I can hear the ice cracking and groaning on the sluggish river. My breath turns to to stardust and tinkles gently back onto my face. Through the open tent door, the night sky is alive, dancing, playing, a giant ever changing kaleidoscope. Im in the heart of the Icelandic highlands and this is probably the coldest night of my life. My water bottle is tucked into an armpit, the gas at my feet and the down in my bag grows ever crispier as as the new moon rises and passes across the sky. Next to me Huw looks much toastier in his posh PHD bag and in a moment of jealousy I consider waking him up to zip them together. The inside of the tent glistens as tiny ice crystals grow frantically and then drop off to cover us like sugar icing.
We had planned this trip for months, gained the skills we thought we would require through our Winter Mountain Leader training and assessments and we were here! Shivering through endless sleepless nights and loving almost every moment. Quite where our desire to fat bike across the highlands on snow came from im not sure, im a committed sun lover and Huw can get pretty grumbly when hes not comfortable for long periods. But we had booked our flights way in advance whilst dreaming of dry crisp winter mornings and there was no backing out.
After spending a long few months stomping, digging and pacing through a Scottish winter, my stokens flying out to an equally sleety and windy Reykjavik were at an all time low. They were further sunk when the bus driver told us he was not allowed to stop at our hostel despite driving past it but would drop us off a kilometer away. In the dark and the rain with two 30kg bike boxes. Lots of swearing, sweating and being laughed at ensured before getting into the warmth and finding out there was a 24 hr supermarket near by. Perfect!
We knew that the Icelandic weather is even more fickle than our own and had arrived with no plan and every plan. Checking the forecasts every 15 minutes we decided to set off towards gulfoss and the start of the kjolur route into the highlands. Those first few days riding on the road were a nightmare. Goggles on blizzards, drifting snow, mighty headwinds, side winds catching the frame bags like a sail and scary drivers. My Salsa Beargrease felt good, not too sluggish on the road, but she was desperate to find some snow. Our maximum elevation was a measly 200m but we felt as though on the Cairngorm plateau at 1000. Serious doubts were creeping in. Unfortunately our route was part of the golden circle tour, so every camera toting tourist was en route with us, not helping our mood. If you read my previous Iceland post you will understand our building frustration… To make matters worse the heavy bikes, big tires, head winds and residual tiredness meant a 30km day was success. We had been doing 120km days on rough dirt roads on our last trip in Patagonia and were feeling incapable and useless. The one bit of enjoyment, once we had stomped tent pegs into the frozen ground and got our first brew on was the camping. Icelandic wild camping is just pure bliss. Our very best Patagonian camp spot probably equaled our very worst Icelandic one.
After a very brief stop at the selfie stick shopping malls of Geyser and a quick spin over shifting tectonic plates at Pingvellir we made a break for the end of the tarmac.Our last chance to check the weather and thaw our feet was at the giant canteen of Gulfoss. As we arrived, getting blown around by the winds rushing off the icecaps, my thoughts were of going no further. If we were only achieving 30km on tarmac, how could we cover the next few hundred, remote, snowy kilometers fast enough not to run out of food or into a storm. We hadn’t had a chance to test the bikes either as they had arrived just days before we left and we were unsure of how they would perform on the mixed conditions we were expecting. With hot cup of tea and warming up by a heater we went through our list of forecasts (Over the month we were there we found YR.no and WindyTY to be the most accurate. WindyTY if of course just great to be mesmerized by, to stay in the warmth longer).
A weather window! Four days before the next big front, the winds dropping and spinning from North to South and there might even be a dash of sunlight. We had faced numerous Go Pros, worried Icelanders telling us we WOULD DIE and overpriced processed cheese to get here, to the edge of the highlands. With this forecast we had no choice but to go for it!
Our sensible heads still firmly screwed on, we decided to spend the rest of the day climbing up to a pass, seeing the conditions and camping just on the other side, that way we had more time to rethink and bail if the forecasts were lying. Passing the road closed sign, away from the crowds, leaving behind the weaving Jimneys, Ugg boots, trendy haircuts and faux fur collars was like coming back to life. Enthusiasm filled us and we began having fun as we slid and stumbled upwards.
Cresting that horizon, staring down and outwards for infinity across the empty vastness of the highlands is a moment i will never forget. The landscape stretched out on all sides, expanding into a white, mountain filled vista. We were going into it, all the way, further than we could see. We were going to do it! Do what we (and many Icelanders) thought impossible! Laughing and whooping we freewheeled downwards. Skidding and washing out as the snow changed under our tires and we adjusted to a new way of riding. The noise of the fat tires on the surface of the snow, cracking, swooshing, silent. We soon learned to read the snow by the sounds and were able to weave routes around the soft slab.
That first night in the highlands is where we rejoin the start of this blog, shivering in our mighty hilleberg palace..
We learnt a lot about cold, Scotland rarely gets below minus 6, here we though it might have been around -15. Our gas barely worked, our tent did funny things and got quite hard to pitch right, metal sporks are a bad idea, vapor liners in boots and bags would have been clever, cheese freezes, even plastic cheese and snow balls are not good loo roll!
The next few days passed in a blur of snowy wonder, rolling through the awe inspiring landscape, with only the sound of our tires and the distant boom of cracking ice on some hidden river. A thaw the week before had left perfect fat bike conditions, refrozen neve. It was one enormous icy play ground. We were cautious with our route, trying to roughly follow where the road went to avoid ending up on a suspect frozen loch or lost in moraine piles. The conditions could change rapidly so we worked to make time whilst we could, in case the clouds rolled in and we would be reduced to going walking pace on a bearing.
Stopping at Hveravellir hot springs we were amazed to find the hut open. Its the first winter ever they have stayed open. It would have been rude not to, so we splashed our budget and had the hot spring and hut to ourselves. And bought the entire supply of cookies. It was great to dry out sodden sleeping bags after some very long cold nights and drink endless cups of tea. We would have stayed longer but the weather was due to break so we swiftly left our comforts and headed out once more.
One more night and we dropped height, out of the snow and heading back for civilization. We had achieved our ultimate goal, of crossing the highlands!
We know we were incredibly lucky with the conditions, it could so easily not have happened. Just a few weeks before some British guys had been all over the news for getting rescued multiple times but still going back. The anti idiot tourist sentiment in Iceland was high and we were terrified we would end up on that list.We played it very safe, having multiple get outs and having been about as prepped as we could. But the weather you cannot fool and luckily for us it was calm and benign.
With a couple more weeks we investigated some of Icelands other awesome places, hot springs, thermal outdoor pools, did some unloaded riding and ate as much skyr as we could fit in our belly’s.
Again Iceland was an incredible experience, the Icelanders are lovely, the landscape is weird and incredible and skyr is delicious. Now can someone please give me a job there?
We both used Salsa fatbikes, I had a Beargrease, an amazing, light little machine, she felt sprightly, fun and did well on the dirt roads as well as snow. Huw had a Blackbourgh, with wider rims and fatter tires. He was definitely smoother on the snow but slower on the roads. They are both amazing, capable bikes and I highly recommend them!
Thanks to Huw Oliver ( his far more professional blog is https://topofests.com/ ) for being a great adventure buddy and photographer. Although some of these are mine despite the water marks 😉