5 years ago, with these words I finished my book about the Iranian Zagros crossing. They describe the state of mind I experienced after reaching Indian Ocean after more than 2000 km of walk. Since then, I’ve become familiar with this feeling, that finish every trip at it’s end. There is no enlightenment waiting at the finish line. It’s just a point where I stop after the end of the walk. In this sense, the expedition is a metaphor for life. What is remarkable, always happens in the meantime, every single day, not at the end of it. That’s why it is so important to be present and conscious in every day and every moment of the journey – that is when the most important things happen.
However, if there is something I feel at the end of the Icelandic traverse, it is probably a small deficiency. Why? Because I expected that the struggle I will face with myself, with the weather and the difficulties of Iceland, will be harder. Surely, this expedition required very big effort. And yet, after all, I feel that it lasted too short. I expected the crossing of Iceland to be a “white hell”, a thing on the edge of possibility. And although I felt fatigue for a few days, I completed this traverse having a reserve of strength. Leaving, I thought it would be the hardest of my expeditions. And I guess it was, although my body didn’t feel it.
Why? Am I that good? Or maybe Iceland treated me lightly?
Winter Iceland crossing: before start
For me, winter Iceland was also a personal catharsis. Throughout the year 2019 I spent only 3 weeks traveling – as a guide. The rest of this time I dedicated to full-time office job, preparing myself and creating financial reserve. After more than a year of immobility it was difficult for me to move on again. And, to my suprise, realised that returning to life behind a working desk in the office was much easier than it seemed. I felt the urge to move right away, this winter, because another year would have stuck me in front of the computer for good. And it wasn’t easy to put my things together and move on again.
My prolonged stay in Poland opened me also to something surprising: relationships. Unexpectedly even for me, but full of hope, I tried for some time to create a bond with another person. Her extrovertism made us somehow opposites, but we shared similar vision of life. This attempt failed, which was a painfull pill, but it freed me from my attachment to the stability I had acquired for a while. Although we stayed in friendship, our paths parted and I was able to hit the road without regret because of me leaving. I didn’t feel ready for this adventure, until the last moment. But, as the Alchemist in Coelho’s novel said, “there is only one way to learn. Through action.” So I just moved on.
Iceland crossing in calendar winter? That must have been questionable. In my mind I had an attempt of 4 British guys who, with the ambitious project “The Coldest Crossing”, came to Iceland in December 2015, announcing that they would be the first to pass it from north to south (which was untrue). Their readers could hear that the winter crossing of Iceland will be an expedition of the decade, more difficult than climbing Everest or walk to the South Pole. Their adventure ended quickly with frostbites, 3 rescue operations and a scandal, as well as wishes from many Icelanders that they would never return there. The rescue teams members I talked to, mentioned these actions as a colossal fuck-up, angry at guys, who even after being rescued by helicopter played heroes. But reading about their adventure, I wasn’t sure if I didn’t make a same mistake. My route was to be 2 times longer than theirs. In addition, I was supposed to go alone. It made me humble.
When I asked the Icelandic ICE-SAR members for directions, I noticed that after exchanging a few e-mails with me, they started to give evasive answers. I thought they were neglecting me. Now I know, they were afraid to give instructions to a man who was planning an expedition, which foir them seemed crazy. This tells a lot about the difficulties I planned to take on.
And yet, after the fact, I see that this trip was completely different. Not harder, not easier. Just different.
Traverse of Iceland: conditions and weather
The first days of walk were filled with pulling 50-60 kg pulka through the lowlands near the east coast of Iceland. It was a great effort to climb into the highlands with them. There, for the first days, I encountered fresh snow. Skiing there required strength, but was pretty straightforward. However, after a week, a brttal change has come. All around the country the thaw melted part of the snow, turning it into a shell and exposing volcanic rocks. From that moment, until the end of the expedition, I walked regularly on hard ground, pretty bad support for my skis. Instead of a slow but calm walk in soft powder, I found myself for many days in conditions, that were changing constantly: hard ice, firn, powder, rock-frozen ponds, dense and heavy “sugar” – as well as stones, gravel, boulders and grass sticking out above them. There were moments when I forgot about the difficulties, walking on the white plain. And there were times when I fought, dragging my sled through the gravel, dancing on the icy slopes of the hills and breaking through the heeps of powder or wet slush. I’ve met every possible kind of surface winter Iceland can provide. Every day I cursed the conditions in which I had to go. And immediately afterwards, I repeated – sometimes aloud – the unchanging truth: you entered this place alone, of your own free will. No one invited you here. Nobody promised you anything. You’ve been given this crazy the conditions and there’s no point in being angry with the reality. “You don’t beg the sun for mercy” – said Frank Herbert “Dune”. So I kept walking. Although I needed a few days to gain confidence, after the first week I got used to the new environment.
