YET Everest Award Winner 2013
– Youngest Crossing of Iceland
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
Every Icelander we spoke to claimed we are crazy to cross Iceland. A good sign in my mind a bad one in James’s. When talking to a policeman on the plane, I told him of our adventure and in return he laughed commenting on the optimism of youth. Then in a serious tone stated “we have to rescue a lot of fools from the highlands. Don’t get lost!” My adrenaline was raised and I was relishing the challenge although fear of the unknown set in. James while not showing it (A true Downside boy) later told me how he was bricking it as well. What we were set out to do was untried, being the Youngest Crossing ever of Iceland. Many questions lay ahead … Would we get on as friends after 24 days living in a tent together, having only each other as company for days on end. That being only one of many questions unanswered.
Our plan was straight forward. We would walk from the south coast, over the infamous Eyjafallakoull glacier and volcano, which reeked havoc by creating the ash cloud in 2010. We would then enter the dreaded highlands northwards before arriving at Lake Myvatn. There we continue north to reach the sea before heading up the coast to the very North tip of Iceland, 40km from the Arctic Circle. Overall, this meant 600km of Walking, 4 food drops and 24 days walking, no washing and two 17 year olds living virtually on top of each other. How hard could it be?
As we headed north into the heart of the glacier, our backs screamed for relief and this was only carrying 3 days of food, later on we would be carrying 6-9 days worth. Our bags included video and camera equipment, maps, personal locating beacon and other emergency kit to say the least. Only we had 23 days left. Thoughts entered my mind that this was going to be hard and very dangerous. I feared I had picked a challenge to large, but yet there was no turning back. The only way was North. After, a crushing 10 hours of walking, with no training, we simply laughed especially as we had only moved a tiny section of the map in comparison to the whole trip. Humour in the face of adversity would keep us going. James later told me how that first day was the hardest day of his life so far. It was a real wake up call to both of us.
As we pushed on in the early hours, Iceland search and rescue called everyone in due to storms; we hunkered down in our tent and hoped it would not last until the next day. Even though this was our second day, we had to already face numerous obstacles, both mental and physical ones.
The next day with a storm raging and one packet of nuts each to last the whole day we set off. In hindsight, I had broken the golden rule of adventure, listen to the locals they know what to expect. A blizzard emerges us, and yet still we move upwards and upwards deeper into the mountains. The wind was so powerful it was blowing us around, thus we developed a comical hunched back-crawling walking style. James shouts how far away the emergency mountain hut is, I lie telling him it’s near. In reality we had 12 km to battle through. This was the first time I had contemplated death on an expedition. We pressed on, staying still meant hypothermia. After reaching the hut we discover other walkers (they had sensibly stayed inside) and had packed spare emergency food. After the initial shock of our entry they are even more horrified to find we have no food. We are given mash potato, bread and chocolate by the warden, they all advise staying but James and I had a mission which was to reach the refuge of the hot springs at Landmannalagur. Such is the hospitality of fellow mountaineers.
After arriving at landmannalagur, we realise realistically carrying 9 days of food would slow us down from our 30km days dramatically. I race to post a food package, only catching the bus as it was leaving. We had learnt our lesson, do anything to make life easier. We now had 6 days food to carry, yes. After a day relaxing in the hot springs with the previous day’s drama forgotten, we meet a Frenchman who had attempted to walk from the North Coast to the South Coast. We learned he had failed, due to the depressing battle of solo walking when not seeing anyone for days on end. He spoke of the highlands as a type of hell, in which nine days of unrelenting black volcanic desert awaited. This was a place not for the faint hearted.
We enter the highlands. The rain pelted and the icy wind bit. The rain lasted for days on end, this meant our waterproofs just stopped working and every inch of our bodies was soaked to the skin. This consequently meant that I developed chaffing, and then the inside of my legs started to bleed and James lost the feeling in his hands due to wet gloves. Yet, as our exhausted legs dragged us onwards, and we struggled to keep up our moral in such a desolate place, life became so simple. In such extremes you forget all your worries, there was no need to argue like all family and friends occasionally do at home over the pettiest of things. Our lives had simply become a matter of shelter, food, water and warmth. We craved the simplicity of the expedition. All I thought and dreamt about was our little refuge at the end of the day in our warm tent, which acted as a haven offering security and comfort. However, our hopes were lifted by waking up to a blue sky and sun. We forgot how Iceland never makes life easy, on came the constant battle with the midges. Midges would try to fly into every gap in your body, eyes, ears and mouth. Midges would fly into your mug and food by the dozen. We wondered why God had created such pointless creatures; this was when to my amusement James decided to pursue Theology instead of English as a degree. Hunger became a new concept, we were constantly hungry and quickly losing a lot of weight, to the extent our trousers and shorts had to be held up by string. The expedition was simply breaking down our bodies far faster than the rate they could mend themselves. The days get longer, and we recover less. We have entered eternal exhaustion. Burning 5000 calories and only eating 2500 worth, what a weight loss program. The hunger got to such an extent I would eat as many midges as possible for extra protein. The mental battle would increase each day without seeing another human being, to keep our moral and humour up we would create new games such a ration top trumps. This included comparing the nutritional value of our freeze dried food. To our amusement this would make us feel happy and delighted at both winning (and having more calories) or just being able to talk instead if enduring the endless black volcanic desert. As the hunger increased, we dreamt of food, my favourite dream being endless oats in oats world, in which I was according to James making hmmmmm noises. We both made a list of all the food we would love when we got home, such as Philadelphia and salmon. What was most driving us on was our rest day marking the near end of the highlands and extra food packed specifically for that rest day. However, sandstorms stood between us and our rest day, the sand destroyed all the zips in our tent and plastered us with sand which covered our eyes entered our noses and mouths. James resembled the thousand yard stare, the Highlands had taken their toll.
