Icelandic Mountain Men

If you can’t be bothered reading this waffle, feel free to watch a short VIDEO I made. It doesn’t tell half of the story of our trip, but it looks pretty rad.

Right lets start by getting the facts right. I did not forget my wedding anniversary, I couldn’t have as it hadn’t even been yet. But what I did do was not pay the slightest attention to the dates of the flights, but merely the cost of the flights. By keeping the cost down as much as possible when visiting a notoriously expensive country, I knew my wife would be more accepting of the fact that I was heading away to Iceland with a couple of mates for a yet another fun adventure. So a few months after booking the flights I found myself on ‘All Hallows Eve’ on a bleak, dark and wet Thursday evening at Edinburgh airport with Chris Asquith & Andrew Milne taking a very reasonably priced flight to Iceland (£77 return, thanks EasyJet) for a 4 day adventure.

After quite a long discussion surrounding what you can put in those little clear 100ml liquid bags, and whether you could use your own clear toiletries bag (I’m still unsure if you can or not) we boarded the flight with the correct sized hand luggage, unlike 20 or 30 other idiots. We arrived at around 8pm in Iceland’s Keflavik airport, jumped on the airport bus, logged onto the free WiFi and settled in for a good hour and a half as we slowly made our way to the first of our 2 hostels on the island. Upon our late arrival at the hostel we were met by a cross between Grotbags & Thor (well from memory I’m sure that’s what she claimed to be dressed as) who couldn’t have been nicer in sorting our room, advising where we could get food at this time and trying her best to tell us where we could get the bus north in the morning (I would later check with another member of staff who confirmed exactly where to go).

After unpacking and claiming the bottom or top bunk, we headed out into the wild in search of food. Now being around 11pm if not later our only option was a pre packed sandwich or salad from the local garage. I opted for a noodle type salad and the lads each got what looked to be a dry and tasteless sandwich, however upon arriving home and out the icy cold and into the warmth of our 4 bed dorm room we tucked into our somewhat surprisingly tasty treats from this gourmet garage. I can safely the general consensus in the room was that this was easily the tastiest food ever eaten from an Icelandic garage. So with satisfied tummies it was time for bed and time to start thinking about tomorrows breakfast!

We woke early on the Friday with the sole purpose of eating as much as possible and we didn’t disappoint. Nor did the freshly baked pain au chocolats. After eating almost everything laid out for the hostel guests we slowly checked out of the hostel, trying not to squash the hidden sandwiches and snacks that laced our pockets. It was only a short and chilly 10 minute walk to the bus stop, where we could take the short ride to the main bus station that would allow us to transfer onto the bus headed north and for us our base for the next 2 days Borgarnes.

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After a very scenic couple of hours north we arrived in Borgarnes and at what would become our second home away from home. Ultimately it was a petrol station, but the greatest petrol station ever!! We never ventured into the right hand side of the building, this was more the petrol station side, we stayed in the left side, the cafe side of the building. The cafe was if you like the Harthill of Iceland, no more than a stop off for the hoards of people and young groups of what seemed to be school children filling up on everything from fuel, souvenirs and chips (those kids loved their chips). Before settling into the comfort of the cafe we had a wander around the town snapping away and trying not to think too much about the size of the mountains we were about to run around tomorrow. We found the hostel and had a look around to check out what the town offered before heading back to get a warm drink and discuss the plan of action for the next 2 days as we really didn’t have much of a plan to be honest, apart from go out and run.  Across the road from our dream cafe was a Netto supermarket a welcome sight in a fairly small town. As we were staying in a hostel we would later stock up on everything we needed for the next 2 days.

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Now you’re probably wondering why I speak so highly of a cafe connected to a petrol station in a small town on the west coast of Iceland. Well it’s purely down to the cheapness of the coffee and tea on offer, well the chips also looked amazing. As we approached the generic self-service style refrigerated units offering pre packed sandwiches and already prepared salads, an offer caught our eye, the offer was the classic soup and sandwich combo for the amazingly low price of £10. My initial thought was “Fuck that” and I dreaded to see what they would charge for the potentially lukewarm filter coffee that was also self-service. As we reluctantly dished out 2 coffee’s and 1 tea and approached the less than enthused looking till operator, I waited in fear for him to reveal the price…After a few seconds we worked out it was only about £1.20 a cup! This was very welcome and surprising news, but this young man wasn’t done, he then upon handing over our change advised us it was free refills on the coffee’s and belatedly the tea. Well I can’t recall a happier moment in my life. Unlimited coffee for £1.20?!?! I love Iceland. We settled down to enjoy what was actually a very good cup of coffee going about how cheap it was for about at least 20 minutes, we were all very happy about this as we had just paid £12 for a bus journey here.

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After 3 hours drinking enough coffee to keep a narcoleptic awake, we popped to Netto for a big shop and then off to our hostel. We settled in had some food and had a wee look at maps of the mountains trying to figure out a route for day 1. The problem was we could easily find lots of information about the fairly easy route up the mountain, but we wanted to go up and over and for the life of us we could not find anything referring to the route down the other side. The hostel manager offered some advice about the best way to navigate our way up the mountain and explained we needed to be careful going up as there would be snow and ice on the path making it hard to follow in some sections and of course slightly dangerous in others. I asked about getting down the other side, he wasn’t to sure about a route down the other side so advised us to just come back down the same way especially if the weather got really bad. So good, that was that, the plan for day 1 was sorted, we would run the 4 or 5 miles to the base of the mountain, run up to the top and take it from there…Flawless.

We decided to go for a short run while it was still light outside. It would also give us a good idea how cold it was going to be tomorrow in our running gear. We ran out towards the water and along the coastline for a while, it was quite breathtaking especially with the mountains standing across the water looking equally menacing as they were beautiful. We ran past some football pitches, past the swimming pool and headed for home. It was clear that we would need a good couple of layers for the run in the morning especially as we would be far more exposed to the conditions the higher we got. The weather forecast was looking favorable for us, there was no sign of rain nor would there be any snow falling thankfully. It was going to be clear, however it was going to be cold and quite windy, and with the wind comes the wind chill, this was estimated to be anywhere from -10 to -15. Before settling in for the night we went out to watch the sun setting and to have one last look at the now dark and stormy looking mountains that stood tall, icy and now covered in a thick dark blanket of cloud at their peak.  No match for 3 men in tights and trainers.

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We woke slowly and made our way to the kitchen to fuel up for the task at hand. I always find it hard to eat breakfast on the morning of a big run/cycle/adventure, mainly due to carb loading the previous 24-48 hours and having a big old fat belly full of fuel (cake). We did all managed to get some scrambled egg, toast and coffee in us before setting off for the day. The first section of our run was a strange one as we just headed back into the familiar territory of the petrol station cafe and the Netto we had spent so much time in already. This was a nice gentle jog to get us warmed up before we headed into the less sheltered sections out of the town.  With the shops now behind us we headed for the bridge that would take us across the water and to the start of the road that would lead us to the mountain trail. We ran across a narrow and slushy pedestrian section of the bridge, checking out what looked like the coldest water I had laid eyes on! This was proper fall in and your done for type water, very fast currents dragging  and tossing around beautiful chunks of ice that raced under the bridge and away. After a few miles we got on the path that lead us up the mountain’s base and to the start of the trail. Before making our way up, we as a tight-knit team went for a team pee pee, something that in this weather wasn’t the easiest of jobs for a few different reasons.

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Anyway feeling refreshed we stared, with huge smiles, jogging up the snowy trail. At first it was difficult to trace the path due to the snowfall, but luckily a fence ran adjacent to the path so we could track it this way. On our way up it was clear just how windy it was going to be the further up we went and the more exposed we got. Slowly but surely we plodded upwards, taking the odd snap and chatting when we could hear our own voices over the howling wind. The path slowly wound up the mountain side while at times flirting with the steep sides of the icy, and jaggy beast. By now the wind was picking up and we felt the chill nipping at us as the pace slowed as the conditions worsened. Looking up towards the summit there was zero visibility and the wind was getting stronger, not a great mix. We decided to head upwards towards a saddle near the peak and make our way up and over to the unknown on the other side  and hopefully down to safety before heading home. As we made our way up and into the now howling gale our visibility had all but gone, but we kept going up to see what lay over the top of the saddle. As we almost reached the top we braced ourselves for the impending gust of wind that was blowing up and whipping over the saddle we approached. In about 5 steps we went from slightly sheltered to completely exposed to the wind as we stood delicately looking over the saddle we were perched on trying to get some sort of view of a route down the other side. As it turned out we couldn’t see a thing!

(can you spot me and Chris in the below picture?)

