October 3, 2012
Scott Masser and his brother get themselves sandblasted in Iceland for charity.
When our brother and his wife, Steve and Susan, lost their baby at five months late last year, my other brother, Ben, and myself decided to do something in our nephew’s honour and in the hope of raising awareness of the suffering this causes parents. SANDS [Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity] had offered them so much support that we decided to use this event to raise funds for the charity to enable them to better raise awareness and support other parents going through this traumatic experience.
We decided very early on that we would not take money from funds raised to fund the trip, so this raised some issues regarding the logistics of actually making this possible. Over the year we had a lot of negative replies for sponsorship, but every time we thought we would get no further, a company would surprise us. Flight and bus companies in Iceland were surprisingly helpful, offering us incredibly well priced flights and free tokens for bus routes which would [and did] offer us a backup should anything go wrong.
We also received very helpful discounts on our racks, frame bags and cooking utilities which were invaluable – this sort of kit would have been well beyond our finances. A lot of friends also loaned us gear and spares to help save us money. Throughout the year, we trained as often as we possibly could, and saved money whenever possible. It is amazing how much this sort of thing costs even with so much support. Thanks to our parents for giving us a nice bump start to our funds.
Iceland has always been a country we had wanted to visit and the challenge had to be up to the target we wished to raise. A lot of research and kind advice from friends of friends in Iceland helped us to plan our route – from Akureyri in the North, down through the central highlands along the Sprengisandur through the largest desert in Europe with a detour to the Landmannalauger region and South again to Hella. The entire route was to have been approximately 350km. The aim was to make about 50km per day, which seemed reasonable given that the weather could change from hour to hour.
After about a day in the garage getting all the kit down to a size that could be carried and permitted within baggage restrictions, we set off for Reykjavik. Weather was absolutely superb, we spent a nice relaxed night in the only Reykjavik campsite after getting a coach transfer from Keflavik Airport and headed for the domestic flight from Reykjavik to Akureyri in the North. Trouble was, we had assumed that the entrance would be on the same side as a large hotel and the airport tower. Turns out I was wrong, and we had to leg it a couple of kilometres round to the other side of the airfield. A close call.
The only thought going through our minds at that point was how we were going to explain why we had missed the flight and not even made the start. Just goes to show, no matter how much research and preparation you do there is always some detail you will have missed. We made the flight with 15 minutes to spare, and within about 45 minutes we were up North. The weather was amazing, I couldn’t believe how clear the sky was after reading so many warnings about the weather over there. We got ourselves a mighty cooked breakfast from a very cool pipe-smoking Icelander who had loads of advice for us, and sent us on our way with a “be happy in Iceland”.
That first day went amazingly well, we were hoping to make the second camp – Laugafell – to give us a bit of breathing room in case the weather went bad. We headed directly South along the 821 with the wind at our backs and the sun blazing. It’s funny, one minute you are coasting along a tarmac road, then it just ends; like somebody has drawn a line. The dirt track from here on was no issue being well serviced for the local farms. Which reminds me, they seem to have a thing about post boxes. They are like American boxes but made to look like people, or cows, which was pretty cool. A strange sense of community as the farms got farther and farther apart.
Making good time, we headed further out into the hills, the road became pretty heavy going basically made up of rocks and bigger rocks. With at least 20kg on the bikes and ten on our backs – we had to carry everything we would need for the full seven days including food – the bikes were pretty difficult to control and Ben came off, landing on his hip and knee on a couple of ugly rocks. It turned out he had twisted the opposite knee trying to keep the bike upright. Going was obviously slower after this as he was in a decent amount of pain but we figured it would calm down. Around seven o’clock we decided to cut our losses and make our first wild camp about 60km in. Man, it gets cold quick out there. Flameless cook systems really do come into their own out in this kind of terrain. Dinner and a mug of rum coffee in the safety of your sleeping bag. Aces.
The only people we had seen that day were four mental dirtbikers hammering up the trail. Never seen guys this good before. Not really sure where they went as it’s plain desert off the end of the trail.
Turns out it was a good job we had stopped. The following morning we climbed around 1000m in one to two kilometers. Basically shoving the bikes all the way. This was really hard going but we made it to the top, and the view was unbelievable. From here on we were heading into the desert proper but the wind was now blowing against us. Clouds looming in the distance, we made the best time we could but Ben’s knee was pretty bad and the winds made actual riding almost impossible.
After lunch, it became apparent that Ben’s knee was just no good for any kind of mountain biking but we were in it so just headed on. It was such relief when we sighted the Laugafell hut and campsite. Major bonus was a natural heated pool. Cool but strange legging it from your tent in your kecks and jumping in what looks like will be flipping freezing water. Toasty.
Spent a good while getting set the next day. Weather was becoming worse but figured we would at least make the 25km mark and set up camp before crossing the river the following morning. By the time we actually made it, the weather and ground were too harsh to stop. A few bikers from Switzerland had just made a crossing the other way and the water was clear so we swapped for sandals and waded in. That’s some cold water. Made the other side and had a quick smoke watching some idiot in a 4×4 plow right in, water over the bonnet and almost get stuck, and we headed off again. The weather was really getting bad by this point. It was either high winds and driving rain or sand. Had to push the bikes even when we were going downhill.
We pushed for about six to eight hours that day, making about 35 to 40km. The thing about that desert is that you can’t understand how remote it feels until you are there. No shelter of any kind, no relief from the wind when it starts. It began to get even windier and the rain was freezing so we decided that we had to try to find somewhere to pitch. It was about here that I suddenly realised just how serious the situation was. It doesn’t really matter how much research you do before something like this, you can’t really prepare for how remote this felt.
