Loretto Borealis Society Iceland Expedition 2017.

The Loretto Borealis Society Iceland Expedition 2017 packed busily on the last day of term and set off to Iceland early on Sunday morning.  On arrival at Reykjavik campsite at 11am, there was a leisurely start to the expedition - rest.  Mr Bidgood got all to pack their travelling clothes to leave at the campsite until we returned after Phase 1 then it was a short walk into town to have a meal and a wander around to relax.  The following day, the team boarded a bus and travelled up the west coast to the North West Fjords and Isafjordur where we camped for two nights preparing for the boat journey to the remote Hornstrandir peninsular. 

Fresh bread and sandwich fillings were purchased for the days ahead and fuel for the stoves.  The following day the weather was fine for our first planned mountain walk to acclimatise the team to hill walking, taking a bus along the coast before heading up the Hnifsdalur valley and over a rocky col by means of a fixed rope and down open country to Isafjordur; it was a good 18km walk.  A browse around the harbour of Isafjordur gave us views of various sailing boats that were visiting the region.  We boarded the boat to Hornstrandir the next day and experienced a very rough journey around the exposed peninsular to Hornvik, most of the team and other passengers being sea sick along the way.  Reaching land with heavy rucksacks was heaven compared with the boat journey.  Hornvik was our base for 3 nights and we settled into our camp as misty weather with rain showers persisted for three days. However, we were able to take local walks to waterfalls and a coastal trek exploring whilst we waited for a weather window we'd heard of. 

Sure enough, the mist cleared the next morning and we achieved our first objective climbing Breiduskardahnukur 709m then we moved camp on the fourth day to give us the opportunity to climb the Horn, a precipitous headland.  We came across a number of arctic fox families and were amazed at their agility as they hunted for sea birds along and down the cliff edges.  The expedition team packed up and headed south with heavily laden rucksacks with 10 days supplies down the coast passing the Latravik lighthouse stopping for lunch in beautiful sunshine and a group photo with our expedition banner.  The light and views were spectacular as we trekked south along this uninhabited coastline and we experienced a wonderful evening of sunlight and a glowing orange sky as we hoped for the midnight sun.  The following days the weather closed in again and a cool wind from the NE with mist and rain settled in for the next 5 days making it difficult to dry clothes and air our tents.  Despite rain the group's spirits remained high as we made two steep climbs over a couple of days hoping to reach Furufjorder and a comfortable campsite.  However, the rain and conditions meant that we had to camp at Bardsvik, not the best campsite but the trek had been long and tiring that day.  A steep climb the next morning up to a Col at 366m was hard and we knew there was a coastal section of the route that required us to cross at low tide.  We headed off across the beach of Bolungarvik past vast amounts of timber washed up onshore over years of arctic storms bringing the driftwood from northern Russia.  The group was tired after the big climb earlier that day and so camped behind the driftwood and decided on an early start to get round the headland at low tide.  The rain persisted throughout the night and in the morning we made our way across the beach in deteriorating weather and around the coast with difficulty where we were forced onto the bolder beach several times which was slippery to negotiate with heavy rucksacks.  Rounding one bay the sea was lapping against the shore rocks and it was a close thing getting around this in knee deep water before the tide cut us off. The Furufjordur campsite was wet but we were able to use a rescue hut (used as a refuge for stranded fishermen) to air and dry our clothes and a chance to discuss how the projects were progressing the team was involved in; these included taking a photographic and video record, a bird study, water sampling from glacial rivers and flora and fauna.  The following day dawned brighter and the pressure was rising. Good progress was made and it was decided that as we'd used up one of our spare days due to weather, the team would trek onto Reykjarfjordur taking a few river samples en route.  This would give the team a chance at climbing the icecap, one of our objectives. The clouds cleared and it turned out a lovely day as the team trekked into the campsite. Arctic terns dived on us as we had entered their breeding colony. A few of the team were attacked and some suffered pecks to the head!  An unexpected surprise at the campsite was a hot pool that had been made into a 20m swimming pool with a shower unit - the temperature was 38-40 degrees which was heaven after a hard 15 day trek. It was amazing to lie in the pool with the icecap looming in the distance.  The next few days were planned to trek up to the icecap and attempt to climb to the summit of one of the nunataks.  We camped half way up the valley then on the next day, dawning bright and clear, the team headed for the glacial tongue that met the bedrock.  Here the team donned crampons, for the boots to grip on the ice, the leaders roped up their small team and ice axes were carried.  We climbed past a glacial river spouting from the ice then in three roped groups, ascended the icecap passing some open gaps in the icecap-crevasses, which we negotiated around easily.  It was a long day and the wind strengthened as we climbed higher.  There were many stops for a drink and a quick bite before moving on until the summit was reached after a steep final climb up soft snow at 2:30pm.  Magnificent views were enjoyed of the inland fjords to the west.  Another objective achieved, the whole team climbed Jokulbunga at 925m. The descent was quick and needed to be as some group members were feeling the cold and cumulative fatigue from the last 16 days. The hot pool awaited us and the team relaxed tired muscles over the final evening at Reykjarfjordur.

