A remarkable south to north Iceland traverse

Words: Ico Schutte & Benjamin Hoffman | Photos: Benjamin Hoffman, Jack Fisher & Scott Martin

In early April, as I was browsing the notice boards of Neptune Mountaineering shop in Boulder, Colorado, a notice caught my eye. Two gents, who are planning a trip across Iceland by foot, ski and packraft (a rugged, hand-built wilderness boat), were hosting a pre-expedition talk. This type of thing always excites me, so I attended the talk to learn more about their great trek.

Photo credit: Benjamin Hoffman, Jack Fisher & Scott Martin

This May and June, two members of an American expedition called Iceland Northbound will embark upon an unprecedented south to north traverse of Iceland. Colorado-based adventurers Benjamin Hoffman (22) and Jack Fisher (23) will attempt to walk, ski, and packraft over 500 km from Iceland’s southernmost point to its northernmost point, without any third-party support.

After hitch-hiking to their start point, Hoffman and Fisher will walk west along Iceland’s southern coast to the hamlet of Skógar, and then north on the Fimmvörðuhálsand Laugavegurinn trails. En route, they will pass the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which became infamous in April 2010 when its eruption stopped much of European air travel for a week. From the northern terminus of the Laugavegurinn trail, they will navigate around lakes, braided rivers, and ridges to reach the toe of the Vatnajökull glacier.

Hoffman and Fisher will next attempt to ski across the Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. Once they have navigated past the crevasses and icefalls that criss-cross the glacier’s toe, they will ski 56 miles (90.1 km) to the headwaters of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River. The glacier must be crossed as swiftly as possible, as the expedition may encounter blizzards or - if they are unlucky - volcanic activity.

The Jökulsá á Fjöllum River emerges from beneath the Vatnajökull. It is fed by both a sub-glacial hot spring and water melted from the glacier's belly, and travels over 200 km to Iceland’s north coast and the Arctic Ocean. Along the way, it plunges over a series of six waterfalls, including Dettifoss (renowned for being the most powerful waterfall in Europe). It also passes through a long, narrow gorge with huge and continuous rapids. Iceland Northbound will attempt to be the second expedition to paddle the entire length of the river. The first complete descent, made by a team of English and French kayakers in the 1980s, required a large support team and used two microlight aircraft.

From the end of the Jökulsá, Hoffman and Fisher will walk to a lighthouse at the tip of a small peninsula, which represents the northernmost point of Iceland.

Planning gear for Iceland Northbound has presented a unique challenge for the two adventurers. Since the expedition will be unsupported, Hoffman and Fisher will need to carry all their gear with them from the start, including their packrafts, paddles, skis, and glacier travel gear. On top of this, they will be carrying 20 days of food. They estimate that, at the beginning of the trip, their packs will weigh close to 40 kg.

Photo credit: Benjamin Hoffman, Jack Fisher & Scott Martin

Since there is so much that they will need to carry, to make the expedition possible, Hoffman and Fisher have tried to make the gear they need to bring serve multiple purposes. They will hike in their three-pin ski boots, use segments of their breakdown paddles as snow anchors, and use the packrafts as sleds to haul gear on the glacier. Some things, like gaiters and hiking pants, will be left behind altogether. And some things, like PFDs, ice axes, and avalanche shovels, are too important for safety to leave behind or compromise on.

Because they want to consume 5,000 calories per day, Hoffman and Fisher will eat an 'ultra-light backpacker' diet that is dense in fat. Staples will include Snickers candy bars, peanut butter, and some home-made macaroons that consist of mostly coconut oil and almond flour. These are the anti-diet food; one small cookie contains about 360 calories. The two members of Iceland Northbound met one another after Hoffman posted a note in Neptune Mountaineering, the Boulder climbing and skiing store where Fisher works.

The note read: 'Looking for someone to hike, ski, and packraft across Iceland next summer … True adventure!' When Fisher received, in response to his first email query to Hoffman, several pages of route analysis, equipment lists, and skill requirements, he knew Hoffman’s proposal was serious. The two met in a bar and began to slowly parse out the details.

They were fortunate enough to find equipment sponsorships from CAMP, Big Agnes, Deuter, Sea to Summit, and PepPod, which have all helped make Iceland Northbound possible. •

You can follow Iceland Northbound on Facebook and visit www.icelandnorthbound.com for more information.

More information
After the expedition, Hoffman and Fisher plan on releasing a short video and detailed written account.