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Daring Deeds - real stories, expeditions, road trips and adventure

Whiteout

By Emily Chappell
06, Aug, 2014

Missing Winter and sorting nostalgically through the Iceland photos

Whiteouttitle

Summer’s at its height, and until a thunderstorm cooled the air a couple of hours ago, I’d been sitting sweatily at my desk for what felt like days, wishing generally that I could be out on my bike, and specifically that I could spirit myself back to the chilly wastes of Iceland, or forward to the frozen valleys and passes of Alaska, where I’ll be less than six months from now...

After the success of Kaldidalur, I gladly put myself back in the hands of the inestimable Emil, who poured me a coffee, got his maps out, and suggested another route that would take me over the low mountains south-east of Reykjavik to the smaller city of Selfoss, from which I’d follow the snowy route F26 into the deserted interior, towards Mt Hekla and the Landmannalaugar nature reserve, which seethes with hikers in summer, but was now likely to be deserted, inaccessible to all except the tough and the tenacious.

I set off with the same combination of surging excitement and creeping fear that had followed me over Kaldidalur. The first day was relatively straightforward, although I was alarmed by this – the most graphic roadside memento mori I’ve seen on my travels to date:

And then I rolled down the hill towards Hveragerði, with its ranks of geothermally heated greenhouses, supplying Icelandic supermarkets with incongruously homegrown blossoms and tomatoes.

I spent the night in Selfoss, watching the snow piling up outside the windows of the youth hostel, and the next morning set off into the descending whiteness. I had been lucky with the weather so far – very lucky indeed, given Iceland’s meteorological reputation. Icelanders pride themselves on their violent and volatile weather as much as they do on their ability to carry on in spite of it, and check the forecast with the same compulsive regularity with which most of us check our emails. I had known – and been warned – for several days that the clear skies were coming to an end, and that several feet of snow were expected.

I decided to carry on anyway, knowing that I had all the kit I needed for several days out in the wilderness, enough time and food to risk getting stuck in my tent for a day or two, and the simple solution of giving up and turning back if I got to a point where it looked like I couldn’t continue safely.

For no reason I could reliably discern, I felt effervescently cheerful, grinning and singing to myself as I rode off into what looked like nothing at all, not quite understanding my own excitement, and somehow thrilled even by the prospect that I was unlikely to see very much other than whiteness for the next few days.

As I turned off the main road and into the interior, the landscape got steadily whiter and more featureless, though recent tyre tracks on the roads showed me that people still passed this way, and every few miles I would see a house or a cluster of farm buildings, stranded in the emptiness like a lone rock in a vast white ocean, usually with few signs of life, because who would be out in this desolate weather unless they had to?

Snow began to fall. I stopped the bike and stood beside the road for a few moments, remembering only as I watched it that snowfall, like the northern lights I’d gazed at a few nights previously, despite its magnificence, is completely silent, and, indeed, muffles all echoes and absorbs all sounds. Now that my tyres had stopped rustling through the drifts, I was surrounded by an unearthly quiet. Instead of sensing the enormous space around me, I now felt hemmed in and almost smothered by the low white clouds, the high white drifts, and the thickening blizzard around me. I carried on...

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