Along Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail, the accommodation is sparse and basic and the tracks themselves are tough, but it’s here that Zack Cahill discovers the true meaning of ‘luxury’ travel – scenery that blows your mind.
This is not a press trip. Let’s get that much straight. We are not here to be pampered, to be fed and watered, herded on to air-conditioned buses and guided through the most scenic, sanitised and government-sanctioned parts of the country. We are here on our own dime, armed with no more than advice gleaned from an online forum and rucksacks full of Pot Noodles and Snickers bars. We have what I’d charitably call a non-zero chance of dying.
Sleep, you black-eyed pig. Fall into a deep pit full of ghosts.
– Icelandic lullaby
Let’s back up. A few years ago, I went rock-climbing in Thailand for OutThere with David Edwards, who took the photographs for this article. In the interim, David managed to maintain the climbing habit. For my part, I said ‘I should really get back into rock-climbing’ roughly once a week for four years without ever doing it. But we had such a good time that we often spoke of a follow-up.
Eventually, David suggested the Laugavegur Trail, a 54km, four-day hike across an Icelandic glacier. This would be the spiritual and thematic counterpoint to our luxurious Thailand trip. There would be no jasmine-scented, five-star hotel rooms, no staff at our beck and call, no hammocks. Only us and a climate that could kill us with a shrug of its frigid shoulders.
How do we know Iceland is an inhospitable place? Because its people have been here a thousand years and barely made it off the beach. Reykjavik is a preposterously expensive, shivering dwarf, white-knuckling the very edge of the island. The people are stereotypically and uniformly stunning, with pale eyes you could swim in. Well, in some cases. They’re actually either Scandi-handsome or just hideous. And the older gents look like Santa Claus had a shave and took up power-walking. A pint will cost you £10 if you’re lucky and everyone knows everyone. This is a place with a population so small, they use a special dating app to check they’re not related.
We are in the capital for only one night. Time to stock up for the trail. I had naïvely expected a guide for this trip. I had naïvely expected there to be shops along the way where we could buy food. I have even more naïvely expected David to have given this some thought. By way of illustrating how silly I was to expect this, David tells me a story about the time he tried to climb Mont Blanc in a pair of plimsolls. I shift the ‘probably-going-to-die-ometer’ up a few notches.
It’s an early-morning, four-hour bus ride to our setting-off point. The bus is about half full. It is the very end of the season and our bus back to Reykjavik in four days’ time is the last of the year; after then it is just too cold and dangerous to be out here. Our fellow hikers include Germans, Spaniards and Americans.
Thomas is an ex-Mormon from Utah, a keen hiker and climber. His girlfriend Yana sits quietly beside him with that look of someone slowly realising what she has signed herself up for. They have calculated their rations down to their precise calorie requirements. Thomas shows me a device that looks like a retro mobile phone. If he presses a button, a satellite sends the emergency services to his exact GPS location. I nod and smile and feel a sense of encroaching dread.
Landmannalaugar is our starting point. A craggy green lunar landscape not unlike the Scottish highlands. Huge muscular horses stand around on sun-dappled grassy hills as though waiting for someone to start shooting a Budweiser commercial. I notice my hands are immediately, painfully cold. Cold in that to-the-bone way that no amount of rubbing or shoving in my pockets will fix. I’ve forgotten my gloves. I drop another 50 quid into the Icelandic economy at a bus-on-blocks labelled the ‘Mountain Mall’. It’s a powerful lesson: if any one part of your kit fails out here, any slice of that thin membrane between you and the ruthless elements, you’re catapulted into a world of hurt.
We set off. The first day is miserable. We move in a loose convoy, occasionally catching up with or being passed by Thomas and Yana, or Mike and John, two cheerful Alabamans who, when we panicked on the bus about not having brought booze, assured us they had vodka. Americans can always be relied upon to have vodka.
It is wet and freezing and not especially interesting to look at. There is the odd thermal vent, an egg-smelling cloud of sulphur billowing up out of hell.
“So this is hiking,” I say, about an hour in, as hailstones sting our faces and soak us through.
“Just this. For another seven hours.”
We arrive at the hut at Hrafntinnusker, freezing, fantasising about a toasty oasis. A log fire maybe… Hot coffee and soft, cosy armchairs… What we find is a sparse hut with a few creaking radiators that are already plastered with socks. For sleeping quarters, we’re told to take a thin plastic mattress upstairs to a cramped attic, where a group of miserable-looking Germans lie wrapped up, their breath misting the air. They’re farting belligerently and give us dirty looks. David looks at me mournfully and mouths ‘I’m sorry’.
Back downstairs, we bump into Mike and John again. We commiserate and they break out the vodka. Everything seems better then. They do what all sane Americans do when you meet them travelling now: apologise profusely for Trump. Then we discover a secret room with actual beds, downstairs in the warmth. Presumably, this is staff quarters or the first-class section. Either way, we commandeer it and, warm and mercifully drunk, I fall into ‘a deep pit full of ghosts’.
We set out early the next morning. It has snowed heavily overnight; the kind of deep, soft snow that makes you walk like you’re on the moon, all clumsy and high-kneed. The Mormon hikers’ tent is engulfed and I assume they’ve died in there. But then Thomas pops his head out of the flap and cheerily waves us over. They had a great night, apparently, watching episodes of Orange Is the New Black on his iPad, eating trail mix, pissing in a bag and chucking it out of the flap. His girlfriend looks like she wants to die.