We set off – and suddenly I love it. The trail is marked by posts, black slashes in the white, all the way to the horizon, and not another human in sight. It is tough going but not miserably so; the onslaught of vast, breathtaking views is propulsive, dragging you onward to see beyond the next ridge, to take in the next mind-blowing vista.
That said, I still genuinely fear for my life. It is hard not to when every so often you pass a memorial to someone who died out here. We come across the first one right by our hut. A 25-year-old guy who got caught in a whiteout died just 50ft from the door, which, with zero visibility, might as well have been 50 miles.
As I stand on the edge of a snowy valley watching David explore an ice cave, toasty under my layers and waterproofs, my phone buzzes in my pocket. A text from my sister in Dublin. She’s asking if I’m dead yet. I snap her a quick selfie before my phone shuts down from the cold. With it dies our only way of calling for help if one us gets injured. The next hut is five hours’ walk.
“Geologically speaking, Iceland is a baby; a still-baking cake fresh from the oven of the earth’s core.”
We make it to Alftavatn, trudging down the other side of the mountain as the snow falls away, to a hut nestled in green fields on the edge of a frigid lake. All of the huts you stay in on this route are attended by dour-faced girls who look like they’d rather be binge-drinking on the streets of Reykjavik like normal teenagers, but have instead been lumbered with this as a ‘summer’ job. This one mirthlessly sells me a £5 Mars bar and the very last meal-in-a-bag in stock. No booze, of course.
I pay her for a hot shower that scalds off a layer of skin. The toilets are stilt shacks festooned with icicles. They have the acoustics of the Sydney Opera House, every grunt and splash from the neighbouring cubicle brought to you in Dolby Digital surround sound.
Day three’s hike from Alftavatn to Emstrur takes in black obsidian lava, gushing waterfalls and a flat, sandy desert surrounded by steep cliffs like a nuclear blast site. Geologically speaking, Iceland is a baby; a still-baking cake fresh from the oven of the earth’s core, forever cracking and splitting and belching steam. It’s what makes the terrain so varied and extreme. We stay with Mike and John for most of the hike and it is a comfortable walk, bright and sunny. The dream hike; the kind I foolishly imagined the whole route would be a billion years ago in my warm, comfy bed in London.
It is not without challenges, though. At certain points, you need to cross rivers. Some are narrow enough to jump, but others you have to wade. In an uncharacteristic bout of preparedness, I’ve brought spare trainers, which I change into to walk through the river. The others go barefoot. It is breathtakingly cold; so cold it almost feels hot, stinging and hurting the feet. You’re across in seconds, but your toes smart for minutes afterwards.
We have a fun night, chatting and cooking a meal of cheesy pasta that tastes like a Michelin-star feast. The gas heater breaks down at one point and the standard-issue, dour-faced hut-girl arrives with a wrench.
“Do you need help?” Mike asks politely.
“No, do you?” comes the gruff reply.
By the final day, I am sore everywhere and ready for the end. In the early afternoon, we reach Þórsmörk. It is a relatively luxurious set of huts, though we aren’t staying here, just waiting for the bus. The shop is properly stocked too; through the windows, we spy precious bottles of wine glinting in the sunshine. It is closed, but like true addicts, we locate the hut-girl and coax her into opening up. She isn’t even dour-faced. This place is heaven.
The bus-ride home begins with a thrilling drive across a rushing river. Back at the hut, there was a photo album of all the times the bus had flooded and tipped over. But it stays upright and dry and we settle in for the journey back to Reykjavik, making promises to Mike and John to meet up later in town and have dinner once we’ve all showered. Promises we don’t keep because we end up falling sound asleep.
There are two kinds of travel: travel for pleasure in the moment and travel for the creation of memories. That Thailand trip four years ago was travel for pleasure: hammocks and crystal waters, beach bars and sunshine and moment-to-moment comfort. This trip was the second kind. While there were times of joy and elation, there were just as many occasions when I was pissed off and sore and wet. But I am so glad I have these memories. I have seen the most spectacular views on the planet and been alone on a glacier with nothing but icy wastes as far as the distant horizon. All these memories are mine forever to feast upon. Which, best of all, means I never have to do anything like this again.
Zack and David’s flights to and from Reykjavik were kindly provided by WOW air on part of their ultra-modern (one of the world’s youngest) fleet, flying twice daily between London Gatwick and the Icelandic capital.
Some of Zack and David’s technical clothing was loaned by Edmund Hillary, the premium lifestyle brand inspired by the renowned mountaineer’s 1953 Everest ascent. The company specialises in replicating the exact fabrics and construction methods used in the past but contemporarises them for today’s avid adventurer.