An attempt to ski trough Iceland

The skiing time is over. Here comes the story of "Alex in Iceland".

Once upon a time, in a small village in a small valley in the french Alps was a guy who was reading stories about the great polar regions: F. Nansen, Amundsen, E. Shackleton, B. Ousland, E. Kagge, J.L. Etienne, Guêpe and many others. Running across his home mountains, tired of seeing all this people, all these lift, all this mess, he tought:"Why them and not me? Why shouldn't i go north with my ski and be confronted to the great arctic wilderness? Yeah, i want to go up there!". After a fall slap and a glance at a world map, the decision was taken: "it will be solo trip across Iceland from Akureyri in the North to Skogar on the South coast. This seems to be a good training before after."

the routeIceland map and the route. It starts from the road apart from Akureyri and stops at Thorisvatn.

Preparation - Thanks Internet

Once the decision was taken, last september, i had to prepare the trip. The physical part was not a problem. Even if i'm not a locomotive, spending almost all my free time ski touring or climbing around keeps me in a good shape. Living and working at less than one hour drive from Chamonix and many other courses let no pretext for sleeping on good days, and it is even possible to ski and be at work at 1pm.

The equipment preparation was not that difficult too. It is mainly a mixing of a long hiking summer trip (which i've already done a couple), and winter ski touring. Meanwhile i have to make some clothing and ski adaptations. The clothes have to be warm, water resistant (the classic three layers technique is perfect); the main point in Iceland is too have enough to be able to face rain then cold and wind , then rain... A down jacket was also great to be warm in the tent when cooking after a cold day. A synthetic sleeping bag is heavier but warmer than a classic down one when wet. For the ski part the adaptations were more complex. I used a Fisher's E99 telemark ski (which could be waxed), with a light touring binding (Emery's chrono) adaptaded by a friend skiman to fit the One Sport's Everest very warm shoes. As Emery's stuff is never reliable, i carried a complete repair kit, even for heavy problem, and a pair of snow shoe from TSL who were kindly lent to me. The food was mainly feculent (pasta, rice, polenta-corn-, porridge, semolina, chocolate, almond pastry, gingerbread, fruit cake) on the basis of 5000 kcal per day, which seems to be a bit too much for certain days (at least the first ones ). The complete equipment list can be found (in french only, sorry) here. To pull all this stuff, i have an Ellesmere sledge, which is pretty good and stable.

More complicated was the logistic preparation of the trip, and here come many people who helped me to make this trip easy. At first, to fly in and out Iceland, and for the local flight (from the capital Reykjavik to the starting point Akureyri) Icelandair has been a reliable, flexible and a very helpful partner. And comes the Internet...
Internet allows to share the information without the notion of distance. The first idea is to post an article in a newsgroup (rec.skiing.backcountry) "i want to ski trough Iceland, any help there?". The answers were interessant, with some contact with a Icelandic skier (Josef Holmjarn) who had the same plan, and with a very accurate web surfer (Jim) who gave me the address of people in Iceland (Lilja, and Ragnar - a x-country skier in Akureyri) who could provide informations on Iceland and the snow conditions this winter. Ragnar also talked to a friend of him in Akureyri, Ingthor, a skier who have some experiences in arctic ski expeditions (trough Iceland, Greenland...). So this make several contacts very useful. I was every week knowing the evolution of snow conditions, and Ingthor & Josef gave me a lot of advices on skiing in the very special Icelandic climate. We'll see that Ingthor arrange me some contact with the rescue team and a lot more...
All the mails convince me that winter conditions there can be very hard with rain/cold/wind/rain/cold/wind... and this winter is very poor in snow. Anyway, i want this trip and i will go.

Beside all these contacts, Internet is also a large source a meteo data, and with someone to interprete them correctly (Pascal, a collegue here in Geneva), they can be very useful.

Getting there

Go! The preparation is over, we are the 30th of march, i leave Geneva with 70kg of equipment and food (a huge ski competitor backpack, a 90 liters mountain pack, a parasail pack full, a smal luggage for the fragile stuff, and a big pack for the ski and the sledge, that's something to carry!!!). I take the train from Geneva to Luxembourg, with many train changes in small french stations, carrying all the stuff trough a station is perhaps the most physical part of the trip! Once in the airport, and thanks to Icelandair, i have no trouble with extra luggage.

