Wet Toes

This is what we had come for. We were deep in the Icelandic highlands. The nearest tarmac was three days’ long ride and we had no idea where the nearest human being was. The sense of freedom was palpable.

Written by Tom McNally

As the plane jolted down through turbulent layers of cloud towards Keflavík Airport, Charlie the Bike Monger’s words rang loudly in my ears: ‘Iceland is amazing, tough, remote and life-changing.’ Looking out of the window, my thoughts were interrupted by the realisation that we were only a few hundred metres above a damp lunar landscape of jagged rock and moss, stretching as far as I could see. If the flat bits of the island were this rugged, I wondered, what on earth were the mountains going to be like?

A day’s packing and travelling later, Simon and I found ourselves unceremoniously deposited by the bus on the ring road, standing next to a tangle of bikes and luggage. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It was 9.30pm and a gravel road snaked towards a distant horizon of mountains and glaciers, burnished gold in the evening sun. Tired but grinning we attached our luggage, swung our legs over the bikes and started pedalling.

After an hour or so of riding, interspersed with bouts of luggage adjustment and trying to silence Simon’s inexplicably squeaky saddle, we pitched the tent on a springy carpet of technicolour moss overlooking an expanse of black sand. A golden moon hung in the still sky above. We ate dinner transfixed and fell into a contented sleep, glad that the trip had finally begun.

The next few days passed in a blur of height gain. The black gravel road swooped upwards to meet grey clouds, framed by vivid green mountains still adorned with ribbons of snow. Clouds of spray rose from waterfalls tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the landscape. Our legs, now roused by the effort, powered us along nicely.

We crossed several rivers a day. Having long given up on dry feet, we decided to find the limit of what we could pedal across. This almost always resulted in wobbling off the bikes, giggling into knee-deep water. Traffic was sporadic.

Every now and then a huge truck or bus rumbled past on oversized tyres and raised suspension. Iceland is home of the fat tyre; our three-inch wheels and unusual luggage attracted approval from the locals.

The climbs eased. Red and orange mountains loomed through the mist, contrasting with the greens and greys, signalling our arrival to Laudmannalaugar. We wound west up the valley, greeted by drizzle and traffic splashing through muddy puddles on the worn track. On our arrival the rain hammered our hoods as we surveyed the colourful circus of tents pitched on wet gravel and rock. We entered the throng and grabbed as many big rocks as we could to anchor the tent to.

Nestled deep in the southern highlands, Laudmannalaugar is accessible only during the summer by gravel roads from the east, west and north. It is famed for its colourful rhyolite mountains and hot springs.

In recent years, tourist numbers have exploded and it is evident that this remote encampment of outdoors people is changing. Furry boots and jewellery now begin to contrast with the bright clothing of walkers and mountaineers.

It is the starting point of the legendary Laugavegur trail, providing a tenuous link south through very steep and loose volcanic terrain to the rock-strewn glacial valley of Thórsmörk. We had planned to try and ride as much of this as possible. What we hadn’t planned was quite how busy it would evidently be. We were already doubtful about carrying and riding loaded bikes on such terrain. The addition of so many people into the mix was an objective hazard we could do without. This really wasn’t our style.

A chat with a local mountain bike guide confirmed our thoughts. It also revealed that the more remote tracks to the west of the Laugavegur should be passable with care. We formulated a new plan and pored over the map with some of the local mountain rescue service members. They warned us that while our new route may be less steep, it was far more remote and there was still snow on the high passes. We went to bed excited with the new developments.

We awoke to the staccato patter of rain on the tent. It was a slow start, cold and wet fingers struggling to pack neatly. Once on the road, the traffic and people dissipated and we immediately relaxed, relieved at leaving the crowds behind. The noise of the rain on our hoods eased, now replaced by the soothing hiss of tyres on fine black volcanic grit… and the incessant squeaking of Simon’s saddle.

Around midday we finally left gravel roads behind and joined a rough bridleway, steeply gaining height. My calves strained at the incline for some time before lactic acid won and I started pushing. I noticed the tip of a mountain poking above the horizon, slowly creeping into view as the climb eased.

Simon and I reached the crest of the hill, breathless and sweaty, before surveying the vista before us. We looked at each other and back at the view, mouths agape, incapable of any coherent speech bar swearing repeatedly.

The blackened flanks of a huge volcano jagged improbably upward, splitting the moody clouds scudding overhead. A sea of fossilised lava swirled at its base, stretching away to distant green mountains. We appeared to have reached Mordor.

The track descended steeply before us, winding to a vanishing point deep in the midst of the dark and intimidating landscape.

