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Running across Iceland in search of adventure #BlackIce

by Robert Britton
Sunday 4th October 2015
Tags  Robbie Britton   |   James Elson   |   Iceland   |   BlackIce   |   Lyon Equipement
 
 

Run247 columnist Robbie Britton and James Elson are running 330km across Iceland, North to South, meeting the challenges of the terrain, the weather and the temperamental Helga head on!

If you asked why there will be two small British chaps running across Iceland this week then you'll probably get a short, but honest, response, because we can.

In this day of "adventure tourism" you can do almost anything if you have the right money and pay the right company, but does it really mean you're on an adventure?

James Elson and I are off to run 330km across Iceland, North to South, and it wasn't until the night before that James even saw a map of the route. Neither of us have visited the stunningly beautiful island before and it could all go terribly wrong. This is one of the things that excites me about the trip.

Having an element of risk and the unknown, uncertainties that could derail even the best made plans, namely mother nature herself, is something that makes me think of all the young men who signed up to Shackleton's Endurance expedition, not knowing what may lie ahead, but certain of real adventure.

In this day and age we're never going to go to undiscovered lands, but we will venture into the unknown, across the black volcanic Highlands of Iceland, surrounded by glaciers, on our Black Ice expedition across Iceland, but with the confidence that we have the best kit around for whatever the hinterland can throw at us.

Working with Lyon Equipement means we get the support of brands like Julbo, Petzl, Exped, Katadine, LightmyFire, La Sportiva, Ortlieb, Optimus and many more, making sure that what ever the weather throws at us, we will be ready for it and able to cope.

Expeditions and ultra marathons alike, are not about sprinting to the finish as quickly as possible, but moving from obstacle to obstacle, overcoming adversity and moving forward, without losing motivation. If you can suffer well, then you can run an ultra marathon and if you see it as part of the fun then you're in a good place.

Where ever you go for your adventures, don't be afraid to try something new, to walk a trail unknown or step out of your comfort zone. In fact I'd actively encourage it. Some of the best times I've ever had have been when I'm completely out of my depth and across the #BlackIce landscape of Iceland, I'm sure James and I are going to have some fun suffering along the way.

You can follow the run on Twitter with the hash tag #BlackIce

#BlackIce

Photos © Iain Pender / Dan Castro

DAY ONE - THE TROUBLE WITH HELGA

For 38km it looked just like Scotland and then for 35km it looked like we were on the moon, with a tasty headwind. Expedition #BlackIce is well and truly underway and James Elson and myself ran the first 73km with about 2500m of uphill and coped well, which is more than we can say for Helga, our support vehicle. She had a bit of mare.

Starting in Akureyri in the North of Iceland, we kicked off from a inlet where the coast ended and had a good bit of road running to start the day, even getting to run with a local called Meredith, whilst being chased by a kitten. The weather was good for running, if not pleasant, with some wind, rain and cloud, but the scenery was fantastic.

Large ridges rose up either side of us as we ran up the glacial valley floor, becoming more and more tempted to divert onto one of these epic looking climbs, but resisting to leave it until the next trip to Iceland, which will inevitably happen.

As the ground beneath our feet changed from tarmac to hard packed trail, we knew we had reached the start of the F821, one of Iceland’s many highland roads and our route up to LaugaFell today. With lots of rocks, fords and actually becoming a river at one point, it was testing for James and myself, but also hard work for Helga.

Born in Japan, Helga is a Suzuki Vitara that we rented upon arrival and we gathered early on that she was an experienced traveller. At 40km she had burned through a quarter of her tank and, although we were packing extra fuel, a mini crisis meeting was held on the side of the road. We did not have enough for the crossing.

We decided to move on and make our decision at the day’s end, Laugafell refuge, which was closed for Winter but would hopefully provide some shelter from the wind. The subject of petrol was now taboo and James and I moved on up the major climb and into the moonscape.

Many people had told us how desolate the Icelandic Highlands are, but it still didn’t prepare us for what it is like when we got there. From leaving the last hamlet we saw not one person, only two birds and one Orange Fanta bottle top, the sum of all the litter we came across that day.