The boat was boarded at 9am the next morning after an early start, breakfast and the team hoping for a calmer journey than the first boat trip.  It turned out a calm journey south to Nordufjordur village and a well earned lunch in the local cafe - ahh, there were many happy faces when the burger and chips arrived!

The following day the long bus journey south took a rough road past many fjords, one of which had a humped back whale diving and slapping its fins - an amazing sight.  Nigel had another surprise for the team - a swim with a natural hot pool adjacent at Laugarholl with turf dwellings next to it telling the story of witchcraft at the Sorcerer's Cottage.  The group jumped into the swimming pool and enjoyed yet another relaxing hour lazing in the warm waters with the occasional dip in the hot pool the stream was feeding.  This was the unique pleasure of expeditioning in Iceland; travelling and trekking through a harsh and rugged environment continuously for 19 days with the occasional joy of a hot pool to relax tired bodies and rejuvenate the mind.  The team journeyed to Reykjarvik reaching the Laugadalur campsite at 6pm and went into town, Phase 1 over.

With the expedition team finishing Phase 1 in the North West Fjords, they returned to Reykjavik on 20 July prior to the Phase 2: vehicle assisted mountaineering in the Central Highlands of Iceland and Vatnajökull glacier in the South. Before that, there was the all-important restaurant meal and a night on Laugadalur campsite. Dr Idle arrived at this stage to help with the driving.

Next morning 3 Land Rover Defenders were picked up and the team set off for the town of Selfoss to buy supplies before heading for the interior. The first base camp was at the Nyidalur campsite and the Land Rovers came into their own as the expedition moved on to dirt tracks. The camp nestles below the Tungnafjellsjökull ice cap to the south and this was the objective for the next day. The peak of Háhyrna, at 1540m, provided a great first day of climbing. Fortunately, for the group the campsite was not a sea level! Equipped with daysacks, walking poles, warm clothing and food a short trip in the Land Rovers to the trailhead allowed the hike to start mid-morning. The ascent was comfortable initially but as the summit approached the fragmented rock proved tricky and some of the ridges appeared quite precipitous as we crossed, the wind picked up too, with some strong gusts. However, the objective was reached and the sense of achievement of summiting on the 10th highest peak in Iceland, with great views of the ice cap, was wonderful, many photographs were taken. The return to camp revealed the extent of the wind at ground level, with some remedial work on the tents being completed by the Park Rangers whilst we were up the hill!