I expected Winter Iceland to be full of terrible wind and blowing snow. One of the biggest surprises was that I regularly walked in good weather. “Good weather” was a relative notion of course, but during 5 weeks of trip, I met brutal wind and snow during 8-10 days. The rest was good – or at least bearable. Even on a clear, windless day, walk with my pulka still was a great effort. And yet what I expected – white hell, full of blizzards and raging wind, snow sticking on my face, taking away my strength and orientation – came just a few times. And when it came, I was able to face it.
Success? Rather long process
That words sound probablky bold. But they don’t describe the long process that preceded the expedition. My success on Iceland was an effect of many winters I spent on the trail. The winter crossing of 840 km in Slovak Carpathians in 2014. A failure in Ukrainian Carpathians and on Mont Blanc in 2017 and 2018. Crossing Iceland in summer 2016. And finally, a last year’s preparations, from equipment to training. I approached the Iceland crossing with great humility and maybe that made Iceland let me go through. It sounds like I treat this place like a living being. But when you’re out there, 100 km from the closest human, you start thinking like that.
Many times I felt that months of training developed exactly the muscles I needed. I felt experience, that allowed me to determine when exactly to make a stop. Experience, training, equipment, gut feeling, intuition. All this together allowed me to control the situation almost all the time. I felt like walking on a narrow bridge – and at the same time keeping my balance very well.
The crossing of Iceland was very successful thanks to the experience of many previous years, training and slow learning curve. It wasn’t the result of JUST equipment preparation or JUST long planning. It was the result of a long process, gathering knowledge and skills necessary to survive in this difficult environment. Just as during training one should slowly raise the bar, I slowly pushed my boundaries during another and another winter trip. The success of this expedition is not only the effect of one big jump, but also many hard winter days out there. There was no magic pill here.
As always, I trusted my intuition on this trip. The intuition that warned me not to push myself into the Arctic in December/January, when huge storms were passing over the country, making weather maps shining red. I’ve chosen February, to stay in calendar winter, but have longer days and possibly more stable weather. I relied on my guessing and belied in my luck, and still had many doubts until the last moment. Especially when, after landing, on the road from the airport, the wind was pushing a car to the side of the road. And yet, 5 weeks of my trip was a time when I regularly experienced silence. This is a cruel contradiction to what happened to Charlie, Angus, Stefan and Archie from “The Coldest Crossing”. They started at the beginning of winter, during the shortest days, among the mighty storms. They barely covered few kilometers a day, get frostbites and have been evacuated 3 times by ICE-SAR. 4 years later they returned, this time without media buzz, to experience the same failure at the same time – they retreated from Iceland highlands n exactly 1 January 2020. And just 1 month later I arrived on Iceland, alone, having a route twice as long as theirs – and walked 800 km without the slightest accident, avoiding storms and fitting myself very well into a period of frost in the highlands. How did I do it? I prefer not top play oracle or hero. I used my intuition and – simply – counted on my luck.
I had it all and also something else: support of others.
With my expedition, I’ve taken a debt to many people. From the most critical moment of the expedition – the damage to the sled on the east – through leaving a food cache in the north, help with shopping and accommodation, to little things like weather forecasts sent by mobiles, a wonderfull group of Icelanders and Poles helped me on this journey. Without them this expedition could not have happened and I am extremely grateful to them, because their support can’t be assess in any way. It was simply priceless.
Give up to win
I’ve never been in a grave danger. Perhaps the greatest risk in my plan was crossing of Sprengisandur, the vast plain at the foot of Hofsjokull glacier. This area is full of glacial river gorges, often impossible to cross in summer. Although I was tempted to test my strength there, I knew I could die if I failed to cross the river. It would be also risky to climb the glacier alone and try to bypass the rivers by marching through the crevasses zone. In summer 2016, I gave up by making 3 days detour to avoid this area. Now I did the same. I sometimes regret it, thinking I chickened out. Having 4-5 days food more I could try to cross the highlands straight to the west. But on my way I saw what big glacial rivers look like: they flowed in deep canyons in the snow, sometimes covered with uncertain snow bridges. Trying to cross them could be deadly. I let go and I know that’s right decission. I plan to explore the centre of Iceland one day, in summer or early autumn.
