SHARED ICE: REAL DREAMS DEFY THE FABRIC OF REALITY
It all began on a cold and stormy morning in mid March, on the way to Tevno Lake in the Pirin Mountain Range. By then, the number of days I had spent in the mountains in winter could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and skiing, to me, was long-considered an enemy of the state…
Bran was skiing ahead of me and I kept stumbling about in my enormous snowshoes.
I knew that a month earlier he had skied solo across Langjokull – one of Iceland’s three largest ice caps. I knew…but actually didn’t. What did it really mean to ski across an ice cap in Iceland in the dead of winter?!
The question I just had to as came out of my mouth on its own: “Tell me more about Iceland”
And then I saw flames sparkling in his eyes – flames, painting the determination and strength necessary to fight for your dreams…the desire and all the effort needed to achieve those dreams, fully knowing and committing to the price you will have to pay.
“It’s like driving at 150 km/h on a winding and icy road. No one goes there in January. Last year they had to rescue nine out of ten foreign expeditions on that glacier.”
Those were the words of his Icelandic friend – Hilmar – a former mountain rescue crevasse specialist with over 30 years of service and extremely extensive experience in Iceland’s harsh and frozen wasteland.
But Bran, you should know, is a tough bastard. To him, the hard and impossible are the force driving him forward.
– You’re planning on going back aren’t you? – I kept firing questions at him.
– Oh, yes. Vatnajokull this time – Europe’s largest glacier. It should be around 140km.
– Will you go alone again? – I just wouldn’t let him rest.
– I have no idea just yet.
Then I heard my own voice blurting out “Can I come with you?”.
My words seemed to have gotten way ahead of my mind, which was still wandering among the snow-capped mountains around us.
“Hmm…sure, why not.”- His answer felt as if the ground was shaking. Right then and there I felt as if being in a vacuum. No words, no thoughts…and completely no idea what lay ahead…
Over the following days we started discussing this future trip more and more often. A few misguided calculations of time and distance led us to the idea of crossing Iceland’s three largest ice caps – Vatnajokull, Hofsjokull & Langjokull…and that’s how our “Shared Ice” project came to be…
From this moment on, not a day would pass, without the two of us using any possible moment to plan and ensure that we would carry out our future expedition. A dream of Bran’s had turned into my own as well and I had embraced it with my entire being. I kept going to work but every second between treating patients was filled with thoughts of Iceland…
Preparations were to begin immediately. We created a list of all the necessary equipment and carefully selected the optimal items by weighing in their functionality, reliability, durability and weight. We kept ordering new kit online and were as giddy as little girls (yes, both of us 😀 ) when a shipment arrived. We would unpack the delivery, and hurry up to test the kit in the most similar conditions possible. We calculated all the food and fuel necessary, we planned a schedule for charging batteries…
In the evenings we would stare endlessly at the map, planning our route in the greatest possible detail…We wanted to avoid heavily-crevassed areas as much as possible. We planned all possible emergency evac routes in case of impossibly bad weather and marked all the approaches between the three ice caps. There were many rivers we would have to cross.
“No one goes there in October too. It’s possible that there won’t be enough snow yet, to pull the sledges and rivers might not be frozen at all…” – Bran reasoned – “We’ll have to carry everything on our backs, if it comes to it.”
We planned to cross the rivers via two dams and the rest of our route would follow terrain in a way as to avoid the larger tributaries. Bran was working on assembling topographic maps and talked to anyone willing to share information on our proposed route.
Alongside our extensive planning, we also trained vigorously: we ran, pulled tires, carried heavy packs in the mountains (45/55kg, averaging 1300m D+ per training session), we’d speed hike up big mountains, climb, train for crevasse rescue, fight with the skis…
It definitely wasn’t easy going…I’d be completely wrecked and barely be able to keep up with Bran, with two tires outfitted with rims tied to my waist. I’d stumble on rocks and steep hills with 45 kilos of water on my back, get all tangled up in ropes, slings and hardware I knew nothing about or just fail miserably at skiing…The more we trained, the more I thought I wouldn’t be able to perform up to standard on the Ice. And Bran kept encouraging me with ever harder training…Not exactly a picture perfect honeymoon process but I still counted every single day until departure.
Thus, between purchasing kit, planning, pulling tires and more pulling tires, time flew by and there was less than a week left. It was time to pack. Every gram mattered. Bran had removed every single visible and invisible lable of our clothes and equipment, every single millimeter of extra strap or fabric was trimmed off the packs and harnesses; I had to say an unconditional farewell to any notion of a third blouse and my toothbrush was most blatantly cut in half (the presence of the brush itself was an enormous compromise which cost me a lot of nagging). To make things even lighter, we re-packed all the food – muesli bars, chocolate, nuts, freeze-dried expedition meals… Just by doing so we saved 473g in weight and the total weight savings amounted to 1780g. The final weight of our equipment totaled at 101.630 kg, all trimmed down and measured to the finest detail.
And so THE DAY came upon us. Landing in Reykjavik, we stuffed the entire circus into a small rental car and off we went towards Egilsstadir in the east.
The same evening, dozing in and out of sleep on the final stretches of the road, Bran suspected we were seeing the Northern Lights. I denied the possibility straight away.
He had been hoping to see the lights during the expedition in January, but to no avail. His entire stay he described as ” swimming through Skyr” – an experience of absolute white-out, akin to moving on the inside of a bucket full of the local yogurt variation.
