Icelandic challenge

Last year, 17-year-olds William White and James Hobbs became the youngest people to cross Iceland. Their expedition took them 600km from the southern-most point of Iceland to the northern most point. The walk was unsupported and the intrepid teenagers carried everything needed to complete the trip. And they chose Robens for their sleeping bags and mats – after all, such an adventure demands a good night’s sleep if you’re going to continue to perform day in and day out. This is their story… 

Are we ready? After completing other trips, such as my 800km walk to Santiago de Compostella, I had dreamt of this and was raring to go. However, this was James’s first expedition. Had I thrown him in the deep end too quickly? Twenty days to do 600km in the Land of Fire and Ice was a major challenge.

Every Icelander we spoke to claimed we were crazy to cross Iceland and a policeman I met on the plane 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, later told me how he was bricking it as well. What we were set out to do was untried and many questions lay ahead...

Our plan was straight forward. We would walk from the south coast, over the infamous Eyjafallakoull glacier and volcano that played 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, four 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 three days of food. Our bags included video and camera equipment, maps, personal locating beacon and other emergency kit. Thoughts entered my mind that this was going to be hard and very dangerous. I feared I had picked a challenge to large, but there was no turning back. The only way was north. 

After, a crushing ten-hour walk 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 us both.

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 takes us and yet we still 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 and I lie, telling him it’s near. In reality we had 12km to battle through. We pressed on, staying still meant hypothermia. After reaching the hut we discover other walkers who 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.
After arriving at Landmannalagur, we realise realistically carrying nine days of food would dramatically slow us down from our 30km days. 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 six days food to carry. 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 and 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 and our waterproofs just stopped working – every inch of our bodies was soaked to the skin. I developed chaffing and the inside of my legs started to bleed. 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 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. 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. 

Our hopes were lifted by waking up to a blue sky and sun. We forgot how Iceland never makes life easy and on came the constant battle with the midges. We wondered why God had created such pointless creatures; this was when, to my amusement, James decided to pursue a degree in Theology instead of English. 

Hunger became a new concept and we were quickly losing 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 5,000 calories and only eating 2,500 worth, what a weight loss program! 

As the hunger increased, we dreamt of food and made a list of all the food we would love when we got home. We were driven on by thoughts of our rest day and the extra food it would bring. However, we were hit by sandstorms of such intensity that the sand destroyed all the zips in our tent and we lost our food drop that contained our rest-day treats and rations for the following four days!

After battling through the hostile and ferocious highlands, it is human error that threatens our whole expedition. We arrange to buy food but still have none for a day. Again, fellow walkers contribute and the expedition is back on track with difficulty. The food arrives and we set off. The expedition is now enjoyable and we swim in the viti, a volcanic crater filled with geothermal waters. We are officially out the volcanic desert – beer, burgers and human beings mean civilisation. Yet, I look back at the simplicity of our existence in the highlands with joy.

Our bags are now alarmingly heavy – mine is 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. We have to back track hours to reach it and arrive exhausted, disillusioned and simply fed up. It was 9 o’clock and we had yet to cook and set camp. 

We leave the lake to walk 16 km in three hours to reach Icelandic TV people at Dettiffoss waterfall; it is strange to having a deadline after uninterrupted walking. 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. This is why we came to Iceland. We see constant amazing waterfalls and rapids, the most amazing scenery. 

The end is near. We see the sea and we have crossed Iceland. However, we still have to reach the very northern tip. Road finally, 30-40 km days are easy now, we power along averaging 6.5 km an hour. To finish we both agree to push on and knock two days out in one 55km day, 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 last forever; we both were tired, sore and drained but it is simply heaven just to touch the lighthouse. A month of memories flowed through me, none were regrets. 

See their video here: