I was jolted awake by another violent gust of wind; the driver mumbled an apology as he struggled to keep the van on the road. Away to the South, the North Atlantic whipped into a frenzy, waves pounded the blackened shoreline and white horses streamed from a blurred horizon. We had left Reykjavik 7 hours before on the No. 51 Public Straeto bus, bound for the Jokulsarlon lagoon and the start of our expedition. Our plan was to traverse Iceland from South to North
via the Vatnajokull glacier, making the first packraft descent of the Skjalfandafljot river from the source to the sea and the first unsupported ski and raft traverse of Iceland.
We shouldered our packs for the first time and stepped on to the Diamond Beach, the black sand flecked with glacial ice, warped and moulded by the relentless onslaught of the breaking waves. We turned our backs to the sea, lifted our hoods to the frigid wind and made our way up the beach. The moraine lining the shores of the lagoon gave us some welcome shelter and we pitched our tent in the fading light, the first spits of rain from a slate-grey sky ruining any chances of dinner with a view. We had been planning this journey for 18 months, the idea conceived on the glaciers of Western Greenland two years before, as we listened to the glacial rivers deep within the belly of the ice sheet thundering away towards the coastal mountains and the sea. The discussion turned to Iceland, with its mist shrouded peaks, vast glaciers, black, desolate interior and mighty rivers. It was designed as a journey the three of us would make together, good friends and team mates, going into the wilds in search of a grand adventure. Devastatingly, Dan had to withdraw from the expedition on that first evening due to ill health. We’d invested so much to get this far and after much discussion and deliberation Rich and I chose to continue, knowing we’d have been stronger as a three but hoping we still had the skills and determination to make it through as a pair.
The following morning the cloud level had descended. Across the lagoon the Esjufjoll mountains, our gateway to the Vatnajokull, had disappeared behind a curtain of grey. A light wind ruffled the surface of the water, grey seals bobbed and splashed, watching with interest as we prepared our rafts. We stowed the majority of our gear inside our boats with only essential items strapped to the bow, skis tied down the sides and our pulks lashed onto the back. The three of us paddled out into the lagoon, weaving amongst the icebergs before an emotional farewell saw Dan turn and paddle for home.
It was an 8km paddle across open water before reaching the bay from which we would begin the journey on foot. The wind rose and turned, bombarding us from the East, bringing with it a drenching rain. Hollow booms from dying icebergs echoed across the grey. Waves broke against our rafts, stinging our faces and coating us in spray. Occasionally a berg would cleave or roll, shifting position
and sending percussion waves to rock our toy boats. Vast palisades of white and pastel blue choked the bay, challenging our exit navigation. We landed our packrafts and repacked our gear into our backpacks. Bidding farewell to the Selkies that had accompanied us across the water, we began our trek to the foot of the glacier.