Yes but…hope is the last to die, isn’t it? The faint glow gradually intensified, turned into a bright electric green and painted marvelous shapes across the sky. A painting, finished gracefully by a subtle touch of purple here and there among the stars.
It really was the Northern Lights! We saw it on another three occasions while camped on the glaciers.
A friend of Hilmar’s transported us from Egilsstadir to the Snaefellskali hut – the starting point of our approach to Vatnajokull.
On Sept 29, 2018, around 12:30 local time, a dream started to turn into reality. We were pulling our loads across the frozen valley, weaving a line between rocks and streams not yet covered by the snow and ice.
Naturally, the storm wasn’t long to arrive. It had become an unwritten rule for us to embark on an adventure during a storm. Winds battered us and heavy sleet rained down, freezing on top of our clothes when it touched us. We skied for about 5 or 6 hours before we set our camp by a large boulder.
Close by, we were barely making out the terminal morraine of Bruarjokull – the glacier we used on the following day, to climb up to the plateau of Vatnajokull. “The glacier of water” – as its name translates – is the largest glacier in Europe. We would now have to ski around 120 km to crossed it by our planned route.
The morning was clear and with the rising sun, the skies turned into a bright and deep blue, like the sea. Ahead of us lay an endless and perfectly white wasteland. We were nothing more than tiny, barely noticeable dots, inching slowly towards the horizon.
The contrast on the following day was remarkably stark.
Winds of up to 80-100km/h and no visibility at all. Plainly put, we were two little crumbs in a bowl of Skyr, thrown around by a roaring mixer. We were moving only by a pre-planned compass bearing. Bran was handling all the navigation and I had glued my sight to the tails of his skis, while shaking in the wind.
In times like these your thoughts don’t focus on the cold or whether you could – at all – distinguish the snow below your feet from the sky, or whether you could keep your balance in the howling winds. The only thought you have is too keep going forward, always towards your dream, fueled by that barely noticeable nod and the little smile, appearing on your partner’s face amidst the fiercest of storms.
“…the poetry of the North Atlantic…a testimony to the human spirit’s ability not only to endure what fate may send it but to be renewed by the experience.”
– Saemus Haney
Before the expedition was over we endured 10 big storms in just 15 days and on Langjokull, we spent an entire day, entrenched in our tent, waiting for less-unbearable conditions. After Vatnajokull, we carried the entire circus on our backs, crossing a lava field barely covered by the new snowfall. It’s an unforgettable feeling – to try and precariously balance over unstable loose rocks – trying not to break a leg – while the pot, stove, 4 kg of butter, the sh*t-bag (the one carrying used toilet paper) and the sled are dangling above your neck, and a portable solar power station is blowing in the wind, attached on your back.
We had our fair share of tent problems as well. The usual condensation that rained on our down bags we found a way around by alternating on “guard duty” during the night with a large cotton gauze. The zippers on both vestibules froze and one of them subsequently kept refusing to open. On our last two nights on the ice, the other zipper broke completely and its vestibule remained entirely open through the night.
During two of the storms we had to pitch our tent in the middle of the day to reattach the skins back to the skis – the constant wind and snow were making it absolutely impossible to outside and on the go. On our last two days, Bran waved his skins goodbye for good – the adhesive had completely worn out. But despite that, he kept hauling on the uphills, at first on just one skin, then without skins altogether and the only thing that forced him to take his skis of was the bare ice we encountered.
Despite the harsh and hostile environment, our battered equipment and the fact that – as it’s quite trendy to say – we were way out of our comfort zones, this realm of the endless white wasteland etched into our consciousness some of the most exhilarating and unforgettable paintings Mother Nature’s mighty brush is capable of creating: the shining silhouettes of the distant mountains around us, the burning color-palettes of sunrises and sunsets, spattered by the falling snow, the dancing and swirling Northern Lights, the dynamic clouds, the meandering frozen rivers, the ominous crevasses of Hofsjokull – the most technical of the three ice caps – the contrast of frozen lava fields…
A dream that appeared to be woven from the fabric of the unreal, had turned into an unquestionable and unforgettable reality.
While coming off Langjokull, several hundred meters away from the Jaki hut, Bran quickly turned around to face me. His eyes were glowing.
“We did it!”- his words blended into my own “We did it!?” – and neither of us could hear what the other one was saying anymore.
October 13, 2018, 16:00 local time – we crossed the three largest icecaps of this harsh and temperamental land!
Fifteen days into the infinite whiteness, a total of 320km, 220 of which on the glaciers and the only people we met were a small group of glaciologists whose path we accidentally crossed on Hofsjokull. During those 15 days, we had striven to perfect every little detail, already planning our next expedition as we went.
A group of mountain guides who were working on Langjokull gave us a ride from Jaki hut to Reykjavik. We gave them our battered sledges in return.
On the following day we met with Hilmar. Despite him, having been on the team first to cross the ice caps almost 30 years ago, he listened intently, discussed new routes and ideas with us, which we took in eagerly…and finally he asked:
– I have a friend. He is a journalist. Would you agree to do an interview with him for one of the local newspapers?”
– But why? – Bran was wondering – Skiing across the ice caps isn’t new to Icelanders.”
– Yes, but the time of the year is not typical. No one thinks about going there in October. Plus, we could use a good, positive example. – was Hilmar’s reply.