In Reykjavik, i sleep in the salvation army hotel, downtown. Sunday morning, before flying north to Akureyri, i meet Petur from the rescue team, who lend me an emergency beacon and a VHF radio, and note my route.

The fly to Akureyri is short (45 minutes), and as the plane prepares to land, i can see trough the window a desolated landscape: Ragnar was right, there is no snow there, it looks like i saw it when i came last summer. Anyway, Ingthor is here, waiting for me with a large smile :"no problem, i'll show you were the snow is". We go to his home, talk about... ski (trips he made, races, people we know...), and eat a huge plate of pasta (with mushroom sauce, bread-marmelade-cheese). After a 30 minutes car drive we arrive to the snow, the trips really starts.

tentThe tent, in a usual morning.

Skiing

Three of Ingthor's friends are here with two skidoos. They will carry my equipment for the six first kilometers as Ingthor and i ski, quietly, talking about this and that. This introduction to the trip is nice, i have nothing with me, not even a GPS or a compas! after an hour, the fog is coming, we are not sure to follow the snowcats tracks, doubt is growing... After a little while we saw them and they propose to give us a lift for the 2 last km to my sledge; as i don't want to start the trip looking for my sledge during hours i accept. Before getting back they give me several GPS waypoints to help me in the first part of the trip. The GPS (Global Positionning System, by Satellites) is something very useful for them to travel in this almost permanent and very strange deep fog or white-out; navigation is not based on the map, but on a small notebook where they have the position of many waypoints (cairn, huts, river crossing...); Once the point is in the GPS, the navigation is almost totally virtual. But they have to go back, and after a good hand shake, i'm alone in front of my dream...
Currently, my dream is something like white everywhere. In a couple of minutes, the wind has erased the snowcats tracks. I set my sledge, adjust my pulling belt, drink a cup of tea, eat a piece of chocolate, check the GPS, look at my compas and close all the openings of my jacket and gloves; all these movements i will repeat at each stop during the trip. It is 3:00pm, i start skiing trough the white. It is a short first day, the fog is not so dense, wind is not so strong, and i stop 4 hours later. I set the tent (a North Face's Westwind), build small wall with snow, dig a hole in the abside to cook without any risk of setting fire to the tent. Then i go in the tent, clean all the snow with a brush (a very good hint that permits to have almost no snow inside the tent), and enter in my sleeping bag. I cook, prepare some tea, eat (not very much), and fall asleep (i have not slept that much on all the days before leaving, with all the stuff to prepare and many other things...). On all the trip, setting the camp, cooking and eating will take approximatively 2 hours; i will often be very tired at night and will have to force me not to fall asleep without eating. I wake up at 8, i dig up the stove because the hole in the abside has been fulfilled with snow, start the stove (an MSR XGK, that can work in any condition), eat some porridge or semolina with a warm capuccino, fill the thermos bottle with tea, pack everything, wear the goretex, set up the sledge, adjust the pulling belt, and... ski. All these operations take between 2h30 an 3h00, i'm not in a hurry.

And i ski in the white during six days. All the day in this strange atmosphere, always white, white, white, always windy. I ski south, the wind in north or nort-east, and is strong without being a storm. And i ski in the white. There are many kind of white, many kind of fog i should say. There is the classic fog, like in hour mountains here. And there is the white-out; i've read many thing about it, about people loosing there way 10meters from the tent, turning and turning around until the death comes; white-out is special, in some way it is great. i think i ski in a dream, where all my usual sense are desactivated. I cannot follow a straight direction (i can fix one with my compas, walk 50 steps, look again at my compas, and be wrong of... 90 degres!), i have no notion of distance (this big rock there, that will protect from the wind is resumed to a tiny little stone of a few centimeters), i see many rocks moving as i loose any visual reference (it is incredible how many skidoos i've seem that are only rocks, here from centuries). Of course i don't see anyone. Every night, i repeat the camp preparation. Two night i sleep in huts (one with a warm pool where i can swim, necked in the middle of the snow and the wind, this is a strange impression - with a run between the hut and the pool!). During these first days, i split the skiing part in small periods: 3 times 1h30 in the morning, and 3-5 times 1 hour period after. Between two periods, i stop to drink some tea, eat chocolate, almond pastry, gingerbread or fruit cake. I will change the rythm at the end of the trip, skiing only by 1 hour slices (and then resting in the morning before beeing tired), this will allow me to ski much longer days (up to 11 hours). And then i ski in the white...

