I C E L A N D
Icelandic myth states that Gryla is a half ogre, half troll…witch. She has hooves, horns, fifteen tails and a few cheeky warts on the nose…hobbies include murder, being god dammmmnnn sexy & eating naughty children on Christmas eve. Obviously, my first question was is she single?! My second question was where do I find this fair maiden and culinary genius. So it was decided, I was heading for the Icelandic Mountains in search of love, hooves and soup.
Iceland has to be the most magical, other-worldly, inspiring, challenging and damn right life changing place I’ve ever visited. I honestly feel it’s insulting to call Iceland a country, it’s more accurate to understand this landmass as an entire planet. This is not simply due to the dramatically varying landscapes that seem to transform at every turn, but because many of these spectacular terrains you wont see anywhere else in the world. I’m not going to even attempt to describe these totally alien environments and I’m afraid my photos simply won’t do it justice. However, I can tell you Iceland is a bikepacking Valhalla, a country where the entire interior is made up of a network of well maintained dirt roads/singletrack that are simply perfect for pedal driven exploration. The F-Roads were largely created by the energy companies ( Iceland’s electricity is 100% renewable ) in order to service remote stations and bring power to the entire country. Consequently, these trails are well maintained and offer the bikepacker a superlative network of dirt tracks to explore the country’s interior. However, don’t be fooled into thinking these ‘ roads ’ are the easy option with eye watering climbs, ferocious river crossings, deep volcanic sand, no food ( unless you forage/hunt for it ) and some of the most unforgiving & unique weather conditions on planet earth. That said, if like me, you still want more of a challenge you can tackle some of the more extreme hiking routes and end up with Hypothermia…true story.
My original route involved a 240km ride to the start of the Laugavegur hiking trail, I’d then join up with the F-35 and cover 200km through the baron interior to the second biggest city Akureyri. After a day of rest I planned to head West and explore the iconic Westfjords before finally making my way south back to Reykjavik via the F550. However, it quickly became apparent that I’d need to reign in my expectations. I’m generally confident in my ability on the bike and able to set realistic daily averages but the weather in Iceland can stop you riding altogether.
Wind. If there’s one element that’ll leave you shouting out in frustration it’s this one. On several days I battled 35mps+ ( 80mph ) wind….but these are just digits, perhaps you need to envisage this. Gusts so strong that even pushing your bike requires every ounce of strength, pitching a tent without shelter is basically a fairy tale, oh you’re hungry and want to cook food…ha…say bye to your stove, fancy defying the laws of gravity…no problem…you can ride tilted at forty five degrees all day. I’m not sure where the phrase ‘ pi*#ing into the wind ' comes from….but in Iceland it’ll probably hit someone fifty miles away. That said, if you have the wind behind you ( which lets face it, never seems to happen when you’re bikepacking/bicycle touring )..oh…praise be to jet propulsion. At the start of my ride I battled wind for four hours to reach the American bomber on the Black Beach towards Vik before heading back the same way to join up with the Laugavegur trail. It took me twenty mins to cover the same distance that had taken me four hours earlier that day. One of the most common vehicle insurance claims in Iceland is car doors being ripped off…you’ve been warned! Needless to say, any human powered expedition in Iceland is completely at the mercy of the weather, which…by the way…has a habit of changing on an hourly basis! Consequently, I’d ensure you’re prepared for all seasons and allow plenty of time to complete your ride. One of the difficulties with Iceland is there’s simply too much choice, it’s hard to pick a route with so many options. I spent months trawling the internet…and at least 10% of that I was looking at routes, the rest of the time I was watching funny videos of cats & LOTR remixes. It became apparent to me that for many outdoor fanatics the Laugavegur hiking trail was absolutely essential to anyone hoping to experience the absolute best that Iceland has to offer and post-ride I have to concur.
If you do one thing in Iceland, complete the trail, it is a truly life changing experience and offers a sort of ‘ micro-Iceland ’ i.e. it’s an opportunity to enjoy some of the most iconic landscapes from all over the country in one compact ride/hike. I was riding during the spring and this was arguably too early to tackle the trail ( it was officially closed ) particularly with a loaded bike, but hey, I did it anyway. Thus, many sections were completely closed off due to deep snow, whilst melting glaciers meant river crossings were brutal….as I found out! This is not a trail for the faint hearted and I have to say that with a loaded rig it was unquestionably dangerous at points ( the ECR was particularly heavy due to the additional camera/videography gear/food I was carrying ). I wouldn’t recommend a heavy rig for such a technical route ( a second person would have made the trail much easier ). Nevertheless, I was able to complete approximately 90% of the trail before things took a turn for the worse.
