I believe it’s the treks that don’t go as planned that make the best adventures, and the best for story telling. Welcome Contributor Joey Holmes to the blog today. She talks about an epic trek to Iceland that did not go as she saw it would. And it left her yearning for more outside her comfort zone.
Hiking in the UK makes me no stranger to just getting on with it, regardless of the weather. So when a bunch of friends and I decided to hike the Laugavegur trail in Iceland in August a few years ago, we were pretty confident that even the changeable Icelandic summer conditions would be a breeze compared with winter hiking in the UK.
The trail is 77km (48 miles) in total, starting from the magical moonscape that is Landmannalaugar in southern Iceland. It skirts around the edge of the mighty Eyjafjallajökull, (the volcano that erupted in 2010), and finishes on the south coast at Skogar with the most spectacular waterfall to reward you for your hard work.
During our bus ride from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar we heard whisperings of bad weather setting in. But it was the end of August, so we’d be fine, right? Sideways rain is no match for us hardy Brits! Nevertheless, we kept our nervous anticipation to ourselves. We were doing this hike, whatever the weather.
Most people get to the start of the hike and settle in for the afternoon to enjoy the buzz and excitement around the campsite, then set off the next morning. But we were on a schedule. With the bad weather clearly catching up with us, we decided to take our chances and get going late on in the afternoon. Later that day wouldn’t be the first time we questioned our decision to crack on regardless. The calm of the multicoloured moonscape fast turned into a white wind tunnel that eliminated all sense of direction, making navigation a challenge to say the least.
It was on this first day, sideways sleet stinging our faces, that we stumbled upon the grave of a lone hiker who, only a few hundred meters away from the safety of the mountain hut, could walk on no more. The reality of our ‘adventure’ started to sink in. And when the hut warden outright refused to let us pitch our tents in the storm, we accepted the offer of a warm, dry night in the hut without a second thought.
But despite the sobering start, and a tougher than expected first day, we were all buzzing, and delighted when were informed that the trail had been closed shortly after we set off. We’d heard stories of it being a very busy trail – understandably so. It is like nowhere else on this planet; spectacular in its beauty and uniqueness. And we got to enjoy all of that otherworldliness (almost) all to ourselves.
The Laugavegur trail is the most popular trail in Iceland. The terrain is generally fairly moderate, and the huts aren’t spread too far apart. On a couple of days we took our lunch break at a hut and then continued on to the next one where we pitched our tents and settled in for the night. But what makes the trail so special to me, is the variety in the landscape. One day you’ll be trudging across a vast desert of black volcanic rock encircled by almost fluorescent green conical hills and mountains. And the next you’ll be cutting steps in the deep snow on the side of a mountain whose peak can’t be seen for the dense clouds that cling to it. Wide river valleys dissect the trail, and multiple river crossings, in often fast flowing waters, prevent any risk of the monotony of walking from getting the better of you.
We planned to only hike for four days, stopping at Thorsmork, 55km from the start. But we were loving this place, and the challenges that came with the crazy weather, far too much to stop there. So after assessing our rations, and re-fueling at Thorsmork, we decided to carry on to Skogar and hike for two more days and one more night.
On we walked. Up a mountain with incredible views of the sea, and down again to cross a vast river valley. We spied an arctic fox, also looking for the most sensible place to cross the torrent. And settled into our tents on what we thought would be our last night on the trail.
But this storm was not through with us yet. And what should have been a fairly straightforward last day, up another mountain, between two volcanoes and down to the sea, turned into an unexpected extension of our already amazing adventure.
The first half of the ascent out of the river valley was lush and calm. Serene and spectacular with dramatic drops and views to die for. A tough trudge but nothing compared to what was to follow. As soon as we reached the plateau up top, it was as though someone flicked on the wind tunnel switch again. But this time it was supercharged. The sleet was full on snow, the terrain off the plateau very steep, and the gusts, at times, petrifying.
The going was slow, the light fading, and as the conditions seemed far from improving, we made a group decision to make a detour to the nearest hut and hope that it was open. Thankfully it was. And we managed to get to it just in the nick of time: one of our group had become very cold. Usually the strongest and fittest of the group (by far), she had slowed and become very quiet. Whilst we cooked up a feast with whatever rations we had left, and buzzed from the excitement of the day, she crashed out and slowly thawed out to the warmth of the fire.
The morning after, the sun graced us with its warming presence for the last stretch – only a hop skip and a jump down to the coast and a very welcome meal at the cafe there.
Despite being pushed to our mental and physical limits, our emergency ‘bonus’ night in the Icelandic wilderness was what made the trip for me. It was unplanned, exciting and scary, and it brought out the best in all of us. It reminded me of the power of nature. Of the weaknesses that its power uncovers in even the strongest amongst us. But it also reminded me of the fire that it ignites in those who are willing to dance with it. And ignite a spark it certainly did. It was that wonderful trip that re-kindled my desire to adventure more. To step out of my comfort zone and to seek out adventures in everyday life, no matter their scale.
I have been fanning the flames ever since.