveinn rehydrated our first evening meal which we ravenously consumed, with time for much French conversation which I of course could not follow.
The Second Day
After a simple breakfast in our small damp hut, we donned partly dry shoes and began a more straightforward 18 km's or so. Although visibility was poor at first, it improved slowly and we settled into a rhythm, six of us strung out in a line with pulkas in tow. Slowly we stepped our way along in relative silence and solitude, interspersed by short and infrequent breaks for a drink and the occasional bite. And so the skiing continued, Sveinn in front choosing the direction between exposed rocky areas. Following were Patrick and Solange (French), Isabel (Swiss) and Michel (Belgium). This of course, made for many conversations about who had the best chocolate, among other things. If my French was any good I could have joined in with support for the Australians and Scots, although I'm not sure what I could have boasted about.
Our second evening was in a much larger and drier hut, courtesy of the geothermal heating from the spring outside. This was also very nice to soak in but not so nice walking barefeet in the snow to get there! That night I set an aurora alarm for around midnight but it didn't take long looking through the window to see that the weather was still pretty grim.
The Next Day
Now it was supposed to get serious. 25 km's followed by a night in our tents. Although we woke to sunshine, by the time we had started the wind was increasing and the cloud settling in. We only made a couple of km's before Michel's ski binding broke, the screws working loose under the stress of a stiff plastic boot. With not much other option, we struggled back to the hut with snow blowing more fiercely in our faces, to attempt repairs or call for help.
So instead, we spent a quiet day watching the blizzard settle in. Through the afternoon the wind continued, blowing snow at an impressive rate across the landscape in front us and sculpting the snow around the hut. Not a bad day to be stuck inside.
That night, again I woke at midnight and could see stars through the window and also the pure glow of aurora! Requiring a fair degree of motivation, I donned all my layers of gear, grabbed the camera and stepped out into the biting wind and swirling snow. While the others observed briefly from the window upstairs, I stayed outside and watched the show change, using gloved hands to work the camera and any available means to prop it up. While nice enough, this show produced only a few short periods of greater intensity - not much by local standards although the photo worked out great!
The Next Day
After rising early, with promised help on the way, it was 10am when four snowmobiles arrived in the sunshine with new skis. To 'save time' he said, Sveinn arranged for them to take us all for a ride, to make up the day we had lost since we could not afford to lose our contingency weather day so early in the trip. So I strapped on my skis and poles firmly to the pulka and jumped on the back, the driver from Akureyri happy to have an excuse to ride into the highlands on a Sunday.
The first few miles were enjoyable, but the further we went the colder my feet and hands became. Although we had been keeping a close eye on the pulka being towed behind us, at one point the driver came to a sudden stop and we could see that both my skis had been comprehensively snapped - presumably as the pulka had done a high speed flip behind us. Some Icelandic conversation between two of the drivers ensued, before Sveinn returned to investigate. My initial reaction was that this time-saving snowmobile journey would now set us back even further. However, with some optimism Sveinn said we would manage and that I could use Michel's repaired skis.
So we completed our snowmobile journey and put our skis back on for a river crossing at the edge of the Sprengisandur - a vast expanse of snow interspersed with a few rocky areas and small mountains visible in the distance. As the sunlight gave way to cloud and flat light, it became impossible to see the slope changes becoming more common at the far side of the Sprengisandur. But eventually we were within sight of the large Nyidalur hut and the end of a fairly unconventional day's ski touring.
Such a large hut proved almost impossible to heat and all evening and the next morning, we were breathing mist inside where the temperature was not much improved on the minus 5 outside. With the weather looking cloudy as we went to sleep, there was no need for an aurora alarm later.
The Next Day
With a long day ahead, we set off on our climb to 'Hope Pass' at just under 1000m. Climbing steeply with skins on again, and cloud intermittently revealing the mountains around us, we made our way steadily up. The strong winds continued to blow snow around us, especially at the higher levels, so we descended a long way before reaching a quieter spot beside a stream for lunch. With some 18 km's still to go, we crossed up and over one more ridge before reaching the huge, flat and snow covered surface of Hagongulon.