The wind had picked up and was blasting at about 50km/h and, like an angry South Park bear, was coming straight for us. Heads down, we soldiered on, often having to make do with the company of our own heads as the wind made conversation very difficult. Personally I think James was a little relieved for the respite.

Not knowing exactly how far the refuge at LaugaFell was, but sure it was between 70-80km, we eventually got to a sign, a little bit cold and tired but excited to find out our fate. Was it a ten or a four? Delighted to see a 4km to go sign, we dropped the hammer and posted some 8 minute miles. Downhill. Super fast.

We got to LaugaFell seeing four buildings and James and I were excited. Even more so when we got there and Ian and Dan were not in the car and no where to be seen. The incoming storm could be avoided inside for sure…

They were in the toilet block, the only open door they could find as it had all shut for winter, but a veritable palace for our tired bodies, especially as all the water came from a hot spring so was pleasantly warm. Plenty of room to chuck our inflatable beds on the floor as well.

Helga had decided that after reaching LaugaFell she still had three quarters of a tank and would in fact go the whole way now that we were off the rough uphill section and on the well packed highland roads. We may have to watch this one though, she’s a bit temperamental.

After Trek and Eat freeze dried dinners all round, some fizzy pop and an interesting Goji Berry and Bee Pollen Tribe pack (Didn’t the bees steal the pollen from flowers?) we got the maps out to plan for the next day and then hit the hay. A tough but satisfying start to our adventure with plenty more fun to come.

DAY TWO - THE HAIRDRYER TREATMENT

If you ever want to feel what our day two was like then get on a treadmill, grab a hairdryer, turn it to cold air and point it in your face. For five hours. Then have someone throw some small bits of ice cold water at you for the last couple of hours whilst you eat a variety of Chia Charge products. It was wonderful.

Starting off with a cup of tea in a natural hot spring is really how every Sunday should start, before running a long way on an isolated trail. It’s like we planned it this way, except for Dan jogging towards us in the nude. That was…different.

We set off from Laugafell to Nyidalur, one refuge hut (closed) to another, before seeing what was there and deciding whether to push on or find out if luck was on our side again and we could get inside. The hut that is.

Two things happened instantly upon setting off, one being the wind started blowing into our faces at about 25-30 km/h and the other was starting our day with a river crossing, thus making the feet a little chilly. The feet were no problem but the head wind was really hard work.

There’s very few highlights to a day running with your head down across a moonscape like Iceland, but still, the views of distant ice fields were captivating, drawing you closer with the desire to explore and adventure.

It was pretty early on that we decided that the hut at 51km would be our stopping point today but upon arrival it was clear that we wouldn’t have run past this oasis in the storm. Not only was it “Raining sideway” into our faces, but the hut was open, had beds, a working kitchen and an extremely helpful chap called Sebastian, who was hiking 100’s of km across Iceland, having already skied the route we were doing in Winter in nine days. Check out more at www.sebastienlhorty.fr He also makes awesome waterproof backpacks.

We set about getting ourselves comfortable, I ate Chana Masala number three and we enjoyed a team meal with Sebastien telling us about his adventures and showing us all the different outdoor products that he had made himself, from sleeping bags to waterproofs and backpacks.

Weather reports came in from the outside world and an early start was planned to avoid the worst of the incoming storm as, although we love nothing more than trotting along in the pouring rain and wind, it can make it much more miserable to have a wee. Dan even managed to piss in his own face, a real life defining moment for him.

 

That said, whatever Iceland throws at us next, be it brilliant sunshine or a wild blizzard, the adventure will only continue, stopping in our tracks at more stunningly beautiful landscapes and, if the weather does really shit out, at least it will make for an interesting story…

DAY 3 - SNOW HAS LOST ITS APPEAL

#BlackIce

Photos © Iain Pender / Dan Castro

Usually I'm a big fan of snow, but when it's below zero degrees, the wind is blowing (although not in our faces for a change) and your clothes are a little damp, snow is less fun.