During these first days, i see nothing but white. Sometimes, i can see one or two hundreds meters away, but it never last. A couple of time i can guess i'm in front of a mountain. But i spend almost all my time in a small white windy bubble. During a couple of days, i only see my ski, discovering Iceland trough a 2 meters diameter window. Anyway i love this atmosphere even if i would also love seeing great landscape.

And come the seventh day, on Easter, this will not be the rest day for me. This morning the wind is strong, the tent waved all the night very much, but my slepping bag is warm. Should i wait here, taking a day off? -sure no! what kind of polar traveller would i be, afraid of this wind. I eat, drink, dress as usual. Should i wear an extra polar pullover? -it's ok like this, i will move and keep warm anyway. Once everything is ready, i open the tent door and see the wind... Should i take a day off?? -chicken!. I take my camera, walk a bit to take a picture of the camp, my fingers sticks to the camera. Anyway, i put my bags in the sledge, and i'm about to put the tent down. I can take a day off, i skiied well these last days, and i can afford it, what should i do? -stop thinking, and ski!. OK, i pulled the tent down, put it in the sledge, and start skiing. No problem, the wind is strong, but it is in my back and helps me in some way. I don't stop that much between skiing periods, eating and drinking quickly, always in a hurry to restart skiing. I carry a small backpack, iwth the day food, the map, the thermos bottle; i have not closed it well at one stop, and one hour later, it is full, as inflated, of snow! After three or four hours, the wind must have been increasing, and i need to wear an extra warm vest (i should i have put it this morning!). I get off the sledge belt, and the wind make me fall. It really has increased. I open the right bag, take the polar vest, and now i must go fast: i take my mitten off, take the gore-tex jacket off, stay with only a tiny underwear for a few seconds, put the polar jacket, put on the gore-tex and the mitten. This didn't last long but i'm really frozen. I spend a long time trying to recover some heat. Then i keep on skiing. The wind increase, everything is white. I arrive to a descent, it looks like a long one, i put the sledge in front of me and sart to go down... for 2 meters... and this happen many times. I put the sledge backward and keep on skiing. The wind increases. The wind is so strong that i loose a ski skin; as i don't want to repair anything, i take the snow shoes (a TSL model). I have only walked for 7 hours but i decide to stop before it is too late for anything. As i take off the sledgebelt, i face the wind: it has become incredibily strong, and i fall. Setting up the tent must look funny. I hold it with my skis, my axe, the sledge. I break a tent pole but it self repairs (thanks North Face!). Of course, i cannot set the double roof up, and after many tries, the visage in big ice pack, i enter in an ersatz of tent. I don't know if it will make it, so i sleep (in fact i won't sleep) inside a bivy bag, with the radio and the emergency beacon beside me. There is no way of starting the stove in these conditions as it would set fire to the tent. I'm a bit afraid, but after some relaxation, i just wait for the storm to go. In the morning the wind has decreased a bit, and i decide to walk to an emergency hut 12km from here, and take some rest there. I will learn later that this storm was strong all over Iceland, and a lady, at the check-in in the airport of Reykjavik, will have some trouble to believe that one could spend the night outside in such conditions.

stormIn the morning, before the wind really starts blowing.

My day after the storm is short, but i'm hungry. I have some trouble to find a place to cross a frozen river. I arrive in a small emergency hut, in the south of Hofsjökull. It is a palace, a palace with no heat, a small window, no seat, but a real palace. I decide to take a day off here, sleeping, listenning to a tape of Pierre Desproges, a great french humorist. I have a walkman, but as i have forgotten the GPS on one night, i have to save batteries and i don't listen it while walking at the beginning of the trip. I eat a lot here. Before departure, i asked a friend to prepare me a "surprise meal" to eat it when in trouble. I open the pack and find a dried sausage. I eat it with a can of coke (which has to be warmed up as it is only a piece of ice): this is a great meal!