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We were now stood freezing cold, being battered by a wind that threatened to knock you off-balance if you got complacent. There were a few glances towards each other, those glances that without a word you know what everyone was thinking, and we were all thinking exactly the same thing…fuck this! In a flash we spun around and as fast as we could in these conditions and made our way back the way we came. The wind still battering us but now onto our right hand side giving the numb left side a break. The ice and snow made our decent a careful but very fun one, and in a matter of minutes we were out the worst of it and back to the sheltered trail and regained visibility. We stopped after a few minutes to make sure we were all together and had a wee giggle about our thoughts of actually thinking we could make it over the other side in these conditions. After a small break filming Andy chucking himself face first down the snow we ran down to the base of the mountain and out towards the entrance to the trail. We all stopped and looked back up at the clouds still covering the peak, it was a beautiful and somewhat menacing sight from where we stood. Feeling the chill we started running again back over the bridge and into the warmth of OUR cafe. The warmth was very welcome indeed. We slumped into the comfy seats, dumped the bags, got a few layers off and then grabbed a coffee. A satisfying day.

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The following morning we woke in a warm, damp smelling room for the start of our second day running around the mountains. The night before we checked the map and found a trail that ran through the heart of the mountains from east to west. If it was what we thought it would be this was going to be a scenic and relatively easy days running compared to the previous days climbing.  We all decided we would try to hitch our way to the start of the trail as opposed to running the 10-15 miles over parts of the same route we ran the day before. So once again we headed out the hostel doors and back towards good old Netto and the bridge. As we approached the bridge we joined the main road where after a few false starts en route we were still confident of a lift. After the first 2 cars passed with no luck, a third car slowed as we (looking like lycra clad grinning maniacs) shoved our thumbs out and flagged it down. After explaining quickly where  we wanted to go we were told to hop in. After telling our new friend where and why we wanted dropped at the start of the trail, our driver asked if we were out running towards the mountain yesterday (he saw us the previous day), we replied we were and gave him a brief overview of our adventure. I can’t remember exactly what he replied but I’m sure he thought we were a bit mad. After a brief stop to see if our drivers brother was in his hotel (he wasn’t) and a great story about the history about the Scots and the people of Iceland, and how he had himself planned to ride this trail in the summer on a horse we arrived at the start of the trail, said thank you and hopped out the car into the morning sun.

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The start of the trail was magical almost perfect, the sun shining, underfoot was gravel and dirt, to the left we could see the mountains and to the right the low-lying sun, this was going to be a brilliant day. After a few miles we made our turn left and into the valley of the mountains. We climbed for a short amount of time before the trail plateaued. For a good few miles we were running on beautiful crisp snow and the slight hint of the dusty trail that lay below. As we ventured further into the valley we stayed high on the left side so as to stay in the sun and keep ‘warm’. The sun made a huge difference and it was much more fun having the slight warmth of the sun on our icy wee bodies as we plodded onward.

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We had been on the go for a good few hours now and after a while we started to lose the trail to the fresh looking snow that lay on top covering its tracks. Strangely we were able to follow the tracks of a birds footprints that followed the trail perfectly for some reason, it seemed to have walked for more than a mile or 2 along the trail, this was quite a bizarre way to be guided along a random mountain pass in Iceland but an enjoyable one none the less. We would pause every now and then for food and water but also to take in the stunning landscape around us and really try to be in, and enjoy the moment. There were certain parts of the route as we dipped into the valley where all we could see around us  was the high mountains, white and magnificent, standing tall and proud, captivating to the eye, enveloped in magnificent untouched snow and ice. There was one moment we all stood silent just taking it all in without another person in sight nor any sign of human life, we could have been the only people on this icy world,…..buuuuuut we weren’t, just up the road we would see a hunter and his dog cutting about the snow hunting for something. As I think back now I’m not sure what they were looking for as we seen nothing apart from the bird footprints in the snow.  Maybe it was us?!

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It was maybe about 5 hours in, we had ran/trampled our way through some deep snow in places and we were getting slightly leg weary from yesterdays hilly miles and today’s run so far. As we looked out into the distance we could make out our exit point, the other side of the trail and on to the ring road that wrapped itself around the side of the mountains and back ‘home’. By now the  already low-lying sun had started slowly creeping down below one of the bigger peaks, so to stay in the sun’s rays we decided to climb higher up the left side of the mountain. As we done this we decided it may be a good idea to just go up and over and drop out on the side of the mountain and cut a few miles off our trip home as this was the direction we would need to go anyway once we reached the end of the path. After quite a while and a good few false summits later we got to the edge of a sheer drop, not only in front of us but as far as we could see either side of us. The thought of having to go all the way back was not one we wanted to entertain and we looked for possible routes down. There was no route down, well no safe route that we could see. Off to the right there was a gully leading down that looked like it might offer a chance of us exiting but we would need to climb back up and away from where we stood to see if we could even get into the gully as from where we stood it was quite a drop in, also there was lots of snow lying so it was hard to tell how deep it was and what lay beneath.