We had prepared for all eventualities out here in Iceland and snow was a distinct possibility from the start, but kicking off day three, the 54km from Nyidalur to Versalir, the weather was spot on. Well, it was below freezing point but only just.

Moving along nicely in shorts and waterproof jackets, the little bit of snow blowing around wasn't an issue at first, quite pleasant really. Much like at Christmas, the snow lost it's appeal after about 10 minutes, mainly because James was getting pretty cold. He is a wee man.

The rest of the day was spent with snow and rain consistently being thrown at us. It wasn't huge amounts but after five hours you get a little damp. Moist maybe.

Knowing full well that we'd lucked out with indoor accommodation for our first two nights we were resigned to a tough time trying to warm up when we stopped but Dan and Iain had found an unlocked barn. It was bloody fantastic.

Plenty of room to pitch up our big Exped tents over a floor largely covered by cow shit, I had slept in worse places, albeit when slightly less sober. 

With a snow storm coming in tonight and rumours of a cave we could sleep in 40km down the road tomorrow, #BlackIce is moving along to plan. Well, to the loosely organised thing I called a plan, that seemed like gross lack of preparation to everyone else.

Despite shivering for a large part of today, there was never a moment that wasn't enjoyable. James and I really are either masochistic or just plain stupid, but there aren't many places we'd rather be.

DAY FOUR - THE ELUSIVE CAVE

Any night that you sleep on an insulating layer of hay and cow shit is a good one in my books…

Waking up in a barn at the closed Highland Hut of Versalir we could hear the wind outside, just like the big bad wolf, trying to blow our house down. The prospect of going outside to dig a hole for the morning poo was not a great one, especially as we didn’t have a shovel.

Putting off starting the day’s run into our new best friend, Icelandic headwind, we chatted to a journalist from Iceland Magazine and tried to dry our still soaking wet clothes by jumping around in them. This did not prove effective.

French Inventor/Hiker Sebastien had told us about a strange man-made cave that is 40km from Versalir and we were intrigued. Partially because it sounded really weird and also because it was only 40km away and the weather was as good as we had come to expect.

Heads down, down jackets on and faces covered, we started our day into the wind again. Hail and snow storms intermittently slapped us across the face and left us off the trail for a bit. It is actually very difficult to navigate whilst staring at the floor with your eyes closed.

With the second half of the day mostly uphill, we were a darn sight more prepared for the weather than the last few days, seeing the squalls fly across the landscape and either hit or miss us. There were slightly fewer outfit changes than days gone past as we actually discovered how to look after ourselves in the Icelandic Highlands.

The road was a single line to the horizon, splitting the sea of black around us. One particularly strong snow blizzard had us losing the trail and heading in the wrong direction but the bright colours of our support crew gets us back on track. Soaking wet and freezing cold, we don’t want to get lost out here.

Getting towards our finish for the day we still have no idea about Sebastien’s Cave and nothing on the horizon resembles his description. What looks like a large grey wall is the only thing there and as we get closer it becomes apparent that it is tapered at one end, open to the elements but sheltered if you’re lucky. We are not.

People have camped here before, we can tell from their rubbish. We have a quick break, change into dry clothes and talk about a plan. It’s too windy outside to pitch the tents and there isn’t enough room in the cave. Inspired by intrepid explorer Bear Grylls, we get into the nearby Highland Hotel. We didn’t plan on such luxury, but we didn’t plan on a constant headwind either, so it seems like a good balance. Plus more people could tell us what a stupid idea this trip was…

DAY FIVE - COLOURFUL WEATHER MAPS

It was supposed to be short and sweet.  A run from the cave to Landmannalaugar, with its hot springs, before we did our big day through the Laugavegur trail. We’d need to be fresh for that beast.

Iceland, as usual, had other ideas. The first five kilometres were the hardest part of the trip so far and I continually questioned if we could finish in such conditions. The headwind was there with a vengeance, blowing straight at us, with hail, rain, gravel and anything else it could find to fling in our faces.

