We looked up. The clouds, rolling across the glaciers looked harmless enough. They formed and mutated through many shapes, giving us fleeting glimpses of the peaks behind. But unfortunately we could only gaze at the high plateau; our feet would not be able to follow our eyes. A storm was coming from the north, bringing snow and wind, and our traverse of the Vatnajökull ice-cap and descent of the Skjálfandafljót was over before it had begun. It was disheartening to give up so early. A new strategy had to be made.
A few days before I’d landed in Reykjavik. Making my way into town under a steady drizzle I was soon invited off the streets by some Polish workers for a coffee. When Fannar, our host for next couple of days arrived, I was able to drop my gear and relax. As we started to chat I found out that he had in depth knowledge of the glacier, as he had worked as a guide there. He was very helpful and shared his first-hand knowledge with us over the next couple of days. Once Greg arrived, we finished shopping for supplies, and then tried to find out how to pack more than 30kg into our bags. It was a challenge, but we managed it. The packrafts would go on the outside, fastened with custom made straps. Finishing late in the evening we checked the weather. There was some low pressure coming in from the north but relatively little precipitation.
A few hours of sleep later we hit the road. Fannar kindly dropped us off and wished us good luck. The sky was blue and we were optimistic as we stuck out our thumbs and waited for the first ride. With the amount of traffic going past it didn’t take long and a few lifts later we had passed Vík, about 180 km out from the capital, and passed the halfway point. Another long ride, and our benefactor dropped us off at Skaftafell. It was from here we planned to approach the glacier. Turning on my phone to check the weather for the next day I received a warning from the Safe Travel service that warned us about an incoming storm. We were told it would make travel on the glacier impossible for the second half of the week. At the campsite we asked the guides for more information but they were not very helpful. Dire warnings of self-supported travel meant that it was hard to get an objective idea. With the forecast announcing one last day of good weather, we decided to explore the approach onto the Skeitharárjókull glacier in case things got better. It would allow us to access the plateau but first we needed to find how to get around the melt-water lagoon at its base.
Rising early, we marched out across the flat expanse of the flood plain. The sliver of grey on the horizon marked the closest part of the glacier. To our right steep peaks rose up to the plateau from where perfect waterfalls fell between bands of snow. Arriving at an outcrop just before the Skeitharárjókull arm we were presented with a good view of the ice cap. There was indeed a large muddy river making its way around its base, flowing into a large lake. But following the advice given to us in Reykjavik we kept to the right flank, and scrambling along the scree slopes, walked parallel to the glacier. Soon we found a place to cross easily and put on our crampons. Somewhere beneath us a subterranean river gushed through huge caverns towards the plain, carrying sediment and ash.
With the steel tips crunching into the ice we admired the view that unfolded in front of us. I seemed to go on for ever, the rolling ice extending as far as we could see. It was interspersed with bands of black ash that covered the frozen ground. Advancing between crevasses it was easy going and although not flat, the average slope was almost flat. Some clouds started to form on the horizon, but we kept going to enjoy the beauty of such a desolate place. If the forecast didn’t improve, it might be our last chance on the ice for some time!
It didn’t. Back at the campsite we checked and found out it was in fact worse. A notice board had been hung up for drivers warning about extreme winds. We were despondent. With the bad weather arriving in a day and a half, it meant that if we waited for it to pass we would lose almost a week. This would in turn mean that any other delays would be critical and the fresh snow might hide the crevasses which we had so easily avoided that very morning. We might wait a week and find it impossible to advance. As the sky grew darker, so did our mood. After all the preparations it was hard to reconsider a new objective. After double checking gear, looking for maps, and hours spent on digital cartography measuring distances, height gain and steepness. Calculating average values per day. Looking at pixelated images to try and ascertain if it showed a crevasse or a shadow, a huge waterfall or a rapid. Looking up place names. After drawing up routes and waypoints, downloading them onto hard drives and uploading them onto navigation devices. Insurance checks, transport times and weight restrictions. Correspondence with sponsors, preparing photographic equipment and triple checking the gear. After all this effort in the weeks running up to our departure, meant we had visualised our objective. But. But this is what adventure is really about right? It is trying to dare and do something new, and searching for your personal limit between hard and impossible. If there was no possibility of failure, then it would not be an adventure. We had set ourselves a physical challenge in Iceland. In the end it turned out to be a psychological one too: to dig deep and overcome the disappointment. It was a tough decision and we chose to sleep on it.
Next morning, there was only one conceivable alternative that we could envisage. It was to keep moving, to head out again and get some action. We would make our way north and hike up Skjálfandafljót. This would mean we would see part of our planned itinerary, and we had all the information about the different parts of the river. Packing up, we took one last look at Skeitharárjókull and hit the road. Over the next couple of days we saw incredible landscapes, met kindly American drivers from every state imaginable (hi Kansas!) and camped in the rain. Finally, we waved goodbye to our ride at Godafoss waterfall, and having dropped off some gear at a helpful guesthouse, started hiking inland.
