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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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Expeditions

Nov 28, 2018

350 Miles on Foot, Under the Midnight Sun

Two Friends take on the elements and cross Iceland from North to South on foot.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

During the Summer of 2017, two school friends, Antoine Debontride and Pierre Lefort undertook a North-South crossing of Iceland by foot and against the elements. By chance, The Outdoor Journal‘s Pierre Gunther also shared a classroom with Antoine and Pierre, so upon hearing of their adventure, he offered to buy them a coffee. Pierre asked some questions and listened to their story, of a beautiful, but challenging journey through Iceland’s rugged landscape.

Antoine, a 24-year-old trek enthusiast with a passion for photography was familiar with this kind of challenge, having already completed the GR 20 in Corsica and a crossing of Swedish Lapland, a trek of 350 miles. However, on this occasion Antoine invited his friend (and occasional model during the trip) Pierre Lefort, who was living in Burkina Faso at the time. Iceland was understandably a shock to the system.

The landscape between Thorsmork and Skógar. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Antoine, what inspired you to go to Iceland?

Antoine: By chance, having stumbled across the destination six years ago whilst online. At the time, I was looking for my first solo great adventure by foot, I was in total awe when I found Iceland: unbelievable landscapes, a very demanding climate, an amazing challenge both physically and psychologically. Additionally, all of this was merely three hours from Paris. Despite my excitement, I was under no illusion that this was going to be difficult, even dangerous without sufficient experience. Therefore, I told myself that this should be a goal, I worked towards it, and in the summer of 2017 we made it.

Askja’s last eruption dates back to 1961. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Why this route, and how did you prepare it?

Antoine: In the same way as I do for all of my treks, with lots of homework and time spent online researching. This is a phase that I really enjoy. Not a prelude, but a part of the adventure itself. I had been looking for a big adventure, a real challenge and I of course spotted the famous Laugavegur itinerary (a 3 day trek), but I wanted to challenge myself to something longer. I eventually found my way to Jonathan Ley’s blog, and I read about his North-South crossing of Iceland, “coast to coast”. This was a gold mine of information, and from there, I developed my final itinerary: from Hraunhafnartangi lighthouse in Skógar, south for about 350 miles and 20 days of walking. Buying the maps and finding a partner who could and would join me for this crazy adventure was the only thing left to be done!

The Godafoss waterfalls. Photo by Antoine Debontride

What was it about Iceland that left you with the greatest impression?

Antoine: The diversity of landscapes and scenery. During the course of a single day, we could walk on the peak of a volcano, in a sandy desert, and then on a glacier. Iceland is known to many as the “Land of the Extremes”, and we really understood its full meaning as we traversed the country.

Pierre: I was struck by the total lack of any sign of human activity in the Highlands, the centre of the country. Roaming these lands really gave you the feeling that no human had ever stepped upon them before. It made me feel like an explorer. I was also astonished to understand how mankind is dominated by nature. In the heart of the summer, the melting ice makes some trails inaccessible, you have to resign yourself to simply wait before mother nature allows you to pass. In this place, nature is the boss, humans must adapt.

Ódáðahraun desert, literally the lava desert of criminals, is said to be place where outlaws found shelter. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Were there any dangerous moments?

Antoine: There were a couple of moments that stand out. We regularly crossed fords, and on this particular occasion we had to cross 6 in a single day. One the 3rd occasion, the water was 41° F, with a strong current, we couldn’t see the bottom. I stepped into the water, and after a few steps, while I was looking for a support with my trekking pole… there was nothing. My arm sank further into the water, and I could feel it was at least one meter deeper in that particular spot from where I was standing. Due to the weight of my backpack, I toppled into the water. I don’t know how on earth I managed to get back on my feet, but somehow I pulled myself out. Knowing the risks of falling into water that cold really gave me a big scare. For once, the merciless wind of Iceland was helpful, and everything dried within an hour.

I will let Pierre describe the second dangerous moment, which was perhaps one of the most significant parts of our journey.

Pierre: I’ll never forget this moment for as long as I live. It was day 13, our final day before entering the Highlands. From the first moment that we woke up, we felt like this day was going to be remembered. The temperature had suddenly fallen, and we were welcomed by a light rain when we exited our tents. After just a few hours of walking, a thick fog had set in and we could only see ten meters ahead. Navigation had become difficult, we kept heading in the wrong direction. On many occasions, we had to retrace our steps as we aimed for the summit of the mountain range that we needed to pass. It was at the summit that the wind had replaced the fog, and we were forced to push on with great difficulty, continuously feeling as though we would be swept away by a huge gust of wind.

The real moment of misfortune came whilst crossing a névé, along a steep mountain side, with a 30 meter drop down onto the rocks below. We were moving slowly, my steps steadily settling in Antoine’s, when suddenly my left foot slipped. With the weight of my backpack, I fell, and only saved myself from a deadly fall courtesy of a walking pole that stuck full length in the snow. The pole sacrificed it’s life for mine, and whilst I was grateful, this episode was a serious blow to my morale; it felt like I had lost one of my best allies.

Lake Viti’s crystal-clear waters. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Did you sleep under the elements? How did you manage for food?

Antoine: We wanted to do this for ourselves, without support, so we carried everything that we needed. This included tents of our own, not the best solution if we consider the weight, but it felt necessary for a trek this long to have our own space. Along the way, we also benefited from shelters that were open to the elements and huts, maintained by an association of rangers. In total, we managed to spend 5 nights inside a hut out of a total  of twenty nights.

Concerning food, I adopted the same diet as during my previous treks: muesli and powdered milk for breakfast. Dry-fruit mix, chocolate and cereal bars during the day. Soup and freeze-dry meals for diner. I cannot tell you how happy we were to enjoy fresh food once we reached the finish line.

Bivouac with a view on Vatnajökull. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Did you try Håkarl? (Whale Sashimi)

Antoine: What? We saw many restaurants offering shark, whale and mackerels.

Pierre: After the famous hot-dog of Reykjavik and the fish and chips we gobbled up when we arrived, we didn’t have any room for anything else.

What’s the one thing everyone should know before attempting something like this?

Antoine: It is a matter of being prepared. When considering this kind of itinerary, you cannot afford to be unprepared. It’s also important to have self awareness, and good knowledge of yourself. This can only be acquired with experience. Walking 350 miles across Iceland is physical, but the real challenge takes place inside of your head. Loneliness, long hours of walking every day for three weeks… it’s certainly not for everyone!

Pierre: I totally agree with Antoine. However, I would also add the preparation regarding the equipment. It is extremely important to be equipped with good gear and above all test everything before departure. On this type of trek, 80% of people don’t make it because of bad preparation.

Read next: Engagés: Upon Reflection. Calm, Patience, Humility

What’s the one piece of gear and/or tech that you think was essential?

Antoine: The GPS was very useful, sometimes maps were not accurate enough for us to locate exactly where we were. With the GPS, even in scenario’s of low visibility we were able to continue moving forward. We had prepared by saving a few local landmarks, that helped us once we were on the ground in Iceland.

Pierre: If I let my stomach speak, I would tell you it’s the equipment that you need to cook, but Antoine is right, without any doubt the GPS that was essential.

Asbyrgi canyon, nicknamed Sleipnir’s footprint according to Icelandic sagas that explain the site was formed by Odin’s eight-legged horse. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Antoine, what camera did you use?

A Nikon D7000 with a 18-105 lens, and a GoPro hero 5.

How much value does the midnight sun add to pictures?

Antoine: It is true that in a particular light pictures are enhanced, but instead I can’t let go of the unsettling aspect of this phenomenon. You really lose the notion of time. You can wake up at 3 am and still find the same luminosity as during the day. Of course, it can also be a great asset during a trek, you never have to stop because of low light.

Tell us about your favourite photo?

Antoine: Without any hesitation: Askja! It’s a huge volcano crater that we needed to cross during the trek. It was still covered with snow and the weather was gorgeous. Later, we ran into another hiker who told us that he had already come here four times, but this was the first time that he could see even two meters ahead.

The moonscapes of Askja. Photo by Antoine Debontride

What’s next?

Antoine: Perhaps Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan and Mongolia, they are beautiful lands for treks and still not mainstream.

Pierre: I plan to focus on our own beautiful country. France is packed with amazing hikes and treks. I would love to take more time to perfect my equipment before challenging myself to adventures further afield.

If you want to see other pictures of Antoine around the world, have a look at his 500px account here.

Cover photo: The rugged landscape of Landmannalaugar. Photo by Antoine Debontride

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Expeditions

May 21, 2019

Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Peter Van Geit, wilderness explorer, ultra-runner, Founder of the Chennai Trekking Club, shares the field notes from his 1500 km alpine-style run across 40 high altitude passes the Himalaya.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

During the summer of 2018, I completed a three-month journey across 40 high altitude passes in Spiti, Pangi, Chamba, Kinnaur, Shimla and Kangra districts of Himachal, in the Himalaya. As always, I ran alpine style, which means self-navigated and with minimal gear through forests, alpine meadows, moraines, glaciers, snow and wild streams. Although I did meet up with a few friends for portions of the journey, my mostly solo exploration took me to many lesser known passes only used by shepherds including Chobia, Chaini, Kugti, Pratap Jot, Thamsar, Kaliheni, Lar La, Padang La and Buran to name a few.

In the following collection of photos and captions, I jumped districts and valleys across the Pir Panjal, Dauladhar and Baspa ranges traversing through the picturesque valleys of Pangi, Saichu, Sural, Miyar, Hudan, Chandra, Tsarap, Zanskar, Lingthi, Lugnak, Lug, Barot, Ravi, Pin, Parbati, Baspa, Chenab, Buddhil Nai, Pabbar, Chamba and Spiti.

The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes.

Several weeks went into planning the route, analyzing maps including OSM (Open Street Maps), SOI (Survey of India), Google Earth, Olizane and various reference blogs. Credit goes to Sathya Narayanan who inspired me through his solo trekking explorations and wonderful blog before he went missing last August. Also thanks to my close friend Maniraj who identified many trails. Navigation (and photography) was done with my OnePlus 6 mobile and offline OpenTopoMaps. A total elevation gain of 200,000 meters with seven passes above 5,000 meters and 21 passes above 4,000 meters. Being an ultra runner and minimalist, carrying only 6kg luggage, most of the pass crossings were done in just one to two days after initial acclimatization, covering 30-40 km every day. The remaining time I traveled on HPRTC buses in between sections. The journey went across colorful alpine meadows, high altitude desert, vast glaciers, wild stream crossings, huge moraines, steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a few technical climbs and wilderness navigation near a few unused trails.

On many nights, I overnight camped in the tent I carried with me, but many times I stayed in shelters with shepherds and mountain tribes and in many welcoming homes at remote, hospitable villages. My food packing was kept basic with no cooking tools to reduce weight. No technical gear was carried except for a pair of hiking poles to assist in crossing streams, ice slopes, and landslides. The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes. I indulged in lip-smacking local cuisine, encountered hikers and wildlife in the remotest corners of the Himalaya, and listened to beautiful music on local instruments. More details on passes, route, preparation, photos, and videos of my journey can be found at ultrajourneys.org.

Saichu Valley Apline Meadow, Pangi

Traversing beautiful alpine meadows dotted with pink and yellow flowers in the remote Saichu Valley in Pangi beyond the last village of Tuan. These higher altitude meadows of Saichu are grazed by many herds of the shepherds who migrate each summer from Chamba valley through one of the many passes across the Pir Panjal range. Here on the way to explore an unknown jot (5,260 m) trying to cross over from Saichu to Miyar valley.

Shepherd descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m)

Descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m) with a shepherd guiding his 500 sheep into the beautiful cloud indulged Chamba valley below. Kugti is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range used by shepherds for their annual migration to graze the high altitude meadows. Here we are crossing over from Rapay village along the Chenab river in Lahaul to the picturesque Kugti village in Bharmour, Chamba. The Kugti pass requires traversing of moraines and landslide-prone slopes on either side of the pass.

