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.
I find I miss winter, even though summer is very beautiful here in South London, with all its sunny parks and leafy avenues and midnight rides home along quiet streets with the warm air kissing my bare arms and legs. Last week I rode the Dunwich Dynamo for the first time since I set off on my Big Trip, and for the first time managed to ride back to London afterwards, clocking up over 240 miles without sleep, and igniting misplaced ambitions to ride PBP and compete in the Trans Am Bike Race next year.
Last summer I was deeply unhappy, and watched everyone else enjoying their picnics and weddings and holidays with a sort of bemused wretchedness. This year I am, thankfully, back to my mostly cheerful self, regarding everyone else’s seasonal festivities not so much with envy and alienation, as with the slight sense of detachment of someone who has come to treat summer as her down time; the season in which she relaxes, hibernates and grows fat, waiting for the bite of frost to come back into the air and the world to start waking up again.
As a courier I look forward to having London’s parks and squares to myself once again, since now every bench, and every spare metre of grass is covered with lounging tourists and picnicking wage slaves. And in my more adventurous guise, I’m looking forward to the sound of four-inch tyres crunching and swishing through fresh snow, the sting of icy air in my nostrils, and the fearful thrill of knowing that there isn’t another human being as far as the eye can see, and a good deal further than that as well.
Having spent so much time alone with it, I still feel more of an attachment to Iceland than I feel I perhaps ought to, after only a three-week visit. I know that now the place will be heaving with so many tourists that they outnumber the locals, that the empty campsites and closed-up cottages I rode past will be booked up and oversubscribed, that no one will be getting any sleep, because the dark evenings I enjoyed, sitting in the doorway of my tent to watch the aurora borealis flickering silently across the heavens, have given way to permanent daylight.
I don’t mean to say that the brightness and energy and freedom of summer don’t fill me with joy – of course they do. But it’s a different, less intimate happiness than that which I feel in winter, with its cosy dark evenings and the constant sense of challenge and struggle that gives me something to hold onto, a keener sense of purpose, an over-riding urge to survive and keep going that very effectively strips away life’s frivolities and irrelevancies. I worry more in summer. I’m calmer in winter. Sometimes, when I have trouble sleeping, I imagine myself back in one of my campsites in Iceland, or a chilly quarry where I slept in Iran, or the frosty fields of eastern Bulgaria. There is something absolute about cold weather. I sleep better. I ride better. I am better.
It’s surely no coincidence that I’ve found myself sorting nostalgically through my Iceland photos recently, and remembered that there was a whole collection of them I never managed to put up. So here they are: a record of my second loop out of Reykjavik.
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.
A few hours later, the world around me was almost totally white, the clouds had sunk to the height of a fairly modest ceiling, and the snow was falling so heavily that I could see less and less of the road ahead. I had strapped my goggles across my face, since snowflakes, gentle as they appear, sting your eyes when you ride into them, and this, along with the dwindling visibility, meant I was having trouble seeing the road ahead of me. My progress slowed, and every few minutes I would stop the bike, take off my goggles, shake off the miniature snow drifts that had accumulated on the fronts of the lenses, and in the process, check the road ahead to make sure I was still on it, and to get an idea of whether I’d be going uphill, or downhill, or right, or left, for the next few minutes.
Eventually I stood still and considered my position. I knew, from what Emil and the guidebook had told me, that I was moving towards more difficult and remote terrain. I did not know how well I or my bike would cope with it, whether my (currently buoyant) mood would hold up, or whether the weather might take a turn for the (even) worse. I had no idea whether I’d be able to find a sheltered camping spot, or whether I’d have to fight to pitch my tent in the blizzard. I was currently being blown north by an accommodating tailwind, which of course would become a headwind when – if – I turned round, making my retreat even more laborious than my advance.
I stared as far ahead and behind me as I could, optimistically searching for a break in the clouds that might herald the coming of better weather. I was unused to the curious brightness of a whiteout – even though the sun was hidden away by the felted clouds, any residue of light that got through was reflected to and fro by the great shimmering whiteness that lay all about, so that I constantly started, thinking I’d seen sunlight about to break through the clouds, only to realize that I was once again mistaken.
