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Highlands, Iceland

Iceland: Into the High Lands

by Alastair Humphreys alastairhumphreys.com

“If you go far, far away,” the child said, holding his mother’s hand, “can you get everything you want?”
“Yes, my darling,” she said wearily.
“And be whatever you’d like to be?”
“Yes,” she answered.

-Halldor Laxness, ‘Independent People’

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And the rain fell, and the winds blew and slammed against the tent. Days of rain turned into weeks. The world was monochrome. Icy rain and flurries of snow challenged our lightweight clothing. We wore every stitch of clothing we owned and still we were cold. The only colour came when we escaped from the world, into our little red tent at day’s end.The days were wet. Our kit was wet. Our cameras were wet. We trudged across the black stones of Iceland’s highlands, each step identical to the last, each day the same as the one before. The same but wetter. Wetter and hungrier.

Carrying food for 25 days means that you must learn to be hungry. We simply could not carry enough food to replenish all the calories burned by a hard day of exercise with a heavy pack. And the more food you have in your pack, the more calories you burn carrying them. So hunger is inevitable.
For breakfast we shared a small pan of porridge and raisins. Then we broke up the long day with two chocolate bars, a handful of nuts, and a morale-boosting inch of salami. Come day’s end we were ravenous for our boil-in-the-bag meal with an added spoonful of calorie-rich butter. Each day our dinner grew more delicious, yet it also seemed smaller than ever. We were consuming about 2000 calories a day, yet burning thousands more. It’s a pretty simple weight-loss programme, if not a particularly fun one!

The highlands are notorious in Iceland. For being so lifeless that NASA astronauts trained there for their moon landings. For being flat and stony and boring and repetitive and featureless. And for occasional glacial rivers that are too swift and cold to ford. We knew all this in advance. Yet still we found it tough. Navigating on a compass bearing through thick, wet fog in an unyielding icy gale was made more difficult by the ferrous volcanic rock all around us. The needle swang wildly and we steered an approximate course. We were unlikely to miss our target though: we were looking for the third largest ice cap in Iceland.

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The endless days of grey sapped morale. Chris, being a professional photographer, fretted about the lack of photographic opportunities. I worried that our slowing progress and troubles caused by too-heavy packs may come to jeopardise the whole trip. I worried silently that we may have bitten off more than we could chew.
A gale was thrashing our tent. It had just switched through 90 degrees, and was now threatening to blow the tent over completely. Chris was sending a text message home from his phone.
“There’s no predictive text for YIPPEE,” he shouted above the wind.
“What on earth do you have to say ‘YIPPEE’ about?!” I wondered.

But, in my weird way, I was loving this harsh lunar landscape. The river crossings were cold and hurt like hell. But when I put my boots on again afterwards my feet felt so clean and tingled pleasingly. If you looked carefully you could find tiny pink flowers that clung to life on the godforsaken sterile gravel. And nobody on Earth knew where we were. There were no signs of people, no signs of human life (though having perfect reception on the mobile phone rather dented this sense of isolation!).
I had nothing to do each day but navigate and walk. Nothing to worry about but how long remained until my next Mars bar. Nothing to think about except whatever I wanted to think or dream about. I snatched bearings from brief glimpses of mountain peaks through the clouds. And I urged myself to keep walking, not to put down the pack and sit and rest. That was all I needed to do. Just keep walking. The miles and days passed. My frustrations from home faded away as I peered into the gloom, deciding that the rain on my face felt ‘fresh’ not ‘cold’ and that though my feet and shoulders hurt and my belly growled continually, there was nowhere else I would rather be.

Chris’s ankle was hurting him and he whacked a rock with his trekking pole in frustration. His pole snapped. I turned to hide my giggles as he swore loudly at the world.

At last a grubby tongue of ice began to loom through the mist ahead of us, rising high out of an endless black sand plain. The Hosfjokull glacier. And it stopped raining too. We camped at the foot of the ice cap. I laid out my stuff to dry and drank in the gentle midnight sunshine. I was happy to have finished the wasteland of the highlands. A new phase of the expedition awaited. The next day we would fix crampons and climb up onto the glacier in search of our river.