Kjolur – One of the historic mountain roads crossing the Icelandic Highlands, mentioned in the Sagas. It crosses from Gullfoss in the south, between LangJökull and Höfsjökull glaciers, to Blöndudalur in the north.
“Your hair’s frozen again”.
I pat my head, feeling the now familiar crinkling of a frosty quiff, before reaching for my mug of tea from its rock and sinking a little lower into the steaming water.
“Pass the hot pipe, then”.
Its 9pm: the sun is lighting a line in the snow between the hot spring in which we’re sitting and the northwestern horizon. As the light fades, the temperature is dropping like a stone and our hair, only six inches or so from the forty degree water (that’s Celsius, misguided Fahrenheit fans), is frosting over; soon the aurora borealis will flare up overhead and dance its nightly routine beside the faded moon. I forget exactly where this started or what exactly lead to us ending up here, 100km from open road in the frozen desert of the Icelandic interior – I think like most adventures it was the lure of the edge, of jumping away from the safety of known trails, established routes and guarantees of fun. So far, I’m glad I jumped, the water’s lovely.
We have ridden in Iceland before, touring around a mix of deserted dirt roads and sniffing around some of the relatively unknown (at least outside of Iceland) singletrack that winds improbable lines around and over some of the hills here. Without being able to pin down quite why, we both knew we would be back at some point: perhaps it was the easy solitude of open spaces, or the unreserved hospitality of the various people we met. Trying to describe Iceland to someone that hasn’t been is a task doomed to failure, as it doesn’t look like this or that, it just looks like Iceland, which is a strange place indeed. Geologically, it is one of the newest pieces of our planet, but the slow time that shapes rocks and ice is visible to the naked eye in a way that it isn’t elsewhere, making it both shiny new and ancient all at once. The land that greets you outside the terminal at Keflavik is mostly solidified lava, with only a thin scattering of moss covering naked bedrock. The lava might be a million years old, but it looks like it was poured from a giant ladle just yesterday. Icelanders have scratched homes and highways into it, but the land still feels as though it belongs to no-one but itself.
It was winter that brought us back: the draw of the dead season in a land that showed very little life even in high summer. The Icelandic interior is a volcanic desert of rolling gravel plains, lava and colossal shield glaciers; it’s hard to imagine what the first settlers must have made of it, and if they weren’t god-fearing before then they must certainly have been afterwards. At some point last time, the seed of a return had been sown:
“It must be even bleaker in winter”.
“If the snow was just right, maybe. You would need a fatbike of course”.
“You would need the weather gods on your side too. Maybe it would go…”
18 months later, on the 22nd March 2016, we stepped out of Keflavik terminal, saw the lava fields and the roads bulldozed through it, the super jeeps and the ever-present mountains on the horizon, and felt like part of us had come home. There is truth in the saying that it’s better to regret what you do than what you don’t do, and so we stood waiting for the bus to Reykjavik, borrowed fatbikes packed in outsized boxes, a sense of trepidation that this was really happening.
Packing an expedition-ready winter load was new – I’ve never had to strap a snow shovel on to my handlebar harness before. We had both spent the last 7 weeks in Scotland training for a winter mountaineering assessment, so the daily routine of keeping ourselves safe in the mountains in winter was fresh in our minds. Loaded up with Icelandic flatbreads and pogies full of liquorice sweets and lip balm, we began in true Icelandic style, as a March blizzard from the north tried its best to blow us back to Reykjavik. Weaving in and out of battered dog walkers on the path network out of town, the driving sleet quickly did its job, and we finished the first day not far from where we started, wet, and with red faces where reality had given us a slap.
Gluggaveður – literally ‘window weather’, ie weather that is considerably more pleasant to watch when there is a good, solid window between you and it.
It took us four days to make our way north eastwards into a strong headwind that blew day and night as we found our winter touring routine, following the ‘Golden Circle’ route past the tourist honeypots of Geysir and Gullfoss, where camera-toting Stormtroopers marched out of the tour buses, lens irises in place of eyes as we crawled past. The gift shop and overpriced café at these places was usually much larger and busier than the supposed main attraction itself, and we didn’t linger. Iceland attracts more and more visitors, for different reasons, but there seemed to be a general hunger for ‘adventure’ – the manufactured, cosseting kind that is sold to us in glossy magazines and omnipresent social media. I’m not going to start on who was having a valid adventure and who wasn’t – an adventure is what you want it to be – but the rental jeeps, selfie-sticks and immaculate explorer chic were the uniform of a herd, each member of which wanted its own slice of Iceland’s peace and quiet, until it was sliced so thinly that it wasn’t there anymore.
