Of Trolls and Short Bridges. Exploring Iceland's Remote Interior by Bicycle.
I admittedly underestimated many things, the rivers of Iceland chief among them, but this was something I never would have expected. Standing at the far edge of one of only a few footbridges along my route, I looked down at a dizzying swirl of rapids as they lapped and gurgled at the bottom of the steps below. I laughed, unsure of how to react to the situation. After hours of trudging through the rain, my bike on my shoulder as I scrambled over rocks and wet moss, the bridge on which I stood spanned only half of the main channel. The previous days of rain had swelled the river to flood levels, making the bridge useless and the river utterly impassable. As I had done many times before, I turned around and plotted a new route, dragging my finger over my map yet again.
My bikepacking trip through the interior of Iceland had begun days earlier in the tiny village of Vik. Extracting my bike from the belly of a tour bus in front of an N1 gas station as stiff-legged tourists ambled about, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the fact that my long-awaited journey was about to begin. I fidgeted with my gear as wide-eyed gawkers pointed and stared, the word tires spoken with exited inflection in a variety of languages. Intrigued by the absurd proportions of my bicycle, their questions began to come in rapid succession; the forthcoming answers were delivered politely albeit as succinctly as possible. I was aware my bike was unusual, its swollen tires almost cartoonish in size, but I didn’t expect it to draw as much attention as it did. It was a pre-production Bucksaw I’d borrowed from Salsa Cycles and one of only a handful in existence. The first full-suspension fatbike slated to be produced on a large scale, it would be the perfect platform for traversing the rugged landscapes of Iceland. As the onlookers poked fingers into the tires, curious grins on their faces, I felt like I was traveling with something of a celebrity. It seemed fitting to give my bike a name, and the only Icelandic celeb I could think of was, of course, Björk.
Before long the tourists had crawled back onto their bus and I found myself where I’d longed to be...alone. I checked my watch, clicked my helmet strap closed, and slipped onto the road. With the pedals ticking over briskly, my excitement overpowered the headwind pushing hard into my chest. I was finally bikepacking in Iceland.
As my serpentine route climbed and fell over endless hills and valleys, the extremes of Iceland demanded frequent stops, simply so I could drink them in. The bucolic farmlands and barley fields that ring the island gave way to endless expanses of pillowy moss in the interior. Rolling hills specked with sheep were framed by inky black lava fields and jagged rock outcrops. Rivers sliced through volcanic deserts and the hushed rumble of waterfalls served to amplify a surreal sense of stillness and tranquility.
The further I ventured into the interior of the island the more mountainous it became and the more isolated I felt, at least for a while. As I sat in the grass, snack in hand, my sense of aloneness started to inexplicably erode. Looking over my shoulder repeatedly I could have sworn I was being watched. I initially attributed that sensation to calorie deficit, the persistent foggy haze in my brain only assuaged with a mouthful of peanut butter. There was one other possible explanation, one I admitted to myself reluctantly––trolls. Legend has it that trolls caught in the light of day are turned to stone, a cheeky story that could be easily discounted until you ride your bicycle through an Icelandic lava field in the waning light of day. Every lava field I rode through contained the faint outlines of could-be trolls, some with grassy tufts of hair, one even wearing a stoney hat. Warned not to offend these mysterious characters, I found myself proffering kind salutations to suspicious looking lumps of lava, lest they misinterpret my intentions.
In the months prior to my departure, while poring over maps of the island, I entertained the idea of riding the famed Laugavegur Trail, a well-established trekking route that bisects the multi-colored rhyolite mountains of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Although tucked away in a remote corner of the highlands, Landmannalauger is not a cloistered and unknown destination. Used by hundreds of backpackers as a start or ending point to their hikes on the Laugavegur, it is also a popular destination for overlanders and travelers by all available means. This, paired to its stunning location, made it appear to be one part resort, two parts tent city. Dozens of temporary shelters dotted the valley floor as throngs of adventurers bustled about hurriedly making ready for their individual journeys.
Entering the camp after having spent so much time alone, I felt strangely conspicuous, my bright blue fatbike adding to the amount of attention I received. As it happened in the parking lot in Vík, people once again started pointing at my bike. Before I could get my tent pitched, an exuberant park warden thrust his hand towards me and said, “I like your bicycle. I very much like mountain bikes and my name is Einar.” It seemed like a backwards introduction, putting his name after his affection for bikes. Then again, it was also brilliant and made me wish everybody did the same. I would have replied in kind but, “Hi, I love peanut butter, and my name is Christophe” would have made me sound like a proper idiot. After the typical banter oft shared between mountain bikers, I noticed he couldn’t keep his eyes off my bike. Knowing full well where this was going, I asked him if he’d like to take it for a spin.
