The spectacular campsite which we had found at the end of day one was no less spectacular on the morning of day two, and though we woke with tired legs and aching shoulders, the view from the tent was enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. Somehow, despite the numerous warnings of bad weather we had received in the build up to the trip, we woke to blue skies for the third time in three days, bright sunshine and a tent which was far too hot to be comfortable in. Convinced it wouldn’t last, I embraced the fact I had woken up a sweaty, dehydrated mess, and decided to be grateful. At the end of the day – being too warm is always preferable to being cold and damp.
I had also woken up to a pain in the bottom of my stomach. This worried me a little, but I decided to put it down to the change from proper to dehydrated food. I also thought it could just be my body’s reaction to suddenly covering large distances carrying a super heavy pack. It wasn’t even worth mentioning at this stage – so I put it to the back of my mind and set about making breakfast – a mixture of oats, seeds, cocoa powder and powdered milk. Otherwise known (very unofficially) as adventure porridge. Somehow, this combination of fairly drab foods actually makes a delicious combination, and breakfast very rapidly became my favourite meal of the day.
Lingering a little, we all finished up eating and packed up the tent, before setting off along the road. Once again, we were being treated to spetacular scenery, and the first five kilometres passed easily, with our route continuing to wind down a beautiful valley to a small road junction. On the way down, I stopped to fill up my bottles from a stream, noticing as I did so that I could hear my heart beating in my ears. The last time this had happened, I had been blissfully ignoring internal bleeding in my stomach. I steadied myself as I made it back up to the road, and quickly felt normal again. I stood for a moment and wondered if I had imagined it – deciding very quickly that I had – before running off to catch up with the others. This downhill was just too good not to enjoy. The gradient was not too steep, the surface good, and snow topped peaks stood on both sides. By the time I caught up with the group and we reached the road junction, both my stomach pain and heart beat had disappeared, and I decided it was probably all in my head. And that even if it wasn’t, it probably wasn’t anything serious.
During the next section of trail, we began to make our way up the other side of a broad glacial valley (the bottom of which being where had just met the road junction). For about 5km, the track bent around and slowly ran along the side of the valley, gradually edging higher and higher, but never making any real progress up the valley side. About 6km along this trail however, we made a sharp turn to the left, and saw ahead a road with about 10 switchbacks. From the other side of the valley, we had looked at this hill and boldly proclaimed, “at least the hill on the other side doesn’t look too bad… it is definitely not as high as these peaks…”. But from the bottom of this trail, staring up at the many steep hairpins, it definitely looked like a challenge. There was no shelter between here and the top, and it was now appoximately 25 degrees in the valley. It was apparent that this was going to be a bit of a slog so we made an agreement to take our time climbing and to meet at the top. We looked around at each other once more, almost in the hope that somebody would proclaim that this wasn’t the only way, realised it definitely was the only way, and started plodding up the hill.
About an hour later, after throwing just about every swear word in the book at this particular lump of Icelandic rock, I finally scaled the top of the valley side and saw the track wind off across the top of the plateau. I was properly tired, hot and bothered, so I sat down to wait for the others, and face timed Jon to show him the view (/give myself a bit of a moral boost having just sapped myself of all available energy). A few minutes later I saw Cadi come over the top of the hill looking a lot less tired than I had been feeling, though admittedly still looking a little worse for wear, shortly followed by Ruben and Steph. We sat for a little to get our breath back, before heading off along the top of the ridge, eager to find a suitable spot for lunch.
It wasn’t long before the track started to descend the other side of the ridge, taking us down towards Lagarfljót – a large lake famous in Icelandic folklore due to the ‘presence’ of a giant serpent, similar to the Loch Ness monster. The gradual downhill meant that once again, we were able to make good progress, and the group spread out a little as we found our pace down the hill. At this stage Ruben and I went on ahead, and we were chatting about all kinds of things to take our minds off the weight of our packs. This was the first real ‘get to know’ conversation I had had with Ruben, and it was fun hearing him chat fondly about his family and friends back in Belgium, how he finds his new life living in Norway and even what he was looking forward to once the run had finished. Ruben’s approach to life was refreshing – he had a care free mentality, but with the drive to work hard. This, and he didn’t seem to have a bad word to say about anyone. It was great to get to know him a bit, and to finally feel like he was no longer ‘this stranger from Norway who wanted to come along’. This was great, of course, because it meant that now when I told my mother he probably wasn’t dangerous, I could really mean it.
Around half way down this descent, we came across one of the obstacles we thought could be most problematic before setting out, a river crossing. Having had to cross many rivers in my previous run across Scandinavia, I had been rather nonchalant about practising for these situations and had even laughed at Steph when she told me she planned on bringing a rope. I was confident with water and I didn’t fancy adding any extra weight. But right here, on the first river crossing we reached, I was going to eat my words and regret being quite so cocky.
