Crossing Iceland from south to north, on foot and by packraft

Hilo Moreno and José Mijares have shared many adventures together and are now like old friends to our Barrabes readers.

Not long ago, Hilo Moreno joined Eduardo Muñoz, José C. Peñate and Juan Carlos Jiménez to cross Iceland from south to north, on foot and by packraft. We are constantly amazed by this invention due to the endless possibilities it offers for adventures in the wilderness. A packraft is a very resistant boat/pulk that will carry you along rivers or even low difficulty rapids. It can then be deflated and, at under 2 kilos, carried in your pack, turning us into amphibious adventurers.

Here, we present the video, photos and account of the crossing:

“There's something about ultra-light that I just don't get – or I must be doing wrong because the lighter I pack for a trip, the heavier my pack feels. Joking aside, I've just returned from a trip that was only possible, using the most minimalistic philosophy and the lightest equipment; a crossing, with 3 other team members, of Iceland, from south to north. The journey involved many kilometres on foot and a number of kilometres in an inflatable kayak. It was totally self-sufficient and without any outside assistance, which explains the heavy pack. This was an amphibious journey which involved spending 13 days soaked to the skin and constant getting in and out of the water. But let's start at the beginning and see the origin of our thirst...because behind every adventure there is always a thirst. "

Exactly 30 years ago, a group of Spaniards crossed Iceland from East to West. This was a group of youngsters aged 19 to 20 led by a boy called Ramón Larramendi who, years later, organized one of the most important Spanish expeditions in the polar regions; the circumpolar expedition, which took him on a 3 year adventure to the Arctic... but that's another story.

The images of their journey had become a recurring feature in my imagination for a long time and as the years went by, my thirst for visiting and crossing that country remained in the back of my mind; in that place where dreams are stored and saved and which, even if they don't come true, come into use for guiding smaller steps we take in this world – or at least trying to.

The years went by and then the opportunity to visit Iceland appeared in the form of an invitation from some friends to participate in a journey to the island. The weather and availability wouldn't allow us to cross the island horizontally as we only had 13 days, which wasn't enough, but we could think about crossing it vertically. From the beginning, the initial team for this adventure suffered a number of variations for various reasons and the final group consisted of Eduardo Muñoz & José C. Peñate; 2 firemen from the Canary Islands, Juan Carlos Jiménez (Curro); my colleague at the Antarctic base I've worked at for the past 9 years, and myself.

The plan also suffered a thousand and one changes. We had planned to cross the Vatnajokull glacier and descend one of its rivers. But we soon saw that this wouldn't work due to our time limit, the river being too technical to descend, our limited experience in white water and the load we'd be carrying.

So, we decided to cross the centre of the island, by setting off from Vik, in the south and going to Akureyri on the north coast. We'd look for an easy trail that would allow us to advance quickly because we'd have to maintain an average of nearly 30km a day if we wanted to reach the other coast and that, in a country with a complicated climate such as Iceland, was something that could easily not happen.

The team set off in mid June, from Barcelona airport. We landed at Reykjavik and were met by the Tierras Polares team; a company created by the man himself; Ramón Larramendi, who had crossed the island 30 years before and whose footsteps we were now following, or crossing to be exact, and who would now give us all the logistical help we needed.

The next day we set off on the journey to Vik under constant rain. At the end of the day we tried to go round a powerful river that originated from a glacier. We made several attempts and once, almost ended up in the water when blocks of ice floating by on the fast current, nearly knocked us over, just like skittles. We resigned to set up camp, soaked to the skin with the promise that we'd cross the river in the kayak the following day. This we did and it was the first moment our inflatable canoes (packrafts) entered into play and would be used from then on to cross any rivers that couldn't be passed on foot.

Choosing equipment was a real dilemma for this trip. Our lack of knowledge and the amphibious nature of this environment made us make some risky decisions as far as the material was concerned. The most critical issue, as often happens in many cases, was footwear. Most of us finally decided to use lightweight shoes for walking and this is the only element that, in my opinion, was a mistake. From the second day on, ascending towards the central plateaux, we came across snow … a lot of snow. We were later told that this had been one of the snowiest winters they remembered (no idea why these things always happen) and so we walked in snow nearly the whole way.