The rain was incessant and the landscape reminded me of the Scottish highlands. Birds that had decided to make a dash for a warmer climate were emigrating across the sky. They would remain a constant reminder during our trip that it was better elsewhere. We marched on through the sleet, happy that at least we could finally advance by our own means. Setting up the tent we were less cheerful as a couple of days of rain had taken its toll. To say that everything was wet is an understatement. Those that have camped in such conditions for several days know what it means, those that haven’t will find it hard to realise how insidiously the rain can be; getting into every dry bag, zip lock and undergarment. That night it snowed.
Continuing up the valley, we stopped at a farmhouse and were kindly invited in to dry and have a bite to eat. The owners told us that the winter storm was in fact unusually early and that they needed to get their sheep in soon. This information, backed up by an online weather report comforted us somewhat. At least we could put our progress so far partly down to bad luck rather that over-optimistic planning. With this information and much drier we set up camp that night at the beautiful Aldeyjarfoss waterfall. Having risen above the snowline, the white flurries mixed with the spray that rose from the boiling cauldron at the foot of the fall. We admired the spectacle of raw power before settling down. Camping in the snow was much easier, and we managed to keep relatively dry.
The Bárðardalur valley through which we had passed is the setting for the critically acclaimed film Rams, an Icelandic drama which of course is about sheep. It tells the tale of two estranged brothers that live side by side completely at odds with each other. We walked past the places where it had been filmed, and the farmers told us that it was their sheep that appeared on screen. One of the main elements of the film is of course the weather, which plays an important outcome in the ending scenes. It is of course best watched from the comfort of a warm sofa on a rainy day. This was something we very much looked forward too on our return! We also learned that technology has had the better of the traditional rettir or sheep gathering: it is now quad bikes and drones that help round up the fluffy animals.
From Aldeyjarfoss, the next step was to hike up onto the Sprengisandur, part of the inland plateau or highlands. Sometimes we would follow a mountain road, sometimes the edge of the river to check out potential waterfalls. We soon came across the unpronounceable Hrafnabjargafoss. It was one of the satellite images that we had decided not to descend. Seeing it in person confirmed our suspicions! The rocky, snow-covered landscape extended in-front of us, the rounded shapes on the horizon hinting at massive glaciers. The sun was shining and we made good progress. After a day on the plateau we descended towards the river that meandered through a plain of black sand. By losing some height we left the snow line that had receded all day above us. The solitude of our campsite in the middle of nowhere was perfect.
After scouting the banks upriver from our campsite we found the perfect spot to enter the cold flow. Protected from the wind which was blowing in from the south we unfolded the gear and inflated the rafts. Our backpacks were put into dry bags and sealed before being tied down on the bow. We used the same straps that had held the rafts to our bags. The paddle sections were clipped together and we approached the water’s edge. A ledge of black sand dropped into the current, making for an easy departure and we were soon in the middle of the river, watching the sides slide past us. It was a relief to have taken the heavy weight off our shoulders and let the water dictate our speed. Our only concern was to make sure we chose the main arm of the river, as the flat plain meant that some sections were quite shallow. The flat shape of the rafts meant that in most cases we could slide over the sandbanks, but in some cases it was a dead end. We progressed at a good speed down the valley, watching the snow melting on the hills above us. A squall blew in from the south and once again we pulled our hoods up, this time over our helmets, to keep out the rain. It was soon over and the steady rhythm of the paddles kept us going, down towards the huge waterfalls where we would have to change back onto land. When the time arrived the wind had picked up and we found out how annoying it could be to try and organise our gear in the strong gusts. Anything that was not tied down would be torn from our grasp. This meant never putting anything down and working together to do each task, one after the other. When finally everything was folded away, we checked the map and set off again, down the valley once again…
The choice of team members for any expedition is always critical and will have a direct influence on the outcome and success of the undertaking. Adventure diaries are often full of personal attacks and malcontent. Travelling with only one other person increases the risk, as there is no group dynamic to diffuse tensions or give feedback. Personally I have had both good and bad experiences with people I’ve spent a little too much time with. Even very good friendships can be strained or sour with the discomfort of a tight place and bad communication. Like the fictional brothers of the Bárðardalur valley or the characters form the Icelandic Sagas, any small slight can quickly add up and draw a disproportionate response.
With Greg, not having travelled before on our own for such a long trip, meant there was always a risk that we might not see eye to eye. A good habit therefore is to announce one’s faults from the very beginning, stressing how you may react in certain situations. One of my many annoying traits is to be extremely impatient both with myself and others. This can rub off badly on those around me. By communicating about this type of issue, it allows fellow team mates to be forewarned and take it into account (or not). Any fraying of the team spirit and eventual problems will of course be all the more apparent when things go wrong or not according to plan. The start of our journey definitely didn’t go ahead as we would have liked, but thankfully both during the worst days and later on we were able to work together and find the best solutions. With little friction and light heartedness it was much easier than what would otherwise have been a depressing situation. This in itself was a definite success and meant that the expedition remained a rewarding experience.
After our experience on the Skjálfandafljót, shorter than we would have liked due to the weather and reduced water level (the cold temperatures decreased the amount of melt water drastically) we decided to make the most of the Icelandic terrain for pack rafting and discover the most beautiful rivers we could. After hatching this new plan, we were ready for to go. Our paddles we ready for the next chapter!