The river in question cut straight across the road and was flowing far too fast for us to wade across without risking being swept downstream, packs and all. I can say this with confidence too, because I witnessed both Ruben and Cadi have a go at crossing, both with very little success and very near misses at falling in. It was annoying because the river in question didn’t look particularly wide or impressive, but it was relatively deep and steep, and so flowing with some real force across our path. We decided to walk up the river a little to find a safer place to cross. Whilst we were looking for the ideal spot, Ruben boldly claimed he would head further upstream in an attempt to find a narrower place to cross over. As I looked up the river valley, I saw that it wasn’t very far before the stream disappeared below a snow bridge, and I couldn’t help but think to myself that it didn’t look like his chances were very good. Still, Ruben had spent loads of time in the mountains and I trusted his instincts, so I let him get on with it, whilst the rest of us looked hopefully at a section of the river that was split by an island. This was probably our best chance of crossing, so we set about unloading the rope from Steph’s bag, and going over the instructions Steph and Cadi had been given in their river crossing training. The plan was for one person (I volunteered myself) to cross without a bag and with one end of the rope, so that we could run a rope across the river. The next person, Cadi, would then traverse the river, whilst Steph and I secured the rope. A bit of shuffling back and forth and eventually all three of us were safely on the island, jumping up and down a lot and swearing at the pain that came from being submerged in a freezing cold river. The next side was traversed in much the same way, and despite a bit of a wobble and a spectacular save from Cadi, we all made it across relatively unscathed, and impressed at how well we had handled the crossing. We put everything away in our packs, heaved them on to our shoulders, and headed back to the track to find Ruben.
Only there was one problem, Ruben was nowhere to be seen. Having just been wading around in a river for longer than any of us cared for, and still looking forward to finding an appropriate place for lunch, there was a sense of urgency within the team to get moving again. We questioned whether or not Ruben would have been likely to carry on down the track. Though our debate split the group, I did not feel right carrying on. Had Ruben found a place to cross, I was certain he would have come back to make sure we could all cross – so I just presumed he must still be up the hill somewhere, so I put my pack down and kept an eye out for him. After about ten minutes of waiting, I began to worry a little. We had taken quite a long time to cross the river, surely Ruben should be back by now? A few more minutes and my imagination was placing Ruben well and truly beneath the snow bridge I had seen earlier. Having been chatting with him for a while beforehand, I started to think about the fact I was going to have to tell all of his wonderful sounding family members what had happened to him, before trying to explain how on earth he came to be up there on his own anyway. It was horrid, and all the time I kept my eyes fixed hopefully on the hillside. Still with no sign, I got out my phone and tried to ring him, but his phone was switched off. This was a nightmare.
Again, I questioned whether he would have carried on, and looked down the track hoping to catch a glimpse of him lying in the sunshine in the distance, but all I could see were the other two members of my team, both looking increasingly cold and hungry. I looked back up at the hillside and willed with all my might to see Ruben climbing back down and to my delight, spotted movement. Way up on the hillside, in line with the ridge we had been traversing earlier, moved a tiny Ruben. Relief spread over me. Not only because Ruben was alive (though obviously that was the biggest factor), but also because I had made the right call in making the team wait. Not everybody was happy about this, but the fact that Ruben was still up here meant there was no other option, which meant I could no longer be labelled a bad guy.
Once Ruben had re-joined the group, we made an agreement not to split up again, and carried on down the hill, now super keen to get to a spot for lunch. We skipped the first river we came to and agreed to stop for lunch at the next. We hadn’t gone as far as we would have liked in the time we had taken that day (for obvious reasons) but we were all pretty famished, and the descent was starting to wreak havoc on Steph’s knees, so we knew we needed to stop soon. Thankfully the next river was just a few km away, and was a simply beautiful spot, so we sat down and set about cooking. Turns out, running up and down hills (/arguably mountains), and through rivers, was super hungry work.
After lunch we continued down to the banks of Lagarfljót, followed the shore for a little while, then cut across the lake on a bridge. On the other side of the lake we could see Hengifoss blowing up spray, and a train of tourists marching the trail up to it. Hengifoss is meant to be spectacular, and I had talked about possibly going to see it before we started running, but as we passed less than a mile away my legs were refusing to even think about deviating from our route. I also think my team mates would not have been best pleased had I dragged them all off to go see. Waterfalls would have to wait for another time. And to add to the disappointment there were no sightings of legendary lake serpents either. Perhaps it was just not our day.
The final part of the day we ran on a fairly substantial tarmac road. At first, this felt great as it meant I could run along at a consistent pace, watching the km tick off. However, the heat, combined with the lugs on the bottom of my trail shoes, meant that blisters started to form on the balls of my feet. This was not ideal. Even more ‘not ideal’ was the huge hill we had to climb to finish off the day. I reached the hill first, and started confidently, but found that I was lacking something in my legs this afternoon. I watched the team press on ahead and told myself to just keep on plodding. All the while whilst muttering profanities at the hill. Towards the top, Steph waited for me to catch up and we discussed how we were both struggling with this one. This gave Steph the boost she needed (Steph somehow has superhuman strength when it comes to helping others) and she encouraged me to keep going up the hill. Eventually however, we reached a point where it felt like the uphill would never end and we decided to call it a night. We had covered roughly a marathon distance this day and climbed an awful lot of feet (close to 4000 I think). Ruben, who had been ahead of us by some way, had to come back to join us and we pitched up just off the road.
I went to sleep a little grumpy that evening. It was the first time that I had really struggled, and I knew the blisters on my feet would cause me trouble tomorrow.
Still, this was never meant to be easy…