James knew we would turn South shortly and it would be blowing across us, but I thought we were in for a sufferfest of a day. We would make it, but how could we do 55km in the bigger hills the next day if the wind was like this? Would I be strong enough?

As quickly as the rain squalls hit us across the Central Highlands, my mood changed as soon as we got out of the wind’s full force. It had been penetrating deep into my soul beforehand, but now I couldn’t care less about the weather coming from the Atlantic. We would make it and nothing could stop us.

The bleak landscape had given birth to more rugged volcanic terrain, with proper snow topped mountains and volcanoes in the distance, winding through a lava field, the distance ticked away easily before the wind had another go in the final five kilometres, but we had already won this battle. Nothing matters when you’re that close to home and Chana Masala number six of the week.

The forecast was some way from perfect for the next day, in fact it was downright ridiculous. The weather maps had a whole new range of colours that we hadn’t seen before, just to tell us that it was going to be “really shit”. An early night, after a visit to the geothermal pool, was in order.

Although the shortest day so far, this was mentally the toughest for me. Distance is not something that frightens us, but the weather is something we cannot control. The hut warden warns us that no one travels the trail in Winter, but books us into a hut further down anyway, so it can’t be that difficult…can it?

DAY SIX - SHOULD HAVE GONE THE OTHER WAY!

In hindsight running from across Iceland from the North Coast of Iceland in October was a bad idea. We should have started in the South and had this bloody headwind behind us the whole way. It would only have taken about 14 minutes for the whole trip that way.

Day six saw us tackling the most beautiful, yet geographically challenging part of our adventure so far. The Laugavegur trail runs for 55km through mountains, lava fields, volcanos and glaciers. It was also the site of Thursday’s severe weather warnings for Iceland.

Whilst the rest of the island looked relatively pleasant, the map showed a rainbow of colours over our route for the day. Rain, wind and freezing temperatures were on the menu, but we’d already had our fill this week. We had come to run across Iceland though and this wasn’t going ot stop us.

Setting out in full waterproof gear with enough kit to remain self-sufficient for a 48 hours if necessary, we got moving through a jagged lava field, steam rising from geothermal pools all around. The weather was strong, but early doors we felt comfortable. That was about to change.

Climbing up steadily in the first hour, we crossed a couple of snow field and got to our first ridge of the day. Before long James had hit the deck and I followed, the wind was literally blowing us off of our feet. We linked arms and decided to push on in the hope it would be more sheltered further on, knowing only 12km of the day was high up and dangerous.

Before we could reach the first hut the wind got even stronger, gusting well over 60mph and putting us on the floor each time. If we ran then the extra spring in our step would see us lifted along the ground. It was heads down and marching again, between wooden stakes that were 100-200m apart.

It was then that the cloud that had been hanging about 1100-1200m up began to creep down towards us. The cards were stacking up against our chances and neither of us was willing to gamble. High winds, pouring rain and zero visibility is a recipe for disaster and we didn’t want this to become an epic.

We took a knee and talked it over. There was no shelter to sit anything out and the weather was due to get worse as the day went on. Getting lost up here could be fatal and ultimately the decision to turn around, although disappointing, was the right one. We had only made 5.5km in over an hour.

The trip back to the hut was rapid, with the wind behind us for a change we felt what it would have been like to run the trip in reverse. At times I thought James might fly up into the sky like a kite but we both stayed firmly on terra firma long enough to make it back to Landmannalauger and a hot drink.

Upon return we heard from our Icelandic 4x4 driving friend that the rivers along our route were too big for even his massive jeep to cross, so the Krossa would have trapped us 54km along the trail, if we had made it that far. In reality we would have been stopped by the water had we made it across the high passes, so it was a blessing in disguise.

We planned another route to the coast on the F208, but that was closed due to record floods going from Iceland’s main glacier and the roads being washed out. There was one other possibility but it meant over 100km the next day, mostly along a road, but getting us into the sea. We could do it.