The throng of bodies at Gullfoss was just a prelude. A last check of the wifi revealed the weather window we hadn’t dared to hope for, and suddenly the triviality of milling crowds was replaced by the big, white horizon. We were headed north, where an enormous question mark stretched 200km to the north coast and the Greenland Sea. This was the moment when all the self-assured talk and confident planning had to be cashed in for action and the adventure could come to life. We had prepared as much as possible for different weather, different snow, packing light, packing safe, packing for the uncertainty of travel by bike across a sub-Arctic interior that was still in the middle of its winter… I had packed my ten-day ration of food (ten days in case of having to sit out a storm) doubting whether it was really anything more than a dry run, a token effort at something that was unlikely to really come off. Neither of us had admitted it to the other, but within both of us there were was little confidence that weather and snow conditions would line up in reality. We weren’t hardened expeditionists, just a couple of over-ambitious tourers from a soggy island, but now that we were stood on the edge Iceland seemed to be saying “go on, then, jump”. I can never help but crack a grin when its time to go, time to commit yourself totally or to back out. While the bored-looking day-trippers turned for home we pedalled on, past where the tarmac ended and the snow began.
Our entry to the Highlands was blocked by a 500m pass over the shoulder of Blàfell, behind which the central expanse of the Kjolur would be laid out before our wheels. We couldn’t guarantee any compacted tracks to follow; we didn’t know whether the route had been driven at all since the last snowfall. The first crunch of ice under tyre upped the excitement, and slowly the ratio of ice to tarmac increased and increased. A downshift of gears, a spinning up of legs – the intake of breath and explosion of vapour– and we were riding the mountain roads in their winter coat, at last. Most of the Icelanders we had met on the ride out of the city had said with a resigned pity that we would die – I suspect that in truth very few of them had ever been there themselves in winter, and that received wisdom rather than experience told them that it was death on a stick to go there. In the Highlands it was different: one guide that we met, the last person we would speak to for a few days, asked us about our route, our equipment, our experience. He smiled, said we were crazy and wished us the very best of luck.
It was late afternoon by the time we summited the pass, tyres biting and driving on the hard, refrozen snow as we breathed hard in the cold air. On cue, the wind dropped, and we could enjoy the feel of the chilled air, rather than fighting it. The land sloped away to the north, although it stayed much higher than the land we had climbed from – the snow was a uniform blanket here and rivers were only visible where winding ribbons of flat snow gave the game away. To the left was Langjökull, the high ridge of domed ice flanked by the shattered edges of the mountains that were swallowed within the glacier. To the right, low hills marched into the distance before rising to the steep volcanic hills of Kerlingarfjöll. In front of us the land climbed deceptively over slight brows until it was lost from sight, giving us our road to the north. Descending to our first camp on the Kjolur, we left the rest of the world on the other side of the pass, and once the tyres had crunched to a stop beside a semi-frozen river, the only noise breaking the silence was the creaking of icebergs as they flowed slowly downstream. On with the warm clothes, digging out a level platform in the snow, melting some drinking water and the first well-earned sips of a steaming mug of tea. We sat on the ice as the sun left, looking at the map for the story of our next few days with our eyes looking up and northward from time to time. Iceland is not a big island, but unlike the patchwork of varied mountains and glens that give a neat, feeling to home in Scotland, Iceland will show you spaces bigger than you believed could fit into an island of its size, and you will know that you and your ideas barely register on the scale next to it.
It was around midnight that the lights started. At first they were just a green smudge overhead, nothing that you can’t see on a lucky winter’s night in Scotland. They rose though, and rose, like a tide in the sky until they filled more space than my eyes could see at once, flashing from one space to the next with the fluidity of a rippling shoal of fish. I will never get tired of watching the aurora – the more I see it the more I love it. In the dark sky the purples and pinks were visible among the blues and greens, so we sat and watched them dance their silent dance until we couldn’t bear the cold, and climbed back into our bags to wait for the sun.
Skyr – Icelandic strained yoghurt, although it is technically a type of cheese. It contains no fat and has a silky texture. Being high in protein, those who eat a lot of it may start feeling the urge to wear a horned helmet and pillage neighbouring populations.
The next day rolled by much the same, dawning blue and bright and bitterly cold. My spork froze to my tongue during breakfast of muesli and coffee creamer, and to my horror the peanut butter, my favourite touring food, had to be chipped out of the jar in flakes. At times we followed the vague tracks of vehicles that had come this way several days before, at others we simply navigated in relation to the larger hills on the horizon. One conservative estimate of distance after another flew beneath the wheels as the firm snow continued, interrupted by the odd minefield of invisible, soft windslab. The hours were dictated by the sun, the distance and how long until we could allow ourselves some more food.