As I set up my tent amidst the other campers, Einar pedaled the fatbike around the perimeter of the grounds, popping wheelies and whooping loudly. Eventually he returned, and with all of his enthusiasm ominously drained from his face said, “You’re not thinking of riding this on the Laugavegur, no?” Sensing his concern and perhaps trying to disguise my own, I cracked an unconvincing smile and replied, “Yes, I am. It should be fun.” Einar looked at me with eyes pierced, clearly sizing me up. He ran his hand over his head, and after a contemplative pause said, “Fun…is possible.” I didn’t dare ask if that meant it was possible to ride the Laugavegur, or to have fun doing it. Neither was good news, so I left it at that and slinked into my tent, burying my head deep in my sleeping bag.
I awoke the following morning after just a few hours of fitful sleep, Einar’s less-than-positive forecast of my ride spoiling my night. I was tired, and the 175 hard-won miles behind me had left my legs feeling heavy and wooden. Not bothering to crawl out of my sleeping bag, I reached into the vestibule of my tent and with lazy expertise fired my stove and prepared coffee. I pushed the tent door aside and looked out to see dozens of trekkers shouldering their towering backpacks, many already lumbering off toward the trailhead, some weaving precariously under the weight of their loads. I gave an involuntary smirk and thought, “Fun…is possible.”
Coffee consumed, I extracted myself from my warm cocoon and set to packing my few things. Well rehearsed and eager to get moving, I had my small load strapped to my bike in minutes and, as if my camp never happened, rolled towards the start of the trail. A portent of what was to come, the first kilometer was an insulting series of waist-tall ledges that required I lift my 50-pound bike repeatedly. I am by no means a titan of upper body strength, and within minutes was reduced to a wheezing pile of defeat hunkered down at the side of the trail. One trekker passed me and with a look of sheer pity said in broken English, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I didn’t answer because I genuinely didn’t have an answer. Once the trekker was out of earshot, I mumbled under my breath, “Yeah, yeah, buddy, keep moving.” I lifted my bike up three more ledges and resumed my position slumped over my handlebars. The views were worth the effort, but I had to concede…this was going to suck.
It must have been adrenaline that cut through the discomfort as my legs thrashed about in an effort to extricate myself from my misery. I had punched through the crusty top layer of a snowfield and, once again, had plunged knee-deep into slushy water. My cycling shoes were instantly filled with a slurry of ice, water, and sand. I grimaced, cursed, and made an awkward dash for the rocks 10 meters away to put on every stitch of clothing I had in my pack. The wind howled and forced rain deep into my hood as I peered through the fog, the trail only visible in fleeting glimpses. Around my feet were chunks of glassy obsidian, many the size of bowling balls and worthy of a photo, but my camera, which was pressed against my back in my pack, seemed a million miles away. A former mountaineer, I quickly recognized my surroundings as not a place to dwell, so I pushed on, my mind focused on up and over.
As I neared the high point of the trail I checked my watch. It was early evening and the entire day had been spent traversing just the first few miles of the Laugavegur. I had dragged, carried, and pushed my bike up 500 vertical meters of ledges, switchbacks, and brutal climbs in pouring rain and battering wind. Exhausted, dejected, cold, hungry, and not just a little bit worried, I arrived at the first potential camp, just below the summit, which was by no means an inviting scene. The fog was thick, but it was the wind that punished. In the distance I watched two trekkers wrestling with their destroyed tent, its torn fabric and broken poles a chilling reminder to be respectful of the elements. I offered them my assistance, a gesture that seemed to only offend their already desperate situation. The rain started coming down even harder, this time mixed with sleet and bone-chilling cold. This was no place to camp. Looking down at my watch one more time, the numbers made my heart sink. Although daylight was not an issue this close to the Arctic Circle, it was nonetheless very late.
Four more hours would pass before I finally found refuge at Lake Aftlavatn, where a dozen tents rocked and swayed with the wind. After pitching my tent in 35 mph gusts, I quickly dove inside, changed into dry clothes, fired up my stove, and with just enough energy to chew, replaced the calories needed to keep warm through the night. Before zipping up my sleeping bag, I took one last check of the time. It was well past midnight. With the wind rocking my tent to its near breaking point, I smiled to myself through borderline delirium, and said aloud, “Fun…is possible.”
