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Iceland: the expedition begins

Working hard to get my fill,
everybody wants a thrill.
Payin’ anything to roll the dice,
just one more time…


“For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”
– John Steinbeck

I was ready.

I had trained hard and planned carefully. I needed this. The last few months had been claustrophobic back home.I was straining at the leash, more eager than ever to get out ‘there’, out into the wild places. To be free for a while; to simplify; to test myself. I was ready.

But, like men down the generations, the siren song of the three age-old distractions snared us first: wine, women and… whale meat.

A family had kindly invited Chris (friend and expedition partner) and me to stay before we began our journey. After a barbecue of whale meat (ethically questionable, unquestionably delicious) we then experienced Iceland’s extraordinary stamina for all-night partying. We drank and danced right through the sunlit northern night into the morning and consequently felt far too rough to begin the trek.


Dancing girl

whale meat

So we delayed for a day, delayed the shock of heaving 40kg packs onto our backs, delayed pointing our noses south and hiking away from the cold, empty, wind-whipped beach that marked our start point.

Iceland crossing - the start!

When we did begin we hiked just a few hard miles and then we stopped. We were tired, our heads hurt, and our packs were alarmingly heavy and painful. We pitched the tent in the rain, and we slept.

Rainy camp

Then in the morning we began in earnest. The plan was simple: we were trekking inland from Iceland’s north coast up into the central highlands. We would cross the Hofsjokull ice cap to gain access to the headwaters of Iceland’s longest river. There we would inflate the packrafts we were carrying and attempt to paddle down two separate rivers, eventually reaching the southern coast of Iceland, the ocean, and the the end of our expedition.

Heavy pack - feeling the pain


Iceland crossing - cliff top view of the lowland valleys

We were carrying everything we needed. There would be no villages or resupplies on our route. We carried food for 25 days. We had camping equipment, and ropes and crampons for the glacier crossing. There was a fair weight of camera equipment, batteries and solar panel chargers. And we also were carrying all the gear you need for paddling glacial whitewater rivers. The weight of the packs crushed our knees and spine and gouged our shoulders and hips. We feared that we had bitten off more than we could chew.

Iceland crossing - feeling the pain

Despite that we began anyway, hiking up a fjord through a narrow fertile river valley, whistling 80’s riffs half-remembered from the other night.

Stream crossing

Moss flowers

Iceland crossing - self portrait

In misguided high spirits I leapt into a river for an evening swim, and then spent the rest of the night shivering cold in our wet tent. We were rained on every day for the first two weeks as we left behind the green fields, Icelandic ponies and noisy streams of the low lands.
We climbed steeply to the head of the river valley. Up there were the highlands. Icelanders speak with trepidation, even today, about “the highlands”. Notorious in days gone by as a refuge for outlaws and highwaymen, there is no sign of human life in the highlands, and little sign of any life at all. There are no streams or birds or trees.

Iceland crossing - climbing up to the highlands

Today there may no longer be the brigands of days gone by, but the magnificent desolation of the highlands still holds an unmistakable aura. The endless rain seeped through our clothes. Our laden packs sapped strength and spirit. And the highlands felt a foreboding obstacle, as they have for hundreds of unchanging years.

Were we ready? We were about to find out.

This expedition was generously supported by

Iceland Express flies daily from London Gatwick to Reykjavik and prices start from £89.00 one way including taxes. The airline also operates a twice weekly service between Stansted and Reykjavik.
In June 2010, Iceland Express introduced two international routes to its schedule. The airline now flies from London Gatwick to New York and Winninpeg, Canada, via Reykjavik.
For reservations go to or call 0118 321 8384

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  1. Epic.

  2. Superb adventure. You kept it real and simple.
    Lovely crisp images!

  3. cool trip! I have a friend working in iceland. She just love it !
    btw, what is your backpack and what is your opinion about it ? I am looking for an expedition backpack which can carry some weight too !

    • Hi,
      I used the GoLite Oddysey backpack. It was brilliant, but not brilliant for very very heavy loads like we carried. The padding is lightweight which meant a lot of shoulder and hip pain! But for smaller loads it would be great.
      Have a look at this article all about expedition backpacks,

    • Katie L'Herpiniere Posted

      Hi Bastien my husband and i used the GoLite Oddysey backpack on expedition like Al, with a starting weight of 50Kg’s and were incredibly impressed with it. Will be using it again on our next exped. Katie

      Stunning images Al, whats the plan with the film footage, will it be just a bit of fun or are you putting together something for film festivals/broadcast??? would love to know.

      • 50kg?!
        I should have guessed you guys would be more hardcore than me!

      • I’m hoping to make one or two short (and hopefully sweet) video pieces from the trip – 3 to 5 minutes each.
        Might be a useful filler for you on the intriguing when it’s launched?

        • Katie L'Herpiniere Posted

          Thats just what i was thinking!! Let me no when they are done as we are collecting our launch material at the moment.

          as for 50kg…we dragged them after the first 10 days!!! tooo heavy for words.

      • Thanks for the answers both. I followed the expedition in patagonia, i didn’t know about the pack was a possibility for heavy loads. I know that golite is the new brand that many people use now. But is it really different 1 kilogram more when you carry 25, 30kg, 40 or 50kg , comparing to the confort of a good backpack pad ?

        (sorry for spoiling the post about iceland, Great trip )

  4. Very nice post al! Love the pictures. Looking forward for the next post and especially the pack-rafting.

  5. andy@psychovertical. Posted

    Hi al

    Good luck with the trip.

    Sounds like you’ll have to cut up your sleeping mat to boost your packs comfort?
    Cheers andy

  6. Neil Cowburn Posted

    Iceland has been on my wish list of places to visit for a while now. This just makes me want to pack a bag and head off.

  7. Thank you Alastair,for the first part of your wonderful trip. I have never been to Iceland, but felt I was there with you on your travels. I loved the photo with you beside the rushing stream. I looked at Chris Herwig’s photo’s of the trip yesterday and felt your pain as you crossed the freezing river. I look forward to the next installment.

  8. Wow, what a great adventure in a great country. Looking forward to your next posts. Can’t imagine carrying that kind of weight though. It must have hurt lots!!. Having just got back from a cycling touring trip in Iceland myself I know what the weather can be like, even in supposed summer. A few pics for Iceland addicts!:

  9. i don’t need a video of the trip. i could just stare at chris’ picture of the green valley for hours instead.
    iceland is an incredible place. when you’re there, you get the feeling that it isn’t finished yet; still a work in progress…

  10. Love it. Looks awesome and reminds me of some of the beauty and heavy sessions from my only visit there!
    Look forward to the next installment

  11. Great post Al! Inspiring stuff! Some great photos! Incidentally – was just having coffee this morning with a running club friend of mine (Vanessa) who mentioned that her flatmate – Will – was a great friend of yours and is with you this weekend. A small world! Hope to catch up again soon!

  12. Looking forward to reading the rest of the story. It looked like a wicked trip. The photos are really crisp looking. What cameras were you using?

    Definitely more party shots required.

  13. Hey Alastair – I just completed my first bike tour – 320 miles through Oregon – I feel like a wimp compared to you – a van ferrying my gear and staying in divey hotels along the way but there was one day of 70 miles which was epic for me. I’m hooked! cant wait to get out ‘there’ again…cheers, Peg

  14. Constantly a fantastic place once i drop by this site and other blogging you own. Recognize the value of ones remarks.



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