At this point of the trip, i must make a decision: i can either go straight south on the first planned route, of follow a "road" for 50km before deciding or not to go south. The problem is the lack of snow, i have seen that there is not that much in the south part. I decide to follow the road direction til the hydro power station of Sigalda, and there, see the conditions: if they are good, i keep on, if not, i can try to find a lift there. The second solution is the less heroic, and i choose it. It is the end of Easter week-end, in the morning i see two big 4x4 trucks far away, on the road i want to follow. I ski all the day, fast as the conditions are good. There is no fog, but no great view. The wind turned south and it is sometimes lightly raining. In the afternoon, i'm passed by four trucks; they stop and we talk a bit, they are the first persons i've seen for eight days. Later on, a truck is coming in the other sense. They stop by me, and we start to talk a bit. They are friends of Josef (the one of Internet), and they've heard of me (Iceland is a ver small country!). This evenning, i stop in a very luxury hut. I would like to spend a week here, but i have to leave in the morning. I approximatively follow the road during 15km, and 25 km from the power station, i have a choice: either follow the road, or try to make it trough a valley. I've seen another car today, and i decide to take the second choice.

It has been raining almost all the day, but i keep on skiing another 7km (so tomorrow i will be only at 17 km from the hydro station, and will be able to get there). I estimate i have enough batteries now for the walkman, and i ski all the day with the "Mano Negra". The snow cover is decreasing, but there is enough. I set the camp beside a lake, surronded by rig rocks and sleep well, as i've walked 11 hours today (11hours for 22km, as the snow was very wet). In the morning, i leave the camp with an easy route on the map: a gentle descent to the station. Three hours later, i've descended so much that there is no snow: i'm less than 10 km from the station, but i cannot make it with the sledge; i can either carry all the equipment in 2 times, or try to climb in the mountain west of the route, to remain in snow at a higher alitude. I choose the mountain option (my brain is a bit simple: i see a mountain, i want to climb). Climbing with a sledge (approx 60-65kg now) is pretty hard. Crossing river is kind of tricky: i have some trouble in a half frozen 30meters wide creek, and later, i need the rope to descent in some small but abrupt little ones. I spend 7 or 8 hours for something i would have done in less than one hour at home. Beside the creeks, snow lacks becomes a real problem, and following it implies long way round. I also often ski in water in the flat area which make my shoes really wet. Night is falling when i set up the camp at the top of the range.

And come what will be the last day. The weather is not good but i can far away. I can mainly see that there is no snow south, or not enough to keep on going. I ski to the "road" hoping to catch a lift. In fact, on this "road" there has been nothing in the whole day, and perhaps nothing until next week-end. Anyway, luck is with me today. I ski for a couple of hours and i see a man, 500meters from me walk on the frozen Thorisvatn (a large lake). As he is walking back, i let my sledge and ski as fast as i can to catch him. I finally arrive and meet a team of three scientists, making measurments on the lake. They will give me a lift back to Reykjavik in the evenning. One of the team is working with Josef (everyone i meet in Iceland know Josef!!!), and learns me that he tried to ski souther but has gotten stuck in water and snow.

I spend the following day in Reykjavik, exausted, going from a chair to another, eating tons of icelandic food and looking at people. I don't want to stay here more, and Icelandair changes my ticket back home.


Thanks

I would like to thanks Icelandair, in Zurich, for being a comprehensive partner, and TSL (snow shoe maker) for lending me some equipment. I've been greatly helped by Carolyn, Lilja, Jim, Ragnar, Ingthor, Josef, all the rescue team in Landsbjorg (Kristjan Birgison, Peter Adalsteinsson...), Olivier and many others.
A list of some tips.

Next plan: Spitsberg, in july... oh no!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Oh yes!

air stripOn a ghost air strip...