Glacier Days. Iceland 2000 part two.
This is the second instalment of a three-part account. The first can be found here; https://ie.bebee.com/producer/lovin-a-cold-climate-AV5LwOHE1AVz
The journey around the southern Icelandic coast ended at the foot of the Hoffellsjökull glacier which flowed off from the great mass of ice that is the Vatnajökull. By getting the passengers to walk the last couple of kilometres on the rocky track, Pete was able to drive all our gear to the base of the mountains and save a lot of carrying. Once everything was unloaded, he set off to return the now empty Corolla to the car rental company in the nearby town of Höfn while Colm and I set up camp and had a look around.
From the comfort of a Scottish living room this had looked like a pretty straightforward access point to the main icecap but it didn’t take long to see that the heavily crevassed and broken glacier was no use to us at all except as a, pretty damn gorgeous, piece of scenery.
Fortunately for us, Pete came back armed with the information we needed. The guy who gave him a lift back to the trail end had advised him to head up the ridge to the right of Hoffellsjökull and had told him that the best descent point was to ski down the right-hand side of a glacier called Skalafellsjokull. Cheered by this info we ate, drank tea and prepared to start getting our gear up onto the snow.
Load carrying is an inescapable fact of many mountain trips and I would have to confess that it is a torture that I quite enjoy in a masochistic kind of a way. Everyone carries the traditional ‘lazy man’s load’, so over-packed rucksacks weigh heavily on tired shoulders and every vertical step is a real effort but the time passes in a sweaty, slow motion montage and after some hours of quality trudging we find a place, just below the snowline where we can ditch the first load of gear.
The views down over the glacier and surrounding area are immense and as we head back down for another load the lightness on our backs is matched by that of our mood. We bring up the last of our stuff next morning and look for a way up onto the snow. The first two routes prove pretty much impassable especially with big loads and I start to worry that the trip is at a premature end. Fortunately, Colm and Pete find a tricky traverse to a gully that leads out onto a flat summit. Instantly my gloomy outlook changes for a more positive one.
Hauling everything up the loose rock of the final gully was a bit nerve wracking at times but eventually we were all happily ensconced on the snow. The tent was pitched, skis out, pulk loaded and brew in hand. From our elevated position we surveyed the land below us as true masters of the universe.
This had been a few days of effort, difficulty, problem solving, despair and achievement and we had done it with good humour and comradeship. Having reached this point I ate, drank tea, wrote in my diary and went to sleep. The effort had caught up with me and I just zonked out instantly.
Setting out on skis the next morning we made slow but steady progress in murky conditions which deteriorated enough later to force a stop and an early camp.
The following couple of days saw similarly poor conditions and at one point we were confined to the tent for thirty-seven hours while waiting for the weather to improve. It really was both an event and an utter nuisance to have to leave a snug sleeping bag and go outside for a pee.
Time was passed by reading, playing cards and drinking tea. The latter of course, guaranteed that there would always come a time when a strained bladder necessitated another clumsy, disruptive exit from the tent.
At the moment the wind and snow stopped we dashed out, packed the pulk and headed off; delighted to be out of captivity at last. Our joy was temporary however as Iceland was only toying with us and the stormy conditions came back with a bang.
Paaradoxically this proved to be the most productive day yet because having started we were happier to continue skiing for hours rather than stop after thirty minutes. We ploughed on and on, always staying within sight of each other in the limited visibility and stopping rarely for a hurried snack or drink. Eventually as the dull day became a dull night we called a halt, pitched up and crawled into the tent.
Everything was wet. Everyone was tired. On this, the last day of May we had earned our night’s rest. I listened to the wind and snow and hoped that June would bring easier conditions.
June did bring easier conditions. The wind dropped and slowly the cloud lifted and we could, for the first time see the Vatnajökull in all its overwhelming glory. It wasn’t that it looked big. It’s just that it made us look so very small indeed.
By now we were getting better at covering the ground on our cross-country skis and even the pulk had become easier to tow. Our wet clothing had frozen in the cold of the brief sub-arctic night and before it could dry it would need to defrost. Even with items spread over the top of the pulk it still took a couple of days for things to dry properly. The miles slid by and we started to really cover ground. Navigation became easier, skiing became easier and now we were really getting the hang of this lark.
I had been concerned that having three fairly bolshie personalities in close quarters would prove harsh over the course of this trip but everyone played their part and tried bloody hard to contribute. The slagging was entertaining without being vicious and we worked pretty well together. I think we all felt that having come through some trying conditions in the first half of this journey we were due a more positive second half and so it proved.