This became hot work as we crossed several km's of the first arm of this V shaped lake, through the monotonous lava field in the middle, then more km's across the next arm of the lake. Having completed around 25 km's, Sveinn decided it was a good spot to camp and so we set about putting up the tents for the first time - fortunately, it was a calm evening. Thick high cloud meant there was no point looking for aurora later, which would have been very difficult under the circumstances!
The Next Day
Although there had been a little snow overnight, it was calm but cold as we tried to eat enough breakfast for another long day ahead. This was a hard morning for me as I was struggling to keep up - partly because snow was persistently sticking to base of my skis - and frozen boots were now painful for my feet. Physically and mentally it was a tough period to keep plodding along rising slightly, through 12 km's of barren snow covered lava fields. My pulka felt heavier, but my determination was as strong as ever. Finally as we reached the highest point for the day, I was again able to keep pace with the group, at least now feeling I was struggling no more than the others.
With the wind increasing and feeling bitterly cold we found some small shelter for lunch, in the wind carved snow around a large lump of lava. With 13 km's still to go, the afternoon was going to be a long slog. Resolutely we marched on, stopping less due to the wind until eventually we reached a small pass in the between two hills and left the worst of the lava fields behind us. A few more km's brought us to the Jokulheimar hut, some rest and well earned food. With the wind forecast to strengthen further, we waited till morning to decide if we were going to move on or wait it out. Again, no need for a midnight aurora alarm.
Many times this day, while pushing on despite aching feet and stiff, tired muscles I thought how nice it would be to sit quietly at home - something those who know me know I never do!
The Next Day
With wild winds continuing in the morning and a better forecast for the next two days, we spent a quiet day recuperating in the hut, recovering from our hardest day so far but aware that there were even more km's to cover in the last few days.
As we waited for the weather to improve, I held out hope of aurora observing later. I woke several times during the night to mixed views of twilight, cloud and possible aurora through the window but it was never enough to coax me out the sleeping bag to brave the conditions outside.
The Next Day
Another early start with sunshine outside and we felt ready for the challenge ahead. We only had to step outside though, to realise that the sunshine was deceptive. The wind continued and the temperature was clearly colder than any previous day. Minus 13 by Sveinn's guess although we would have believed worse.
Instead of lava fields, we were now travelling down a long valley towards Landmannalauger. This was quite impressive at first, with the flat icy surfaces of the braided rivers and wind carved snow surrounded on both sides by rugged mountains. As we travelled on, the challenges of keeping hands warm and crossing frequent icy sections became more tedious. While we made steady progress at a rate faster than any previous day, the end of the valley did not seem to be getting any closer.
After 30 km's, but a few short of the ideal target for the day, we chose our campsite on the north side of the valley. With the nicely wind packed snow, we built a shelter for the tents and enjoyed the cramped conditions as the six of us shared our meal in one tent. That night, I again set an aurora alarm. Despite putting all my gear on just to stick my head outside the tent, it had began snowing so there was no need to venture any further.
The Next Day
In contrast to the previous day's cold weather and firm snow, this morning we woke to a fresh fall of wet snow. It only took a few strides with skis on through the heavy snow, to realise that 25 km's today was going to be a long way.
Even Sveinn described it as some of the worst snow he had seen, and although we were completely spent after 20 km's, the last few were even harder. This included stretches where we had to drag the pulkas across mud and along an exposed rocky track. Finally, dragging our pulkas along a steep hillside above a fast flowing stream and over a simple wooden bridge, we arrived at the impressive Landmannalaugar Hut and the end of our ski trek.
The Last Day
Although there was an option to explore on skis around the hut without pulkas, the previous day had completely shattered us and we were happy to wait for our 4WD ride back to civilisation to arrive. We knew that it would be some challenge even for well equipped 4WDs to reach us - but they made it look easy. After loading the gear, we were treated to some pretty impressive four wheel driving. We enjoyed the sensation of being carried and bounced along - satisfied that we had earned it after trekking from the other side of the country!
Tempted? Visit Icelandic Mountain Guides: Sprengisandur - Traverse of the Icelandic Highlands
Thanks to Patrick for the photos of me and a couple of others too!