I turned round, not all that reluctantly, and immediately discovered that, as well as the tailwind, I’d been being helped forward by a false flat which, taken from the other direction, against the wind, the snow drilling painfully into my exposed skin, felt much more like a stiff climb than the gentle slope it might have been in easier conditions.
A few miles down the road, although I knew that I still had a couple of hours of daylight left, I pulled over to set up camp on a sheltered slope next to a rare line of trees, knowing that the sanctuary they provided was mostly illusory, but deciding that I’d prefer erroneously to believe myself sheltered than to know that I was not.
The snowfall began to thin out, the visible world expanded, and eventually I could make out the mountains on the horizon, looking like wallpaper in the dim ersatz light.
The ground was frozen too hard for me to hammer my tent pegs into it, but I improvised a solution using my bicycle wheels and some straps that Alpkit had kindly sent me.
I stood for a moment, admiring my handiwork, and then noticed what I’d been looking for for the past few hours – a small break in the clouds; a tiny triangle of blue sky moving steadily up the valley towards me.
A few minutes later, to my amazement, the mountain opposite me was illuminated and transformed, given back its shine and its shadows and its contours and its brilliance.
I watched it in amazement until the clouds closed again, and then crawled into my tent for a mostly sleepless night, listening to gusts of wind roaring up the broad valley, gradually learning the speed at which they approached my flimsy tent, so that a couple of seconds after I heard them coming I knew to brace myself against its windward wall, hoping that the combination of my own bodyweight and the bags with which I’d weighted down each corner of the groundsheet would be enough to keep it from being flattened, or twisted so violently that the poles would snap and the walls rupture and I’d be alone and homeless in the blizzard.
The following morning the clouds had thinned out, and the air was – at least for now – clear and bright, though not yet sunny. The trail I had broken to my campsite had been snowed over, and my resting bicycle had its own miniature snowdrifts on every spoke. I set off up the road, cutting the first tracks through the fresh snow, and watching as the breeze sent the clouds rolling up the valley and the sky cleared above me.
I stopped my bike close to a herd of Icelandic horses, knowing already that they’re a friendly bunch, and would probably come over to say hello when they spotted me.
I suspect that most people who visit Iceland end up falling in love with its horses. They’re all descended from ancestors brought across the sea from Scandinavia in the 9th and 10th centuries, and for over a millennium Icelandic law has prohibited any other horses from being imported (or even Icelandic horses who have left the country being allowed back in). Owing to these somewhat harsh immigration laws, along with Iceland’s challenging landscape and climate, which (in my layperson’s speculation) seems likely to have accelerated the natural selection process, ensuring that only the toughest animals survive, Icelandic horses have rapidly developed to suit its conditions.
They are stocky and sturdy, with dense bones, and strong necks, and thick fluffy winter coats that reminded me of the (less friendly) yaks I’d ridden past in Qinghai and Central Asia. Even in the heaviest windiest snowstorms, you’ll see them standing resolutely in their paddocks, eyelashes encrusted with frost and manes whipped every which way by the strong winds, patiently waiting for the weather to die down – or perhaps secretly enjoying it.
It was only looking at these photos several months later that I realized I’d found a name for my snowbike: Hester, the Icelandic word for ‘horse’. Like her namesake, she has evolved and adapted to withstand the very worst conditions, and like them she is in her element when times are hard. Keeping her in the safe and dry haven of my living room (where she currently resides, waiting for the snow to come back) seems as unnatural and unfair as it would be to transport one of her equine brethren to a sunny paddock in Kent or Wiltshire, far away from the mountains and deserts and glaciers of their homeland.
So in a few months we’ll be off to Anchorage. And possibly before then, if time and money permit, we’ll try and spend a few days somewhere in Scandinavia, for a little last-minute practice riding on snow, and to remind my body what extreme cold feels like, and just how much it’ll affect my energy, coordination, judgement and morale.
For the next few miles a brisk wind kept the clouds at bay, and blew up glittering crystals of snow from the powdery drifts as I rode through them, so that the very air seemed to be alive and shimmering, a total contrast to the deadened, shadowless half-light of the day before.
A few days later I set out to tackle the same road I’d already ridden between Selfoss and Reykjavik. But who would have known that the same road could be so utterly different? On my way out I’d rolled through sunny snowfields under a clear sky, admiring the occasional clouds of steam jetting out of geothermal fissures at the foot of the mountains, and enjoying the panoramic views as I swept down the final slope back to sea level.