Disaster: Our food drop has been lost. The very thing which drove us on over the last days has been lost. The food package contained enough food for our rest day and four more days. After battling through the hostile and ferocious highlands, it is human error that threatens our whole expedition. We arrange for a monster bus/truck to buy food however this means we have no food for a day and when already so hungry after 9 days of unrelenting weight loss and walking, this dampens our spirits. Yet, again other fellow walkers all contribute food, however not knowing when our food will arrive I opt to save it. James being so hungry has a tantrum, it hurts me to make the decision but it is the right one in the long term, even though James won’t talk and listens to his music. In the end with the food lingering in the tent, we both make up and decide to eat it regardless. Food has never tasted so good, even better we meet the first Englishmen on the trip who gives us two beers, although he jokes at least we’ll die happy being drunk in the highlands.
By the way the food bought after our food drop disaster cost £70. Mad, why is everything so expensive in Iceland.
The expedition is back on track with difficulty. The food arrives and we set off, however the day after the rest day always seems harder. The expedition is now enjoyable; we swim in the viti, a volcanic crater filled with geothermal water, now this is why I chose Iceland. Amazing. Although banned from swimming I climb down a very steep slope now with the attitude of being mad, bad and dangerous to know. Our levels of fitness are now incredible; we are lean, mean walking machines.
Every adventure, I have been on in my life so far I have met people to will go out of their way to support you. We meet such people from Amsterdam, who after hearing our story gave both moral support and physical support regarding food. Such hospitality builds into positive thinking; it was great to meet other like minded people who can relate to our positives but also our negatives. What was an even greater surprise was when reading the visitor book; we found an account by Will Copestake. Will has been someone who walked a similar route and made a tremendous effort to help us achieve our goal. To see his entry is a massive boost. We eat 1kg of pasta plus mash potato and cous cous. So full I have never felt so sick, but it is nice not to wake up with stomach cramps from hunger. To bide time I learn from my experiences and draw up the perfect expedition menu for future expeditions.
We are officially out the volcanic desert, beer, burgers and human beings meaning civilisation. Yet, I look back at the simplicity of our existence in the highlands with joy. However, for James nothing beats free wifi. News comes in, firstly that we have raised 2000 pounds after hoping to raise 500. This is a magnanimous achievement, and drives us on. Secondly, we both receive many messages of encouragement from both family and friends. James is transfixed by facebook and is delighted people have not forgotten him.
Like every day after the rest day this one was the one of the hardest out of all the days. Our bags were alarmingly heavy being 30 km nearly twice my body weight. We had to cut across mountains to reach water at the lake. After finding our way through, we find ourselves looking over the lake, which is beautiful. The only problem is that there is no way down to it. Therefore, we have to back track hours to get down to the lake. After finishing the day we were exhausted, disillusioned and simply fed up. It was 9 o’clock and we had yet to cook and set camp. However, our campsite is so desolate few if any people have been there; once again nature tells me how insignificant I am compared to the world, nature and the universe. We leave the lake to walk 16 km in 3 hours to reach Icelandic TV people at Dettiffoss waterfall; it is strange to having a deadline after uninterrupted walking. The reporter is very good looking and I laugh at James reaction, she was excellent and interactive with us making the interview very realistic and accurate. It is strange at the time for us to have people interested in what we were doing, because all what mattered for us was that we continued North.
Once again, I am given a sign of my personal insignificance compared to our surroundings, when I set my eyes upon the most powerful waterfall in Europe, called the Dettifoss. This is why we came to Iceland. We see constant amazing waterfalls and rapids, the most amazing scenery. Later in the day I develop heat stroke and we run out of water, consequently I feel very faint. James constantly checks on me and when we find water, runs and collects it to allow me to hydrate meanwhile he pours it over me to lower my core temperature. I reflect on my choice in choosing him as an expedition partner and conclude his mix of humour, concern and initiative plus a very good level of fitness makes him the perfect expedition partner, hopefully he will develop a love for the freedom of adventure and use its harshness to add to the greater experiences we receive in life. I hope he will accept future adventures and not see them as a struggle.
The end is neigh. We see the sea, we have crossed Iceland. However, we still have to reach the very northern tip which is very frustrating, but will make the trip even more special. No pain, no Gain. Road finally, 30-40 km days are easy now, we power along averaging 6.5 km an hour. To our amazement we find huge pipes under the road with clear running water and rapids. I foolishly go down the rapids which were very shallow and to James amusement whack my bum a number of times.
55 km in one day, to finish. We both agree to push on ahead knocking two days out in one, the feeling is exhaustion, relief and joy. After, seeing the lighthouse, which marks the endpoint, we both have the most exhilarating feeling overcome us. We are beyond crying, the only thing is we still had 8km to go. Those last 8km lasted forever; we both were tired, sore and drained, however once we arrived it was simply heaven just to touch the lighthouse. As I confirmed our ending by touching the building a month of memories flowed through me, none were regrets. We lit a fire and cooked on a hot stone heated in the flames, I contemplated on the expedition, and decided I could not have picked a better friend and expedition partner than James Hobbs; we had created a bond, a fellowship.
“We came, we saw, we walked.”
Many thanks to everyone for supporting us and especially donating money. We had raised over 3000 pounds for Mary’s Meals, 2500 pounds over our aim. I would like to thank, my family especially my mother and James’s family for letting him join me.
A huge thank you goes towards our sponsors, Terra Nova equipment, Lowe Alpine, Robens and Expedition foods. They offered the best equipment there is to offer and without their support the whole expedition would have been jeopardised.