Jo Gibbs from the British Exploring Society tells us all about the Iceland expedition in which 39 young people trekked across lava fields and volcanoes as part of the Dangoor Next Generation Programme. Find out how they got on with their life changing adventure, and of course, their Mountain Warehouse gear…
On Sunday 11th August 39 young people, aged 16-21, descended on Heathrow to continue a journey which had begun in the rolling hills of the South Downs in June. Having already undertaken a challenging training week in the mountains around Loch Tay the team were now headed for Iceland. All were fully equipped with a rucksack, fleece, waterproof jacket and waterproof over trousers generously donated by Mountain Warehouse.
Journey to Base Camp
As the plane descended for landing on the outskirts of Reykjavik, the team caught their first glimpse of the wild, volcanic landscape. They were about to embark on a 3-week life changing adventure. The team piled onto a 4 x 4 coach to journey off the main ring road and into the lunar like landscape of the highlands. They would spend the night at Nyidalur.
Situated at a height of 800m, it was a chilly first night of camping and the team awoke to frost covered tents and a spectacular view of glaciers and mountains. Summer clothes from the UK were quickly stowed away and hastily exchanged for their Mountain Warehouse fleeces and waterproofs. The outfit would be a necessary staple for what was to be the coldest August in 20 years!
The next day, en-route to Base Camp the party visited the mighty Aldeyjarfoss waterfall. The clear glacial water, framed by magnificent basalt columns made for a stunning sight and fuelled the excitement for discoveries to come. Later that afternoon the bus arrived at Svartárvatn Lake. The party disembarked and walked through their first lava field to reach the white HQ tent and set up their tents by the Suðurá River.
The four teams – Bull, Dragon, Giant and Griffin, named after the four ‘Guardians of Iceland’, spent the next day preparing together at Base Camp. The Senior Adventurers (participants of the Programme from previous years) organised an inter-team sports day. The lava rock shot-put helped foster some great team spirit to set them up for the challenges ahead. In the evening, bags were packed for trekking, with tough decisions made regarding necessity vs. weight, and most importantly who got which ration packs. Adventurers were reminded by their leaders of the packing guidance they had received in Scotland.
The next morning the teams set off to begin one of the four different adventure phases, with each lasting between two and five days. Each team would be re-fuelled with ration packs and methylated spirit for the Trangias at the end of each phase. They all would have one full rest day at Base Camp to give their weary feet a break from walking and to catch up on laundry.
“Despite the very long journey here, spirits are running high in camp and coming together as a team has really helped us all prepare for the expeditions ahead. I know it isn’t going to be the easiest few weeks, but I have high hopes for the times ahead and I know I won’t regret a single moment. Loving the team spirit too. Everyone supports their team mates no matter what the situation and I know I can rely on them if I need a hand. Thinking of and missing people back home is hard, but they give you the incentive to push yourself to the best of your abilities.” Hollie Dixon, Team Giant.
The objective of this phase was Lake Mývatn, home to more species of duck than anywhere else in the world and a bird watchers paradise. The two day journey to the lake saw our teams trek up alongside the river Kráká (supposedly created by a lovelorn Ogress of the same name, to destroy the farms of men who refused to love her), walking through Icelandic ‘forests’ of shin high trees and past the ruins of Viking dwellings. Teams were also excited to discover Bilberries growing in the area, adding some much appreciated freshness to the ration packs!
The camping base for exploring Mývatn was located on the shore of Lake Grᴂnavatn, hemmed in by unusual lava rock formations. As night time fell one had to look carefully to distinguish between rock and person, especially when going to the ‘bathroom’! All teams spent a day exploring the southern shore of Lake Mývatn, trying to spot and identify different species of birds and ducks whilst taking in the fascinating crater formations.