Today the clouds had descended so low that I could only see a few metres ahead of me, and a hefty crosswind was blowing the snow horizontally across the road, and insistently elbowing me from the verge into the traffic, like a drunken sleeping partner unconsciously crowding me to the edge of the bed. I rode at an angle, braced into the wind, ever alert to the approach of stronger gusts that might fling me out into the crawling traffic. As the road ramped up and the blizzard grew denser, narrowing my vision even more, I knew that I’d have to turn back. The snow was so heavy that I could no longer see where the road began and ended, and I doubted that the drivers would be able to see my flashing lights and hi-viz jacket until they were almost on top of me – or that in swerving to avoid hitting me they mightn’t end up causing some greater disaster.
So I waited for a break in the traffic, turned my front wheel left, and let the wind blow me across the road so that I was facing back towards Selfoss. But now I found that riding was actually impossible. Heading west, I’d been able to lean into the north wind and away from the traffic, but riding east obliged me to steer the bike into the traffic, relying on the fact that the wind would keep me from actually falling under its wheels – and I found that my instincts simply wouldn’t allow me to do that. I preferred to lean to my right, and thus be blown down into the ditch beside the road.
So I got off the bike, and wearily began to push it down the road back to Selfoss. Within a couple of minutes a van crawled past me with its hazard lights flashing and parked a few metres up the road. The driver leapt out and anxiously watched my stumbling progress as I approached him. Few words were needed as we lifted my bike into the back of the van and I climbed into the passenger seat next to him, to be driven back to Selfoss and the bus station.
The bus journey back to Reykjavik was almost as terrifying as my brief cycle had been. For the first few miles I could see my own tracks at the side of the road, wavering wildly as I had continually been blown out into the road and steered myself back towards the verge. Eventually we passed the point where I had made my decisive (and evidently well-judged) U-turn, and from then on nothing was visible but the greyish lanes of the road where the traffic had kept it partially clear, and the creeping line of cars ahead of us, crawling carefully up over the mountain. Here and there were cars that hadn’t made it, lying at odd angles in the snow beside the road. I hadn’t seen them as I rode this way a few days previously, so they must have been recent accidents. I wondered if the passengers had escaped yet or were still there, huddled in their vehicles, waiting to be rescued.
The bus bucked and shuddered like an aircraft in turbulence as the vicious Icelandic winds smashed into it, but our driver seemed unflappable – or perhaps he was just absolutely focused, concentrating as entirely on keeping the vehicle upright and moving forward as I had been on keeping my bike straight an hour earlier. At times, visibility shrank so alarmingly that we could barely even make out the car in front of us.
We made it to Reykjavik, where the blizzard had softened to a soggy gale, and I limped to the youth hostel, to dry out my kit, enjoy being between walls that didn’t move or threaten to cave in with every gust of wind, and to take stock of what I had come through.
Pleasingly, rather than bemoaning my failures (Turning Back and Taking The Bus were two things I always swore I’d never do during my ride across Asia), I felt I had a strong sense of ‘mission accomplished’. I had come to Iceland to practice riding in difficult conditions, and to get a better idea of where my limits currently lay, and this had been amply achieved. The forbidding beauty of Kaldidalur had reignited my visceral love of ice and solitude and wide open spaces, and then the challenges of route F26 had reminded me that, no matter how limitless my ambitions, they will not be accomplished unless I am realistic about my helplessness in the face of nature’s much greater power, that I am able to judge when is the moment to push on and when to turn back, that I differentiate a challenge from a suicide mission.
Quite a few people have told me how jealous they sometimes feel, looking at pictures of my bicycle posed on snowy mountain passes. When I visit my brother, I often find that he’s nicked a photo from my website for his screensaver, and it’s usually a winter one rather than a summer one. Strangely, I currently feel the same way myself. As I revisit my journeys in Iceland, I find myself envious of the person I was then and the person I will be in six months’ time, riding along the Alaska Highway in the bitter cold and the faltering winter light. I’m still as unenamoured of planning as I ever was. But only six more months, only six more months, and I’ll be out there again, and I will be myself, and life will be real.