The second half of the Laugavegur delivered on the promise of the first, and continued to challenge my decision to traverse it by way of mountain bike. Though the trail is brutally difficult to cross, it is a place of unimaginable beauty. Riding into a small tornado of dust in the sunny expanse of a volcanic desert, the sleet and cold of the previous day seemed a distant memory. As the trail traversed canyons and climbed impossibly steep piles of volcanic ash, the ache in my legs and back paralleled the contours of the landscape. A heavy cloak of clouds sat imposingly on two volcanoes on the horizon, and flowers poked up from the black sand. This day would be a continuous assault on my senses. Nearing the trekker’s hut at Thórsmörk (Þórsmörk), I realized I was completely spent and facing yet one more large river.
Perhaps as a means of bolstering my river-crossing courage, I had kept track of every fording that wetted my feet, and had arrived at crossing number 54. A thigh-deep braided river, it had a swift current and unsure footing. The Laugavegur, just two kilometers from completion, was going to extract every ounce of adventure I could muster. As I had done 53 times before, I shouldered my bike, stumbled into the rapids, and with my legs wobbling under me, managed to just reach the other side before falling. My hip barely landed on the dry embankment and Björk crashed onto the rocks with a terrible clatter. Looking up I saw a lone trekker in the distance, her hands clasped over her face, profoundly amazed I hadn’t gone for an impromptu swim. I gave her a pitiful wave and rolled onto my back. Realizing my near miss and recognizing my lack of energy, I ate more peanut butter, its restorative powers rendered largely ineffective. Watching the clouds overhead, my labored breathing was audible over the river rushing by at my feet.
After a short and much-deserved downhill ride, I arrived within the camp at Þórsmörk, a backcountry oasis with geothermally warmed showers, a tiny but excellently prepared buffet, and most importantly––cold beers. Paradise found, I proceeded to eat my weight in roasted lamb while basting myself in as many beers as I could stomach. It was perhaps the best night of my trip, one shared with fellow adventurers from around the globe. Sitting elbow-to-elbow in the warmth of the main hut we shared stories, travel advice, and even a birthday, a lone candle elevating the spirit of the evening as only a birthday candle can.
Sliding into my sleeping bag that night, again long after the midnight hour, I mumbled aloud, “I love Gull beer and my name is Christophe.” Before I could close my eyes, the rain resumed and weighted my tent. I didn’t really care. I was warm. I was dry.
With the rain persisting through the night, I was well aware that the rivers would be an even bigger issue than before. Standing at the end of a bridge to nowhere, its terminus hanging above a chest-deep pool of rapids, I took the hint. High adventure in the deep backcountry of Iceland had been a fun and arduous undertaking, but I was simply exhausted. I was ready for some sightseeing, and as if answering my call, the clouds parted, sunlight beamed down, and even my perennially wet feet started to dry.
On my way back to the coast I took in all of the tourist attractions found on postcards and travel brochures. I visited the waterfall at Skógar and the famous plane wreck on the black sands near Vík. I watched puffins watching tourists watching puffins, and even pedaled along the shoreline for miles on end listening to the waves as they stirred the black pebbles that comprise the beach. I eventually worked my way back into the hills and valleys on the flanks of the Katla volcano, to camp in one of the most beautiful canyons I had ever seen.
Fatigued by another 50-mile day, I made slow and methodical work of pitching my tent. As I fired my stove to prepare the last of my dehydrated meals, a trio of Swedish campers, presumably drawn in once again by Björk and her big tires, came into my camp. They introduced themselves one by one, and as travelers are prone to do, we began an exchange of stories, each of us powerfully moved by Iceland. I regaled them with my big loop into the interior and they told me of their own journey, all of us made equal by our appreciation of such a many splendored place. With my energy fading, I excused myself and collapsed in my tent, the accumulative fatigue of nine days evident in every sore joint. The next morning I awoke amidst more rain. This time, pushing back the tent door revealed three Gull beers next to my bike. My new Swedish friends had left me a parting gift. As heavy as they were, I was not about to leave them behind.
My final day on the bike brought with it a heavy heart, a renewed appreciation for my love of bicycle travel, and above all, a feeling that I had just scratched the surface of Iceland. As my bus back to Reykjavik pulled into the parking lot of the N1 gas station in Vík, I took a final inventory of my surroundings. I felt the wind on my face, the rain as it wetted my shoulders, and the ache of muscles made tired by 350 miles of pedaling. I could hear the shriek of sea birds overhead and smell the salt in the ocean air. Slowly ascending the steps of the bus I plopped into the first available seat as if all of my bones had vanished. The doors of the bus closed, I rested my head against the window, and before the wheels turned I felt the weight of my eyelids fall. I slipped into a deep sleep, hoping, just hoping, to relive it all in my dreams.
This story first appeared in the 2015 Gear Issue of Overland Journal.