The evening’s reflection and discussion crystallised the plan for the next day, the vehicles would head north, to the iconic lake of Myvátn, with the nearby Godafoss waterfall. This allowed the strategic avoidance of some difficult driving on the F910, and a refuel of the vehicles at the small town of Reykjahli∂ beside the lake, whilst doing some sightseeing of places that make Iceland famous. A beautifully sunny morning the next day allowed a visit to the almost alien landscape of Hverarönd, with steaming vents in the ground, bubbling pools of mud and an all pervasive sulfurous smell before heading east again to the highland dirt tracks. Her∂ubrie∂, the queen of Icelandic mountains, hoved into view as we bumped along across the sandy desert between the lava boulders and river crossings. The oasis of Her∂ubrie∂alindir, with its ranger station afforded a good lunch stop before we headed south to Askja, another famous Icelandic location. This is the caldera of an extinct volcano and a walk up to it then let the team visit the lakes, one of them being hot, a great place for a swim! Then it was off along the F902 literally towards the ‘end of the road’ and Kverkfjöll, part of the Vatnajökull, which covers 8% of Iceland and is Europe’s largest glacier. The drive proved the most challenging yet but it was worth the effort, the strange beauty and light made the campsite and mountain hut of Sigurdarskali a very special place indeed and plans were quickly adapted to allow two nights here. The black lava sand and strange mountains shaped adjacent to the glaciers coupled with some spectacular sunsets made for a great time here, there was even a chance for some bird spotting with a snow bunting flitting around, its white plumage contrasting with the sand. The key expedition objective for Kverkfjöll was to improve the team’s ice climbing skills, rather than trying to reach a summit. Setting off from the car park and following a quick view of an ice cave at the glacier snout, everyone donned crampons and helmets, roped up and set off carrying ice axes for our ice climb. Despite the beautiful sunny day the wind blowing off the vast Vatnajökull to the south ensured that the air was cold. The water from the glacier here provided the first opportunity in Phase 2 for some water sampling, one of the scientific objectives for the expedition. Next day it was back into the vehicles and along the dirt roads eastwards, passing by Snæfell, a spectacular mountain standing at 1833m but no time for the team to climb. Eventually we arrived in Egilssta∂ir, the major town in eastern Iceland, our staging post before heading for the south coast on the ring road with views of glaciers and basalt mountains one way and black sands and the Atlantic the other. We visited Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon, before moving to camp at Svínafell campsite. This was our base camp for the next few days to allow the ascent of mountains nearby. The first of these was Kristinartindar, 1126m, above the magnificent Skaftafellsjökull glacier on one side and Mosarjökull on the other, the beautiful calm weather at the summit making the steep climb up worthwhile. The team enjoyed sitting on the summit ridge after signing the guestbook!

A gloomier morning the next day meant no high climbing and we set of for the nearby Svínafellsjoküll, avoiding the tourist droves, team members were able to improve upon climbing and descending ice walls. This prepared us for the final ascent, the challenging, steep and high Hrútsfjall, 1830m, with its summit rising jaggedly out of Vatnajökull itself. The route started at the base of the glacier we have practised upon the previous day. The nature of the climb meant two rope teams of 7 each could ascent and so the selection was made. Setting off, led by Mr Howie, the team experience a spectacular day, of 13 and a half hours, including some great views down over the outflow glaciers and the Sandur plain below before donning ice gear for the ascent of the ice dome in cloud, the summit proving too difficult without good visibility and an obvious route, we were clearly one of the few groups to complete it this season. The weary climbers enjoyed the camp food that evening and several hot showers to soothe aching limbs were taken! Over the duration of the expedition, however, the best way to recover from long climbing days was to soak in an Icelandic ‘hot pot’ and fortunately Reykjavik swimming pool next to the campsite is equipped with several so the end of expedition re-civilising was civilised indeed and enjoyed once we arrived back in the city two days after the high ascent. A barbecue on the campsite (bearded old leaders not included!) followed by a day in the capital to sightsee brought a fitting close to the expedition. The bus at 5.30am for the airport next day started our journey home, with many travellers being reunited with family at the airport or back at School. A great trip and the leaders are already planning for two years hence.



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