When even the faint tracks disappeared on the highest section of the route, we realised that no one had driven this part for some time. For a moment it felt as though a psychological crutch or safety net had been taken away, but the sense of freedom to be riding anywhere, flying now that the ground had begun to descend, made me laugh and laugh to myself in the strong evening sun. We covered enough ground to make it worthwhile striking out to Hveravellir, a mountain hut that we knew had a hot spring nearby.
We were surprised to find signs of life when we arrived at Hveravellir – we had been told the huts were all shut over winter, but the warden, Kristina, told us when we met her that we were in luck, and for the first time ever Hveravellir was open in late winter. Any purist thoughts of staying in the tent went straight out of the window, and we asked if we could stay the night. The hut was built in the 1930s, tucked into a shallow cleft full of geothermal activity. We couldn’t see it, tucked into its seclusion, but we had followed the rising columns of steam from miles away. After a great deal of food and tea, and a long chat with Kristina, who hadn’t had many people to talk to over the last eight weeks except Orion the hut dog, it was time to ease some sore muscles in the hot springs.
And that is how we came to be sat, crunching frozen hair while sat in the hot water with our mugs of tea, watching the sunset and waiting for the nightly show to begin. That’s not to say that the adventure was over: we were only halfway, 100km from the northern road and with the promise of bad weather coming in a couple of days. Just like the main road, and its buses and tour groups, normality was a long way away. There was no time to think of emails or work or even what might happen next week, as the tasks of the present, like keeping warm, drinking and eating, setting up camp, demanded complete attention. We wallowed in it, in being right there, right then. It’s the same whenever you take yourself away from certainties and definites, and begin to do a bit (or a lot) of ‘maybes’ and ‘I wonder ifs’.
Kristina sent us on our way in the morning with the gift of a packet of cookies. We were riding on a high in the sun, navigating northwards still, to Akureyri and the Greenland Sea. It was still -5 or-6 in the daytime, my beard froze and refroze as we rode in and out of pockets of colder, settled air. The bikes had felt heavy and slow when we left Reykjavik, loaded with the extra bulk and weight of their winter coats, but on the snow they came alive and there’s nothing I would rather have been doing. Every freewheeling descent felt ludicrous, what were we doing here? Another camp, another day, another meal of couscous or muesli and that essential cup of tea or hot chocolate that entertained my thoughts all day long.
Californiu Rusinur – Delicious balls of chocolate raisin cycling potency, handily boxed and available at most food shops and garages. Touring cyclists become violent when an intruder comes between them and there Rusinur, so be waryand carry an extra box to placate them.
We dropped abruptly from the hills into the Fjords of the north, hopping back on to tarmac and even acquiring a tailwind to blow us to the sea past the smattering of small farms squeezed between the mountains and the grey sea. In the fuel station at Blonduös we sat drinking tea, eating pot after pot of skyr and staring at the sea beyond the village; now that we had stopped it was possible to be still and mull over the fact that our plans had worked, we had crossed the interior in winter, by bike, and what’s more it had been bloody good fun too! As if in agreement, the weather held for much of the month that we spent there, exploring little visited corners and hot springs along the north coast and even some mountain singletrack back in the southwest, although the snow conditions deteriorated enough to stop any repeat performances of the Kjolur crossing as spring slowly made its presence felt.
Before we left Reykjavik when the four weeks was up, we paid a visit to Emil, who runs Kria Cycles down by the harbour. We were relieved that he remembered us from 2014, when we met him in the rain by chance in the mountains of the southern Highlands. He told us about his adventures by bike and ski all over the island, not enough to answer every question, but just enough to hook our attention and plant some more seeds… I think he knew what he was doing; it looks like we’ll be back then.
Iceland is unfathomable, I think. Even Icelanders themselves, many of whom move abroad as young adults, can’t seem to explain why they feel the urge to return home eventually. It’s tiny, but looms enormous when you look behind the façade. It’s the bleakest, most beautiful land I think I have seen, both happy and terribly sad all at once. I can’t explain it. Emily Chappell rode her bike there and thought the same thing, saying that Iceland is a place for those who love “hardship, solitude and wide open places”. Just be warned, if I see you waving a selfie stick and a jumper with a puffin on the front I’ll hunt you down myself…
This adventure was brought to you by Salsa Cycles, Skyr, hot tea and the amazing, giant chcocolate raisins they sell everywhere. It’s worth going just to try them.