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After a brief chat we decided to try the gully, we made our way up the mountain side and found the entrance and the shortest section to drop in. I wont lie I wasn’t overly excited about going in as we had no idea what was underfoot and just where exactly it would lead us. We lowered ourselves into the gully, straight away the snow was up past our ankles and a mixture of running water and stones lay under our feet! Slowly but surely we worked our way along following the water, as we knew it had to lead out and down from the gully. As the walls at either side grew taller the path we were on actually got easier and footing was slightly better, still jumping from one side to the other wasn’t a pleasant experience knowing that one false move, a twist or worse a break of an ankle would be less than ideal in these conditions.

We paused and ate almost the last of the food we had with us and took on some water before edging our way towards what turned out to be and I think what we all knew would a sheer drop straight down the side of the mountain! As we stood there we looked around trying to see if there was any other possible ways to get down. By now we had descended lower and lower and were tantalizingly close to the road we so longed for, we could have jogged down there in no more than 20 minutes but alas there was no way down. We had one final look along to the right of the gully at what would have been a very easy path down apart from a small but sheer drop from the edge before it plateaued out, it was just to far a drop to get down safely so we knew what we had to do, we had to turn around climb back up and over the many false summits we had already crossed to get here. We know we had a few hours to go as we knew how long it took us to get here and we roughly knew how far from the point we turned off the path it was back out the other side of the valley.

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By now it was getting pretty chilly and our legs were starting to stiffen up slightly after trekking for hours to get here, also the pipe from my camelback where i was drinking from had completely frozen so had the water so I was unable to get a drink and this slightly annoyed me, however it was Andy who was about to get slightly more annoyed as his foot crashed through the snow deep into freezing cold water below! By now our spirits not broken but had taken a slight hit, the banter as we came up and over the hills had been replaced with the acceptance of the task ahead. From where we stood all we could see was uphills, no sight of the trail we should have been on. After a few climbs and a few stops for me to get water from the other lads we finally saw the trail again. This gave us a boost as we knew we were on track and making good progress. We also saw a jeep high up to our right and a few hunters wandering around, so we knew if anything happened from here there was someone else around.

The banter was back as we bounced our way back onto the trail and finally heading out the easy valley run for the day. Chris was struggling with an old injury that had flared up and was hobbling along slowly behind myself and Andy. It had been so long since we were able to walk/run without our feet being ankle deep in snow so the gravel track was very welcome. So were the land rover tracks that we were now able to follow as we knew these would take us safely out onto the road ahead. We were never in real danger however there was a sense of relief that we were on the trail out.

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The sun was now very low and running was almost impossible for Chris, so pretty cold and with frozen feet we plodded on for a few more miles and finally out to a road. From here and being so cold we made an effort to run a bit faster towards the main ring road and had already decided to hitch home as 10-15 more miles now was not really what anyone was in the mood for due to the circumstances. After stopping one car who didn’t have room for us the next car along the road was driven by an older gentleman who didn’t speak much English but was more than happy to give us a lift back to Borgarnes as this is where he was heading.  We jumped in the car and our chauffeur promptly turned up the heaters to our satisfaction. It was a short drive but one we enjoyed, going past the side of the mountain we got a clear view of the route down we had thought about taking, although there was some murmurs about the fact it may have been possible, deep down we all knew we made the right choice turning back. Our driver pulled in and stopped as we reached our destination. it was nice to be back standing outside the petrol station cafe again. We glanced in the window to see our comfy seats were available so we made our way in, ice and snow dripping from our legs and feet as we entered making a beeline for our seats. After a few minutes sitting down getting a heat in us it was time to eat! For me there was no seeing past the double cheeseburger and chips and for my 2 veggie friends, 2 veggie burgers were promptly ordered along with coffee’s and fizzy drinks, the standard recovery products. We sat and reminisced about our mini adventure as we waited on our order number being shouted out, not knowing if the number would be shouted in English or Icelandic?! luckily for us after a few Icelandic numbers it was with relief and excitement we heard our number (in English) and collected the goodies. After a great day I didn’t think anything could top it now sitting in a petrol station cafe, but I was wrong, very wrong. As the 2 lads tucked into their Veggie burger and chips, they both noticed that instead of the anticipated standard veggie burger (Chickpeas, beans, lentils, vegetables!) in their burger buns lay……………a hash brown!! So chips and a hash brown roll was their reward for the day! we all saw the funny side of it but I think me more so than anyone as I took another huge bite of my double cheeseburger!!!

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If you got  this far why not check out the VIDEO

Takk Fyrir

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