Iceland crossing equipment: what would I change?
- Surely I’d took a better, stronger pulka or from the beginning take 2 pairs of light “Paris” Pulk I had. Their construction, good for snow, couldn’t cope with rocks and ice. A better alternative would be the Fjellpulken Xplorer 168 or the Acapulka Polar Tour 170.
- I would completely replace the pulling system with a rigid one. Towing my pulka on a nylon rope became a nightmare on every downhill run, during which the sled was knocking me from behind.
- I would have chosen a tent with a vestibule, although my 1-layer shelter (Black Diamond Eldorado) still handled the moisture and snow very well. This trip was it’s test before the 7000+ m expedition and the tent passed it. The only problem was cooking and keeping gear inside. Large vestibule would be a solution. For the next trip to Arctic I would take tunnel tent, something like Robens Osprey or Hillberg Nammatj 2.
- The pulka cover I designed didn’t work. Instead of covering the luggage, a bag with a long zip from the top would be better, giving access to all equipment. I would also choose a material stronger than thin nylon. Frequent contact with skis and poles damaged it quickly.
- I’d take 2 very lightweight ice screws, for camping on ice and a lightweight mini-crampons for walking on ice.
- The lightweight cooking system, based on a 1-litre Jetboil, could be modified by adding a large pot (2 or 2.5 l) to make it easier to cook and prepare water for the following day. MSR Reactor 2.5 l or Jetboil Joule type stove would be a big help. However, I would still stick to gas, not gasoline.
- I would take: better gloves insteads of my old mittens, vapour barrier socks, a headlamp with a removable battery pack to keep it in warm, a bigger thermos (1.5 l instead of 1 l), a good tent lamp, a quick quick shoe adapter for a tripod and a wide-angle lens (I often missed it), a watertight camera bag and an additional folding bowl for meals.
- A new sports camera to replace my old GoPro 4, which has a outrageous weak battery.
- Slightly modified menu: take more butter (instead of oil), almond butter, more various types of bars, more fruit and nuts, a small amount of oatmeal instead of potato purée, a small supply of coffee and warming drinks, e.g. based on ginger, instead of tea.
Lack of these elements did not affect the success of the whole, but would improve my walk. The rest proved to be well planned. Backcountry skis and equipment (although not tested to much before the departure), clothes (tested in high mountains), camping equipment, including a prototype sleeping bag from Cumulus, stove, camera, communication and navigation – although they worked in a new place, they prooved to be well chosen.
I didn’t find myself on the edge of life and death. I did not experience a “touching the void”, although a few difficult moments forced me to use deep reserves of my strength. Those 5 weeks taught me a lot about the Arctic and winter adventures. It also pushed the borders of wat’s possible for me. When I think about returning to the North, better preparation and more knowledge would allow me to face much more difficult conditions. 800 km of winter Iceland crossing has been important lesson and a beautiful experience, which I did survived without pushing my live into great danger. I think that’s good.
I arrived Poland more or less together with SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, but this did not modify my plans for the near future, except few meetings and speeches cancelation. I plan to spend the next months on writing , which fits well to the quarantine, that is currently suggested.
Will I describe the Iceland crossing in a book? No. To write it, I would need plenty of notes, for which I rarely found time on this way. The winter Iceland crossing wasn’t very interesting in terms of writing, because those 5 weeks were quite repetitive time. Short movie will describe it better.
Do I plan to return to the Arctic? I have this thought since I left Iceland. One day – yes, perhaps. For now, my summer plan is to climb high peaks of Pamir Mts. in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Then, maybe, a longer journey to South Asia. But the idea of coming back again into endless white void, is tempting.
For sure I plan to share my experience from this trip – this time in the form of a film on my YouTube channel. See you there 🙂
Long distance hiker, traveler, photographer, guide. Lukasz has spent several years exploring mountain ranges and trails in Himalayas, Karakoram, Central Asia, Europe, Middle East, crossing of Alps and Pyrenees. Solo thru-hike of Carpathian Mts 2004. Thru-hike of Iranian Zagros 2014. Winter Iceland crossing 2020.