The reason we chose to wear shoes instead of boots was because they're more comfortable for rowing and in dry conditions they work perfectly (without snow). But as I said, boots would have been more practical and lightweight skis even better and backcountry skis would probably have helped us move more quickly and enjoy the trip more.

The days were long as we had to stick to our nearly 30km a day if we wanted to arrive in time to catch the plane home. When we reached the camp, or mountain hut, not all of us could go straight to sleep. Edu, for example, had to spend several days re-constructing his oar as he'd lost part of it on the way. But his patience and good workmanship paid off and gave him a tool that worked perfectly for rowing, even in fast currents and rapids.

In the afternoon of the seventh day, as we were trudging our way through deep snow, an enormous river appeared before us, which had gorged its way through the snow leaving walls shaped by the wind. We stopped for a while to study the maps, and see if it was going the right way and decided to take a short cut by rowing down the river. A few minutes later we were rowing on frozen water, protected by high snow walls and taking huge pleasure as we devoured kilometres with hardly any effort. The river, according to our maps, should have flown into a lake yet it carried right on in the right direction. So we got onto dry land to check our bearings and that's when we realized what was happening. This was just when the snow was beginning to melt and the landscape was changing, which happens constantly in Iceland. Everything is continuously moving and transforming. Even though the lake was empty, it was beginning to fill up with the water we were rowing on.

You have to adapt to this transformation in order to cross its landscape and luckily, we were carrying the perfect material and means of transport in our packs.

The following days were the hardest. The amount of accumulated snow slowed us down a great deal and we didn't encounter any more rivers to help us on our way. But at least the weather was on our side and allowed us to enjoy views on either side, of Iceland's main glaciers. The days passed and each kilometre became harder and harder, in spite of the packs getting lighter. In the evenings we'd set up camp and fall exhausted under a sun that never set. On the eleventh day of the journey we reached the end of the plateau in the long, green, deep valley. At the end of this valley was the river Eyjafjardará, which would be the last part of our crossing.

I'd like to be able to say that as soon as we began rowing, our problems and suffering would come to an end, as we comfortably floated along the river. But this wasn't to be. What started as a gentle row along a gentle river in a green valley with horses and birds, soon turned into a nightmare when we were surprised by rapids. Within a few minutes there was complete disaster; we were turned over, we lost our oars & boats and even had a number of cuts and bruises and a large bump in the helmet of José C. Peñate. Luckily that was the worst of it. I then spent over an hour trying to recover my oar that had got stuck in a metal structure in the middle of the river. In the end, I managed to get it and as I was walking back from the canyoned river I had my first direct and intimate contact with Icelandic people: a group of snow white men and women were bathing nude in a thermal spring next to the river.

It took me a moment to process the scene and I was too much of a coward to pass by after so many days away from civilization, so I returned to the river and managed to reach my companions after crossing a bridge further down the river. Miraculously, Edu had managed to save his oar but José's had been swept down the river by the strong current. Other than that and with several bruises and completely broken shoes, there was no more damage. José had to complete the last section by car, which was possible, thanks to a guardian angel Viking who had driven her quad to recover his packraft, which was stuck several kilometres down the river. The rest of us rowed down what was now an idyllic river. We rowed all afternoon and well into the evening - if that's what you can call that magical moment when the sun sits just above the horizon, illuminating the water reflection and mountains on either side of the valley.

We set up camp very near Akureyri airport which is on the town's fjord and this would mark the end of our journey and here we would meet José again.

In the end we all met at midday the next day. We decided the last stage would be quicker to walk on the road as the alternative was rowing on a lake with no current, with the wind against us. The lorries thundered past us, drenching us with mud and rain; a rather unglamorous end to such a wild and remote journey. But we finally reached the fjord and the airport where we could at last have a rest and dry our shoes after 2 weeks in mud, snow and water.

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