We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.
Can you think of a better beginning to a day than to emerge from a tent (after a hellish night of storms) to a world of clear sunshine and still silence? It was particularly welcome on the morning we climbed up onto the Hofsjokull glacier. I am no expert on glacier travelling, but I’m always eager to have a go at things. The difficulty with this mentality is steering the right line between stifling caution and rash recklessness. This morning’s rare clear skies helped tip the balance.
So I packed the tent quickly, eager to get up onto the ice while the weather was good. I knew that bad weather was bound to roll over us soon: this was Iceland, after all. But if we could get up there, get going, and feel that we were within our capabilities before the rain and sleet and mist returned then we would have more motivation to keep going. For I was anxious that we did not talk ourselves out of trying to cross the glacier before we even began it. I desperately wanted to head up and over it to the headwaters of the Þjórsá River. We could have skirted the ice and joined the river further down. But I wanted to do the job properly, despite my lack of glacial expertise. I really wanted to begin our river from its true headwaters, not halfway down at some easy and convenient spot. My motivation came, as ever, not so much from wanting the experience itself as from not wanting to not have the experience, the challenge, the lesson…
We hiked up the steep, rocky morraine to the ice. Rocks and gravel slipped and crunched beneath our feet. We slid one step backwards for each two or three climbed. It was tiring, but we made it to the cold ice at last. Strapping on crampons and digging our rope out from the bottom of the backpack I felt a blossoming of excitement in my gut about this next stage of the expedition. I crunched across the ice to peer over the rim of the first crevasse, and felt a squeeze of primordial fear at the black, fathomless maw gaping up at me.
The ice cap, Iceland’s third largest, was grey and grubby. Ash from Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption had smeared across the whole landscape, robbing us of the stunning blue colours you often associate with ice.
But the murky grey ice fitted well with Iceland’s murky grey sky, heavy rain, and falling temperatures. But where rivulets of meltwater ran across the glacier’s surface small channels of bright blue had been carved out.
We were high above the plains of central Iceland and we looked out over hundreds of silent, empty miles flecked with occasional gleams of sunshine shards slicing through the cloud. Meshes of grey-brown glacial streams flowed out from beneath the ice in all directions. We studied our map to match it to the rivers, gleaning information to bring our map to life. We knew very little about what awaited us when we reached our river. Would it be deep enough to paddle? Would it be too fast or would it be flat and boring?
Chris and I continued across the silent expanse of cold, grubby ice, our crampons crunching with reassuring friction beneath our feet. This was such a different experience, and a different challenge, to climbing up from the green, moist lowlands or slogging across the bleak highlands. And the next phase, paddling Iceland’s longest glacial river, would be different yet again. The variety of this expedition was its greatest attraction.
Crossing to the snout of the Þjórsájökull glacier we saw the maze of small streams that would combine somewhere in the murky distance to form “our” river below us. We thought that the hardest part was now behind us. This is rarely a wise thought to think.
Down off the glacier we removed our crampons beside a narrow but fierce stream that was gushing from an ice cave at the foot of the glacier. It was impossible to know for certain if this was “our” river. Maps were of little use in that ever-shifting, homogenous landscape. The water was grey with silt and freezing cold. The rain continued to fall. But at least this racing water was heading towards the same coast that we were. We had crossed Iceland’s watershed so it was downhill all the way from here.
Now we followed the course of this stream on foot until it became large enough for us to paddle. But we found ourselves in a hellish landscape. Beneath our feet were rocks and gravel. But the going was more like quicksand. Everywhere was saturated. We sank knee-deep into rocky gloop at every stride. We crossed stream after stream, searching for solid ground, silently begging the river to grow, and loudly swearing at the cold, exhausting slop we were wading through.
We still did not for sure whether this mesh of little streams was going to grow into a proper river heading the way we wanted to head. Like pioneers trying to read the land we climbed a ridge to peer ahead. There were so many river channels we could follow now. What we had to do was to choose one, and then live with our decision.
In the end we took refuge back up on the glacier, finding it easier to traverse along that than to follow the hellish meanderings of the rocky swamp valley. At long last though the river appeared to be widening, gathering volume from countless other tiny streams gushing off the glacier. We pitched camp beside the river. All of our clothes were drenched with mud. We cooked a disgusting dinner with grey muddy water. It was especially unenjoyable as I had bought all of our dehydrated food at a discount because it was years out of date. Normally this was not a problem but just occasionally we would have a meal that tasted disgusting. Disgusting but we did not have any spare food. So I swallowed it down as fast as I could and decided that this expedition sucked. As I climbed into my sleeping bag, I consoled myself that at least the worst must now be behind us. Tomorrow we would be paddling. Surely that would be fun?