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An Icelandic Saga: Free Solo

My flight from Vancouver to Reykjavik was an overnight job, roughly seven hours from gate to gate.

I'd intended to sleep the whole way, but I got sidetracked instead watching the documentary FREE SOLO, about a man named Alex Honnold who sets out to climb Yosemite's 3300ft El Capitan without ropes or safety gear, much to the consternation of his friends and family.

I had the movie on my mind a few days later, when I set out alone from the campsite I'd shared with my friends after we'd hiked the 25km Fimmvörðuháls trail the day before, intending to continue 57kms along Iceland's famous Laugavegur trail without them.

Not that I would ever compare free-climbing a sky-high rock wall with a little walk through the volcano patch, but I could certainly see how my loved ones would react the same as Honnold's did, when they discovered what I'd set out to do.

I'd left my friends behind on one of these adventures before, to summit Vancouver Island's Golden Hinde, and in the process I'd scared the shit out of myself, and them. There's something primal about going off into unfamiliar terrain by yourself, absent the comfort and distraction of good fellowship, and it was that sense of lonely isolation that unnerved me most as I began my solo hike.

I wasn't scared, particularly, of the trail. The Laugavegur is well-traveled, even in the shoulder season, and is marked every 12-15kms by staffed warden huts offering fresh water, first aid, and--if absolutely necessary--the potential to sleep in a hut overnight (at a cost of $90 each time).

There were four huts between my starting point at the southern end of the trail, in Thorsmork, and the upper end, in Landmannalaugar. With four days to complete the hike, I could walk a manageable distance every day and still have plenty of time to rest, recover, and enjoy my surroundings.

I'd been training all year, and hiking and backpacking through the mountains of British Columbia all summer. I had a map and compass, plenty of food and water, good rain gear and winter clothing for when the weather invariably turned bad, and my friend Jason had loaned me his GPS transceiver and a big-ass first aid kit that I would soon learn to hate, as it was unwieldy and seemed to weigh a ton.

In short, I was physically prepared, and well-kitted. What I didn't know was how my mind would react to the isolation, to the knowledge that if I fucked up along the way, it would be up to me alone to unfuck myself. I guessed I would find out.

I woke in Thorsmork at dawn, to frost and frigid temperatures and a sleepy campground around me. As I packed my tent, I heard voices from Darren and Krystin's tents and wandered over, hoping for one last hit of social interaction before I left my friends behind.

I made out better than I'd expected; Darren told me that the others had discussed renting a car and meeting me in Landmannalaugar, at trail's end, in four days, as opposed to my taking a bus back to meet them in Reykjavik instead.

Darren told me later that when he saw how my eyes lit up, he knew they had to get the car, and I admit, I was pretty damn stoked by the idea that they'd be waiting for me. It gave me a little extra burst of motivation as we hugged goodbye and I set out to find the trailhead.

I'd covered two kilometres before I reached the official start of the trail, with the next hut at Emstrur, fifteen kilometres ahead. The sun was shining and I made good time through the trees and low hills around Thorsmork, and after I'd hiked for about an hour I reached the first unbridged river I would have to cross on the trail.

I'd been warned about these rivers, which are wide and fast and cold, and can be as much as knee-deep in spots. I'd brought water shoes, but foolishly decided not to use them for this first crossing, and even with my trekking poles found it a harrowing slog in bare feet.

Once I'd made it safely, I resolved to dig out my water shoes and use them how they were meant to be used for the rest of the trip.

I made good time from there. The trees fell away behind me, and I moved north over low undulating hills and flat sand with a glorious vista of mountains and glaciers around me. The weather was spectacular, though I knew it would turn in the coming days, and I was eager to cover as much ground as I could before the rains (and worse) came.

Around noon I stopped for a few bites of trail mix and some water and to shuck my pack for a while, and then descended into a beautiful narrow valley marked by high bluffs on both sides, and a trail that descended through terrain that smelled of sulphur springs.

"I could hike in terrain like this forever," I thought, and almost as soon as I did, I glanced left and saw to my dismay a steep trail running up the length of the valley wall. I could see that I would have to climb, and after crossing a raging river on a narrow bridge, I began to do just that, sweating in the early afternoon sun and hauling myself skyward by my poles.

I was gassed when I reached the top, but within a few steps of the summit, the trail curved and I could see the huts at Emstrur in the distance. It was still early (barely 1330hrs), and I weighed my options: I could set up camp here for the night, and enjoy the afternoon, or I could press on to the next huts at the lake at Alftavatn, another sixteen kilometres distant.

I met a fellow from England on the trail who was headed south, and we chatted for some time, and he told me the lake was well within reach if I continued onward, and since the hut at Emstrur wasn't in a particularly beautiful spot, and I knew the weather was bound to turn, I resolved to make the most of the sunny afternoon and press on to the lake after lunch.

So I ate, and refilled my water, and kept going. The trail climbed above the hut and into a wide, rocky land that I began to think of as the Dinosaur Valley, since it looked like a place where prehistoric beasts would have roamed, and where their fossils might be found today.

I saw no beasts or fossils, but a steady stream of hikers coming in the other direction, some of whom had availed themselves of the option to have their tents and luggage trucked between the two huts, so they only had to walk with a day pack.

Many of these people were Canadian, I discovered. I was wearing a Toronto Blue Jays ball cap and the Canadians I passed would invariably comment on it--even the Quebecois ;)

These brief but friendly interactions really helped keep my spirits up; I didn't feel alone at all.

After I passed through the Dinosaur Valley, I reached a vast desert plain that I thought of as the Wasteland. It was kilometres upon kilometres long, such that you could watch people approaching on the trail for a solid hour before you met them.

It took me nearly two hours of steady hiking to cross the plain, during which a rain sprang up and died and threatened to return again.

At the end of the plain was the second river crossing. This time, I dug out my water shoes and picked my way cautiously across to the other side, trying not to imagine what a pain in the ass it would be if I slipped and dunked my gear in the drink.

I didn't slip, and once I'd put my hikers back on I continued, toward another spectacular valley lit gold by the late afternoon light, where there was another hut at Hvanngil, just three kilometres from the lake.

By this point it was just growing evening and I was closing in on thirty kilometres hiked for the day. My shoulders were sore from my pack, and trail mix and protein bars weren't cutting it nutritionally.

I was eager for a hot meal and my sleeping bag, but the last stretch of trail to Alftavatn was so beautiful that I found myself stopping to take photographs anyway.

After another quick river crossing, I followed the trail over some low hills and the lake and the huts appeared spread out before me.

I limped down to the campground, paid the warden my $20 and set up my tent and cooked dinner as the sun set over the lake.

Then, just as the daylight disappeared beyond the mountains, I crawled into my sleeping bag, sent a quick message to my friends on the GPS, and reached for my book, intending to read for a little while before I drifted off for the night.

I didn't even crack the spine before sleep overtook me. It was 8pm and I'd hiked 33kms after covering 25kms the day before. I was bagged.

Fortunately, I'd left myself with only 24kms to go before the trail's end, and with another hut for camping halfway through, I could make the rest of the trek in a very leisurely couple of days.

Nature, as it turned out, had other plans.