I was warned by the few hikers I passed and rangers alike that I should not attempt the last mountain pass as conditions were simply too dangerous. This was a warning I did not take lightly as I’d already traversed sections that left me questioning my decision to tackle the trail. Thus, my only option was to take a remote 4 x 4 route used to supply ranger huts. Generally the prospect of following a trail like this would not intimidate me, afterall a bikepacker is generally able to tackle far more rugged terrain than most vehicles. However, I had spent the last few days battling numerous river crossings ( which had been far deeper than expected and extremely fast running ) and I could see on the map that this particular route was lined with them. At this point I was already exhausted after rationing my food to just 1500 calories for the past three days and desperately needed to stock up on supplies. This is probably a good time to point out Icelandic prices are very high…don’t expect much change out of £20 for a coffee and two snacks. I would strongly recommend marking ‘ BONUS ’ supermarkets on your map and ensuring you make them your primary supply points ( their prices are literally a third of everywhere else and they have a good selection of cheap/easy to cook calories ) or else you’ll end up spending a small fortune or going hungry like me. That said, on the trails I would’ve done some pretty seedy things for a Snickers bar…I’ve never been so consistently hungry on any ride. I decided to tackle the 4 x 4 track and assured myself that I’d raid the tourist centre at Landmannalaugar for food regardless of prices! These are the last two photos taken of me before the day of judgement, these hikers had been told my story at another ranger hut a few days later and kindly checked in to see if I was ok ( they also sent over these two shots ).
I had been warned about some of the rivers at the end of the trail being particularly challenging but assured that with caution they could be crossed. Unfortunately, within just a few hours of riding I was starting to feel anxious about what lay ahead as the ‘ minor ’ river crossings were twice the depth I’d been told ( freak weather had transformed the landscape ). The conditions became more and more severe, the rivers became deeper and more rapid until I was spending almost an hour at each crossing waist deep in glacier water. I’d usually do two crossings, one with as many valuables as possible in my small camelback and a second with the loaded ECR. The torrent was so ferocious that if any part of the bike touched the water the drag would knock you off your feet ( even in water below the knee it wasn’t safe to push the bike ). In order to get the ECR across I’d sit on the bank half in the water with the bike behind me, hold the front fork with one hand and the rear rack with the other and get it as high on my back as possible. I’d then gently shuffle with wide paces across the rocky river bed, gritting my teeth and fighting the torrent with every step. It took every ounce of strength to fight each river and they just got more and more insane. Eventually I’d eaten through almost all my supplies and turned to dried porridge oats and tots of whiskey ( needless to say after a few hours I was feeling pretty merry about the whole thing ). Food was one thing, but perhaps more worrying was the cold, I’d been in freezing water for hours…there was no shelter and the weather battered me relentlessly with torrential rain and wind. I was broken. My clothes were soaked and I daren’t change into anything dry until I was certain I’d crossed the final river. I couldn’t get warm, I felt so weak that I simply couldn’t ride fast enough to increase body temperature and soon I was shaking quite uncontrollably. Eventually I reached the last river, the one I’d be warned about and it was terrifying.
I spent an hour in the pouring rain trekking up and down the river trying to find a safe place to cross…but there wasn’t a single section below waist height. Eventually I worked out a sketchy route that made use of small islands dotted across the rapids. There was no option to do two trips this time, the river was simply too dangerous, it was all or nothing ( … ‘nothing’ being lose all my valuables…no pressure ). I took my position at the edge of the bank, squatted my bike up onto my back and slowly lowered myself into the waste deep torrent. It was terrifying. The strength of the water was like nothing I’d ever experienced and it took everything to stay on my feet. I shuffled at snails pace across the riverbed, reminding myself with every step that I had absolutely no margin for error. I made it to the first little island and lowered the bike to the floor. Unfortunately, sections that had looked doable from a distance were so deep at closer inspection that I couldn’t see the bottom. All in all, it took me almost two hours to cross and when I finally got to the other side I had to drag my bike up an 8-foot bank on my hands and knees. I had made it….I triumphantly shouted towards the sky and collapsed to the floor in relief. I spent five minutes laying in the pouring rain, exhausted but relieved. I finally got to my feet and began pushing the bike over the crest of the hill…and that’s when I saw it. A river so huge and ferocious it made the one I’d just crossed look pathetic. It took just one glance to know this one would actually be impossible, but by this point I was becoming desperate and simply wouldn’t accept defeat. The situation was made worse as I knew this was the last river I’d have to cross…I could actually see the trail head into the mountains on the other side. I trekked up and down the river shaking with the cold, angry, frustrated, hungry and becoming increasingly irrational. As I waded into the water I realised some sections I’d actually be out of my depth and the strength of the water dragged me downstream despite all my efforts to stand firm. Despite all this I began convincing myself it was possible to carry the bike across….it was stupid & dangerous. I finally dragged myself out of the water as the piercing cold and lack of progress confirmed I was trapped on this little island. I stood at the bank breathing heavily, the adrenalin starting to fade and it was at this moment I became painfully aware of quite how severe my condition had become. I’d be shaking for hours, my hands & feet were numb and I felt faint with exhaustion. I was trapped and If I didn’t improve my situation the consequences would be serious.