As we climbed up to Breiðabunga, the highest point on the central icecap, the sun shone the air was still and we were having a ball. The map for this area was, quite literally a blank sheet of paper with one tiny contour line in the bottom left-hand corner. There were no crags, no forests, no rivers. In the absence of features there was just the immensity of the glacier, the silence and a brightness that went right through you.
As we climbed, mountains began to appear in the distance. Snaefell and Kverkfjöll rise into distant view along with several others. Kverkfjöll had been a possible destination but the time lost to weather and our unfamiliarity with the descent route meant that it would have to wait for another day.
Come the day and we hang a left and head downhill towards Skalafellsjokull. The sun is bright but below us we see a layer of cloud into which we are slowly absorbed. Along with the murky visibility we now also get the usual change for the worse in the weather. It was likely that we have another day of travel before we had to be concerned about possible crevasses but we were moving fairly slowly and carefully all the same. Inevitably the wind and snow pick up and we settled in for an early night in the tent.
During this latest enforced halt, we discuss strategy for the descent. Pete wants to be able to see the glacier in front of us and I would prefer to descend during the night when any snow bridges would be more likely to be frozen. In reality neither of us is likely to get our wish and there is a good chance that we will end up navigating blindly down to the tourist lodge at the foot of the glacier.
We spend the next day in the tent, indulging in the traditional leisure activities of times such as these: Eating, sleeping, farting, reading, playing cards, farting and nipping awkwardly outside to ‘use the facilities’
Pete looks out to check and sees that the cloud has cleared. The wind is still stiffish and it is pretty cold but we can see where we are going and that is enough to get us out and about in double quick time. The first part of the Skalafellsjokull turns out to be an absolute cakewalk and we make good time down a smooth, even slope. Despite the ease we stay fairly close and when we spot the first crevasse we stop and rope up.
Skiing can be a bit tricky sometimes and skiing roped together is often very difficult indeed. Three skiers on a rope, all carrying heavy backpacks and towing a sledge had all the makings of a titanic disaster, especially when one of the three hadn’t skied in a couple of years and the other was a complete beginner at the start of the trip.
Whether down to sheer good fortune or pure natural talent the two guys ahead of me on the rope were brilliant. No entanglements, no pile ups, just steady, safe progress which continued right up to the point where the surface gave way under Colm and he dropped into a thinly covered crevasse. Pete and I stopped and dropped and Colm went no deeper into the hole than his ribcage. Not only did we not panic but Colm could probably have done with Pete and I laughing a bit less and getting him out a bit more quickly.
As we dusted ourselves down and prepared to set off again, I dared to wonder if this would be as easy as our anonymous, early informant had suggested. We could only be a couple of kilometres or so from the lodge and the slope had been pretty simple for the most part. This thought was suddenly and unexpectedly vindicated when the sun broke through the cloud and the lodge appears in front of us, less than a kilometre away.
We ski elegantly down to what turns out to be a damn good café bar in which we take up delirious residence until after midnight. After two or three expensive beers, food and lots of not expensive coffee we step, less elegantly back onto our skis and head drunkenly along a roadside gully until the snow gives out and we start to walk the last fourteen kilometres back to the roadside.
By now I am stumbling downhill purely on autopilot. My head is clouded by alcohol and fatigue and my body hates me. At first, I rest occasionally and wait for the others to catch up but eventually, stopping for any reason just becomes a no go. The dirt road down, swerves and turns and whenever the end seems in sight it takes another huge dogleg and drags me away from my goal. I grow to hate this road I am walking.
Eventually, soon after six in the morning I reach the main road, lie down and fall asleep on the dirt only to wake up an hour later freezing cold and wishing I had my sleeping bag with me. The other two arrive around seven thirty and abuse me greatly for buggering off and leaving them to themselves before we all get into our sleeping bags for an hour of rest before the bus to Reykjavik arrives.
One of the things I love about expeditions is the simplicity of life that is imposed on the traveller. Whatever the stated aims, the ground rules are simple. Don’t die. Cover the ground as efficiently as possible. Eat enough. Rest enough.
Any other worries you may have tend to melt away. The electric bill or the bully boss won’t kill you so become not important.
Don’t die. Eat, sleep, move.
Everything else was superfluous. From the Arctic to the Camino the rules stay the same.
Don’t die. Eat, sleep, Move.
Only the method of locomotion changes. At this point we had undertaken an adventurous journey, battled through difficult terrain and coped with adverse conditions. At the end of it all we had managed to not die, eat, sleep and keep moving. As an added bonus we had managed to spend a lot of time together in very close proximity without getting stressed and aggressive. This had turned out to be a pretty decent team and now we could look forward to something different for the last few days of the trip.
The other parts of this story can be found here on Bebee;
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