The challenge of this phase was to ascend Sellandafjall, a table top mountain dominating, at 988 metres high, the land to the north of Base Camp. The view from the top was absolutely stunning, looking back down on where the desert land met the green valley running up to Lake Mývatn. Once photos had been taken and celebratory snacks eaten, everyone was keen to get moving back down to escape the strong winds. At a glance it looked as though Mountain Warehouse had equipped Adventurers with parachutes, as the rain covers on the rucksacks blew up and flapped in the strong wind!
Dominating the distant horizon to the south-east of Base Camp, the snow speckled Askja Volcano presented the most challenging and awe-inspiring phase for our Adventurers. To reach the base of the climb, teams trekked for two days through rocky lava fields and a desolate black sandy desert. The interesting lava formations and far off rocky peaks reflected scenes from a Lord of the Rings movie. They helped the Adventurers make it down the long dusty track, facing flying sand in high winds and scarce water supplies. It was easy to imagine being a band of Hobbits leaving the green of ‘the Shire’ for the foreboding Mordor! The day of ascent was for many the most exciting.
“On the way up the view was beautiful, the shiny rocks and the river that was running through the ice were very enjoyable to see. When we got to the top it was a very amazing view, seeing the lake and huge crater and everyone was excited to see snow in August. Everyone enjoyed the volcano, even though it was hard” Hayden John, Team Bull.
Standing high on the Jónsskarð pass at almost 1,300 metres above sea level, the triumphant Adventurers were able to stand, surrounded by patches of snow, and look down into the vast crater.
During this short phase Adventurers tested their navigational and route finding skills, and most importantly, their ability to come to agreement on decisions as a team. Using a GPS device the teams set out to locate caches containing questions relating to local folk stories. Teams read the stories to one another and delivered their answers to the Base Camp Manager upon their return to HQ to receive some edible treats.
Over 200km later….
The tired but triumphant teams returned to Base Camp having conquered all four phases to hear a snowstorm was on its way to the highlands! With the local farmers bringing in their sheep early, the whole team walked back to where it all began. They picked up the bus from the farm a day earlier than planned. After 17 days of wild camping the luxury of a coach seat was met with much cheer. This was a chance to see more of Iceland’s awesome landscape without aggravating any blisters, or simply catch up on some sleep. Packing up Base Camp and doing the final stretch of walking with packs through heavy rain made all appreciate that despite the cold and wind, Iceland had been fairly kind to us for most of the trip.
After pitching up in Reykjavik city campsite the whole team were treated to a dip in the nearby swimming baths, home to soothing hot pools. It was the perfect antidote to three weeks of hiking and camping in the wild. All that was left was to praise everyone for their amazing achievements and to hand out prizes to star Adventurers from each team, before packing up the next morning and heading for the airport.
Challenges and Achievements
The unforgiving climate and environment of Iceland amplified the physical challenge of walking day after day carrying heavy rucksacks for distances of up to 22 km. Everyone was surprised that there exists a climate more changeable than that of the UK! Mastering living in the wilderness- having to break/make camp each day, source water, dig your own toilets and brave the icy rivers for washing, is an achievement in itself- let alone when tired from trekking all day.
Throughout the three weeks most teams adopted a ‘day leader’ system, with the Adventurers taking turns in being group leader. The group leader would decide how each day was run, such as when the team should wake up, what pace should be walked at and when rest stops should be taken. These could all be contentious issues, with individuals differing in packing efficiency and natural walking speed. All had to learn to work to the team’s strengths and weaknesses and realise that if they stepped in to help others the whole team would work better, be ready quicker and move faster.
Mediating a tired group who have been in each other’s company constantly is no mean feat and provided vital learning in leadership skills. Each young person had the chance to have a second turn at leading and the growth in confidence was clear to see. As team members, Adventurers learnt the importance of patience and tolerance and reconciling differences when working so closely with others, especially in such a pressurized environment.
Through sharing such an intense, unique experience, Adventurers forged close friendships, with many making plans to meet up back in the UK. From increased social skills, to improved fitness, to becoming a supportive team player, each Adventurer returned to the UK with their own personal achievements and a full list of once in a lifetime experiences.