The weather may not have been on our side this time, but it has done what we hoped, given us a real adventure. The challenge now will not be overcoming the weather but placed physically and mentally on James and I, aided by the fact that the petrol stations all have pick and mix. It feels like we can reach the coast this way for sure. I’m sure Iceland has other ideas.

DAY SEVEN - FOOLHARDY, BORDERING ON RECKLESS

Iceland doesn’t really do Autumn in the Highlands. As soon as Summer ends, they call it Winter.

Foolhardy, bordering on reckless was how we had been described in the Icelandic press. It is just not possible to cross the Central Highlands in the winter months and the LaugaVegur trail had proved everyone right.

The route we had planned was a direct one from Akureyri, straight down to the most beautiful trail in Iceland for the grand finale. There were shorter routes to cross the island, taking in less hazardous environs, but that isn’t how we wanted to do this. We didn’t want it to be easy.

After being pushed to the ground by the wind on Day Six, we had to find another route. Rivers were flooding along our planned section and also on the next best option, another F road that was right next to the Skafta River, which had burst it banks in record glacial flooding. There was only the long way round.

If we wanted to finish within seven days, then it was going to be about 100km to the South of Iceland. All in one go. On road. We didn’t know if our feet and legs, battered and sore from the 260km beforehand, would be able to do it, but we had to try.

We set off early, hoping to make the most of the clear weather we had been promised. It was below zero but there was supposed to be no wind and rain. More adverse weather would be hard to swallow.

The snow flew directly into our faces as soon as we stepped out to start the day. Iceland is a cruel mistress. The headwind felt slight compared to what we had become accustomed to but it was definitely there. Like a friend that no one likes but who always turns up. We put our heads down and started to click off the distance.

As we moved across the last of the vast Highland landscape, down our final dirt road for the trip, it was like being in the Australian Outback, but for the glacial mountain ranges on the far horizon. Plus it was freezing cold.

The weather was less relentless than in days gone by, but we could see the squalls coming across at least 20-30 minutes before they hit us. We only had one road but we willed the clouds to miss us or change direction for no reason what so ever. Surely we deserved a little less of a battering today Iceland?

Tick followed tock and we kept moving along, soaked through by a rather aggressive hail storm but in high spirits due to the approaching coastline. All we could see was single lane road for miles ahead but we knew the end was coming.

Our pace stayed consistent throughout the day, a healthy mixture of Chia Charge and sugary energy food getting us through the day as low points were tackled head on. A highlight was each of our support crew taking a turn to run with us along the way, a really nice way to end the journey, even if they did highlight how much we were shuffling like old men.

Family were there to meet us at Iceland’s main road, the One, and a surreal snack shop in a hardware shop ensued. It was only an extra few kilometres to our finish and the thought of an end to such an amazing adventure gave an extra lift to our running. The rain was skirting just passed us and there was even an impressive double rainbow in the distance.

As we got closer to the water the road started to get further away, agonisingly close but needing to trespass to succeed. A stile, the bain of any long distance run, was our final obstacle and James and I cleared it in one full leap… We staggered over and moved to the rocks going out into the water.

We had covered 360km over seven days, ending with a 99km run to the coast. There was a terribly British shaking of hands, some hugging and then we walked back to Helga. The biggest surprise this week was her making it all the way across in one piece.

Two pairs of shoes tentatively poked into the wash, not wanting to end our run with wet feet for the first time this week. We had made it. Foolhardy my arse.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

About The Author

Robert Britton

Robbie is a 100 mile runner who is a member of the Great Britain 24hr Running Squad and Team Centurion and likes to run ridiculous distances as quickly as possible.

To provide enough food to feed a monster running habit, Robbie coaches other ultra marathon runners through www.robbiebritton.co.uk and is also a member of the coaching team at Centurion Running. He likes to dabble with a bit of writing so that others can learn from his mistakes and enjoy the sport as much as he does.

Robbie is also a is a Profeet ambassador.

www.robbiebritton.co.uk

"Pain is inevitable, suffering is just part of the fun"

 
 
 
 
 

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