After years of riding you learn that in moments like this it’s all about ‘ damage control ' i.e. take assertive action to improve your situation. This can often be as simple as changing into dry clothes, making a hot drink or eating some food. Thus, I pitched my tent, ate my remaining porridge oats and began making road blocks out of rocks across the main 4 x 4 crossing. However, I accepted the chances of a super jeep to pass my sorry ass this deep in the Icelandic Highlands was pure fantasy. I took off my clothes, put my waterproof jacket/trousers over my bare skin ( knowing this would dry quickly ) and then put my soaking wet layers over the top ( this method allows wet layers to dry using your body heat without them touching your skin ). I got into my damp sleeping bag and huddled in the foetal position. At this point I started to conclude things were a little crap, but still managed to break a smile thinking back to joking with my dad about the pay out he’d get on my life insurance…whilst my little brother’s been after the ECR for years!
I was in and out of sleep for about six hours, too cold and uncomfortable to sleep, yet too exhausted to stay awake. Then I heard it; a deep rumble that cut through the howling of the wind. I almost ignored it, it couldn’t be. I unzipped a small corner of my tent and peered out into the rain and there it was. A huge Mercedes Sprinter Super Jeep containing two confused looking Icelanders, both staring curiously at my DIY roadblock. I burst out of the tent, half dressed, and staggered over to them. It looked like a scene from the Walking Dead…this gangly bedraggled creature, hands outstretched…in their position I’d have immediately gone for the headshot. The guy in the passenger seat lowered his window with a distinctive ‘ what the f#*k is Gollum doing riding a bike ’. Now, I always try to impersonate this next bit to my friends, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pull if off without having onset hypothermia again ( so yeah…don’t worry there’s a good chance I’ll be able to film it during my next trip! ). I tried to tell the guys what had happened, but my teeth were chattering so much I couldn’t get a word out….I mean…it must have looked absolutely hilarious ( something later confirmed by my rescuers! ). Fortunately they sort of got the gist, told me to get back in the tent and loaded the bike and gear into the back of the truck. I squeezed into the back of the van and was given immediate medical attention…a beer and fist pump…god I f#*king love Iceland. I was taken to a remote ranger hut, given a tonne of fish paste on crackers and collapsed into a bunk for the night. I spent the next couple of days working alongside my rescuers in the Icelandic Highlands resupplying remote ranger huts and more importantly making two awesome new friends. The day after being rescued almost every F-Road in Iceland was closed due to the severity of river crossings and it dawned on me that I would’ve been trapped in any direction I’d have travelled. The journey back to the ring road was perilous and even our £90,000 Mercedes super jeep struggled ( the rangers told me the rivers were the deepest they’d ever seen ). I finally returned to civilisation, said goodbye to two good friends and sat in a petrol station for hours coming to grips with everything that had happened. I was weak and unmotivated, my original route scrapped and the weather outside was savage. I can honestly say that alongside having the flu in the Black Forest I was as close to giving up as I’d ever been. The thought of getting back out on the trails, battling the elements and asking so much of myself physically was a daunting prospect. However, I knew I’d regret going home early and thus plotted a new route, got an early and night and the next day I was back in the saddle. I head approximately 180km to Geyser where I joined up with the F-338 and headed West towards the Langjokull glacier and the famous F-550. It is at this point that I’ll let the photos take over and complete the most epic journey of my life. Enjoy.
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Unfortunately I have to cut the journey short as the cold killed my camera batteries and I continued to document the ride through the lens of my Leica M6 35mm ( this blog will be published in the coming weeks ). As always I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who takes time to follow my adventures and I truly hope this inspires others to explore Iceland as it’s the most incredible country. It’s been an epic year living on the road full-time ( follow my vanlife blog and overlanding build at Ancient Syncrology ) and I have a full year of adventures planned for next year so stay tuned.