Just relentless head down, one foot in front of the other. Again and again. Trying not to look ahead – it all looks the same. The worst of it was that we were heading alongside the Tungnafellsjokull glacier and couldn’t see a thing. We found a 3ft tall rock and just had to pitch – we couldn’t go any further even though we had seen the 15km signpost to the next hut. Too exhausted. The seriousness of the situation really hit home when Ben shouted that one of the tent poles had bent. In two places. We somehow got it pitched and pretty much spent the night waiting for the tent to fall in.
The next day we figured we had covered so much ground that the next 15km would leave us with a decent half day to relax at the next hut and recuperate before heading on but the wind and rain were relentless. It took us hours to get to the river 10km from our last camp. This river was glacial melt-water – fast and muddy. Basically no way for us to cross and by this point we were both exhausted. I was beginning to think about the possibility of pitching a soaking tent for another night in worse conditions when the ranger from our target hut [Nyidalur] rolled up in a cracking big-wheeled beast of a 4×4. ‘No problem’, I’ll take you to Nyidalur’. Awesome, I thought as we shoved my bike in the back. Saw discs and spokes bending against axes and other over-sized blokey tools but was past caring. Trouble was, I turned round, desperately trying to keep me and my bike from falling out of the back as we rolled through the river and saw Ben hunkering down behind his rucksack. Should have got his across first, just didn’t think with the relief of not having to push another 5km. Doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s all relative in this place.
While I was hanging our tent in the Nyidalur generator shed, Ben was dealing with being dangerously cold and tired and random 4×4 tourists stopping and getting out to take photos. Not even asking if he was OK.
We decided to just rent a bunk in the hut and were given the room the Rescue Team use so had phone reception – we could phone our respective ladies – heat and loads of drying space. We stank the place out hanging all our gear in the rafters but the owners didn’t mind. From what we could gather the ranger and the woman running the hut were man and wife, and their two daughters helped around the place, never a word of complaint. Seemed strange that they would be happy with people just blundering around what is effectively their place for the two months of what classes as summer over there. They had a very upfront and a blunt sense of humour, but I’d guess you’d need that, they took incredible care of us. They reckoned they had never had anybody from Scotland so I think this probably helped. That, and the fact that we were careful to be courteous, which the off-road busloads of tourists nipping in for a leak and a coffee never seemed to bother too much about.
We shared what was left of our rum with a French cyclist called Philip. Hope I have spelled his name correctly. Crazy guy. He was heading the way we had come, with only 10kg of gear. I always thought it would take a certain mental mentality to do this sort of thing on your own. Having the mental strength to cope with the loneliness and relentlessness out there solo is something I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve. He had some stories, turns out he has cycled a good bit of the globe solo. After a fair amount of bad English on his part and non-existent French on ours, he wobbled off to kip and we pretty much collapsed for the night.
The following morning we made the call that even another 50km into the next stretch of desert would be a stupid idea. We doubted the tent would manage and the winds were still heading into the North. That and Ben’s knee not even coping with cycling on the flat and sheer exhaustion. We were incredibly disappointed but knew it was the right thing to do.
Our hosts spoke to one of the bus drivers and made sure he saw us safely to a change-over near the Landmannalauger turn-off. Turns out he had biked Germany many moons ago so was really helpful. About 15 minutes into the journey we were beginning to think we were home safe until we suddenly heard what sounded like a burst front tyre. At that point I had just managed to sort out transfers for our flights to an earlier date. Looked like this was the way the trip was going to go from beginning to end. Turns out it was a handbrake hose and he was able to get us to our change-over from where we passed through Hella, our original destination.
Absolute bucketing rain all the way to Reykjavik and a wet night in an even wetter tent, we managed to get a nice woolly jumper for Ben and a woolly hat for my baby daughter. Oh, and a couple of Guinness. Oh man, but that tasted good.
Final panic, after waiting all night for the transfer to the airport we realised the flight company had only confirmed one transfer for our tickets and there was no way we weren’t going home together after what we had been through. Some tricky work at the airport and the rest is history. And a pile of sarnies at home. Ace.
Iceland is an unforgiving but amazing country. When the sun shines it is astounding but when the wind changes and the clouds come in, awesome in the proper sense of the word. Everything seemed to go wrong over there but at the same time we had some incredible luck, met some amazing people and probably gained ten years’ worth of experience in one week – this was the first time we have ever done anything like this. We had pushed our bikes pretty much most of our journey into stupidly high winds, rain and sandstorms and somehow made around the 150km mark. We were obviously gutted that we couldn’t complete the full target but the experience we would have had if it had been plain sailing would have been nowhere near what we went through together. Although we would have taken more photos.
It reminded me of what mountain biking is all about. I think we sometimes get lost in the shiny bits and a bike-for-this, a bike-for-that when it’s who you are with and who you meet along the way that matters.
Thanks to Ben for pushing himself so hard despite the pain and for being there every time I turned round. Usually with a grin on his face. It helped to keep me going. And for helping me not to ‘sweat the small stuff’. Our initial target was £3000 but through Steve and Susan’s additional supporting fundraising efforts and those of friends and family, we have currently reached over £4500, with hopes that we should approach £5000 once all donations have been collected. I just want to say thank you to everybody for their incredible support throughout this last year. I just hope that this story shows that we really did our utmost to justify their generosity.
I already wish I was back out there. Shame we couldn’t have biked a bit more though.
For Harrison. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Footprints-in-the-Sands/334518419900017 http://www.justgiving.com/Peanut-Masser