We spent some minutes appreciating our situation before attacking the descent, the bikes chattering over rocks and hissing over black volcanic dust. Focusing on the terrain ahead, I resisted the urge to look at the jaw-dropping view. The staccato of chain slap was occasionally interrupted by the whistle of air that signified I was airborne.

This is what we had come for. We were deep in the Icelandic highlands. The nearest tarmac was three days’ long ride and we had no idea where the nearest human being was. The sense of freedom was palpable.

Despite the concentration required it was impossible to keep a smile from spreading across my face. I eased further off the brakes, letting the bike run as fast as I dare. I felt the tyres’ grip on the loose terrain and approached the edge of control. Simon wasn’t far behind me. As we shredded through a landscape we could only dream of, the cold wind snatched away our wild shrieks of pure joy.

A few hours later and unease had replaced my new-found sense of freedom. Our world was now monochrome. The track wound on and on, ever upwards across black sand and white snow. Mist blinkered us from the surrounding hills but a cold relentless wind cut through our expensive clothing like a knife. I consulted the map more than necessary, aware that this would be a very bad place to lose our way. I even got the GPS out, finally banishing any doubts.

Once again I was pushing, doubled up against the slope, muscles straining. At least I was warm. I focused on the drips of sweat falling from the end of my nose onto the handlebars and the crunch of my feet slipping in the black grit.

I could sense our commitment; we had crossed an invisible line.

It was late in the day, we were still high up, it was cold and we were tired and hungry. Si stubbornly pedalled on ahead of me. My loaded bike felt heavy. I tried to keep thoughts positive. At least we didn’t have darkness to worry about, and heavy was good: food, shelter, warmth, and spares… our safety net. Previous experiences in the mountains told me we were not in over our heads, not by a long shot, just dipping our toes in.

I looked up and noticed Si had ground to a halt. When I reached him he was barely coherent. I immediately knew what was wrong. Si can be quite stubborn but he also needs quite a bit of fuel to keep going for long periods. It was apparent that his unwillingness to get off and push on some of the climbs had cost him. Luckily he had recognised the problem and was busy self-administering chocolate at a speed only limited by the capacity of his mouth.

We pushed the rest of the hill and reached the top together. Once again we stared in absolute disbelief at what lay before us. The mist had parted, revealing an immense lunar plain stretching to the limits of my vision. My tired brain struggled to comprehend the scale of what I was looking at. This time we didn’t hang around for long, aware that we could really do with reaching our destination, a tiny black triangle on the map – an unoccupied mountain hut about 10km distant.

Si raced off as I took some pictures. My attempts to do the scene justice were in vain and it wasn’t long until my fingers were numb and my eyes streaming from the bitter wind. The thought of hot tea and food spurred me on as I set off in pursuit of the tiny red dot.

As we hissed across the plain we forgot our tiredness, gazing at our surroundings with incredulity.

After four days we had run out of superlatives and our faces had begun to ache from grinning and laughing at each other so much.

At every turn the landscape of Iceland was like nothing else we had ever seen. We both remarked just how awesome travelling by bike can be.

At the other side of the plain, a steep pull through snow brought us onto a broad ridge. An unexpected signpost to the hut appeared out of nowhere. We continued along the ridge and the hut appeared, way bigger than expected. We raced along expectantly on rejuvenated legs and were greeted at the door by a typically Icelandic rosy-cheeked hut guardian and the offer of tea. Iceland was not only full of amazing landscapes but also nice surprises.

Sitting here now, crafting these words from notes in my diary and vivid memories, I look back to the amazing experiences we still had in store at this point in the trip. We woke the following morning to find the wind had swung to the north, bringing bluebird skies. The riding got even better and Iceland continued to leave us utterly lost for words. The following week we began the Kjolur route in stunning weather and then crossed the Storissandur (the Great Sand), far and away the craziest place we saw and the most character-building part of the trip.

I remember that day the most, however – all the planning and logistics finally coming together for me and Simon to find the solitude we craved amidst a vast, intimidating volcanic landscape.

Two weeks weren’t even nearly enough. By the end it felt like we had finished, but had only just begun. It was the first time either of us had been on a proper bikepacking trip. I didn’t realise it at the time, but all we were doing was testing the water, just dipping our toes in. The next trip is going to be a bit bolder; I reckon we are going to jump right in. Charlie the Bike Monger was right.


Written by

Tom McNally

Tom McNally is a freelance photographer, outdoor instructor and expedition leader. He lives with his wife in the Lake District, England. A jack of all trades when it comes to outdoor pursuits, he particularly enjoys travelling through wild places by human power. He also volunteers as a member of Keswick Mountain Rescue Team.

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