High altitude meadows of the Miyar valley

Bright red alpine flowers in the high altitude meadows (4200m) of the Miyar valley while descending the Pratap Jot (5,100 m) pass onto the moraines of the Kang La glacier. Pratap Jot is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range separating the Miyar and Saichu valleys. Around 10 shepherds and their 3000+ sheep graze the beautiful meadows of Saichu valley every year crossing one of these passes. The 25km long Kang La glacier seen here connects Lahual/Pangi with Zanskar, Ladakh – walking across this vast moraines landscape of huge boulders and rocks on top of melting ice is quite challenging.

Best friends in the mountains

“The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.”

Your best friends in the mountains – the gaddi’s! Here preparing hot chai, fluffy roti and yummy aloo gravy for two starved (and half frozen) travelers after an icy crossing of the Rupin pass with heavy snowfall and hazel during mid-September 2018. The shepherds leave home at the start of summer in May and cross several high altitude passes to graze their large herds of 300 to 600 sheep and goats in the remotest corners of the Himalaya returning only six months later in Sep-Oct. Every few weeks they descend to the nearest village to resupply rice, atta and other food items. They use home woven blankets and clothing to stay warm in their temporary shelters in the alpine meadows between 3,000 to 4,000 meters altitude. The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.

Chobia pass glacier

A heavily crevassed glacier as seen from the top of the Chobia pass (4,966 m), shepherd gateway across the Pir Panjal range separating the valleys of Lahaul/Pangi and Chamba. As per shepherds, the Chobia pass is the second most treacherous pass (after Kalicho) to cross the Pir Panjal range leaving around 20 out of 500 sheep dead during the annual crossing of this pass. From the Pangi side at Arat village along the Chenab river, one has to traverse steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a vast section of moraines and negotiate deep crevasses in the glacier (following a trail of sheep poop) before ascending a final steep rock to reach the narrow pass. On the Chamba side on the way to Seri Kao village, all bridges were washed away during flash floods in August 2018 requiring scaling steep trail-less slopes on one side of the valley unable to cross the forceful stream currents.

Fresh glacial snow near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m)

Fresh snow on top of the glacier near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m) in September 2018. The pass was first crossed in 1884 by Sir Louis Dane in search for an alternate route to the Spiti valley. The pass connects the fertile and lush green Parbati valley on the Kullu side with the barren high altitude desert of Spiti near Mud village. At the Parbati valley side, one encounters many shepherds and hikers on the way to the Mantalai lake and one can indulge in the scenic hot springs of Keerghanga. On the Pin valley side, the eye gets treated by the mesmerizing color shades of the valley slopes of the Spiti rock desert.

Tso Mesik ghost town

“Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough?”

Tso Mesik, one of the many ghost towns one encounters along the remote Tsarap river valley while hiking from the Gata loops (Manali-Leh highway) in Lahaul towards Phuktal gompa in Zanskar, Ladakh. What appears to be once thriving settlements with beautifully constructed homes, surrounded by fertile farming fields have been abandoned for many years. Residents seem to have left in a hurry leaving everything behind. Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough, did a natural calamity (2014 floods) force them to leave, did the comforts of the city life tempt them to migrate or did their lifelines (water streams) dry up due to global warming and melting glaciers?

Ibex skull found on the Lar La pass (4,670 m)

An ibex skull on the Lar La pass (4,670 m) deep inside the Zanskarian mountains in Ladakh on the way from Phuktal to Zangla. The entire journey involves crossing two other passes including Rotang La (4,900 m) and Padang La (5,170 m). On the way one passes through Shade village, one of the most remote settlements in Zanskar, being two days away from the nearest road head. Between Lar La and Padang La, I encountered yak herders grazing remote alpine meadows in this barren desert, producing 100 liters of milk from as many domesticated yaks every day, also producing butter and cheese. The same is transported using donkeys, horses and yaks to Shade village to survive the six months of total isolation during winter. All animals are carefully kept in enclosures at night, safe from nocturnal attacks by the elusive snow leopard.

Beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m)

Dreaming beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m), the highest of the 40 passes crossed in this trans-Himalayan journey, the Phirtse La connects Tangze village in Zanskar with Sarchu in Lahaul. The starlit skies were captured on my OnePlus 6 phone with 30 seconds exposure trying hard not to freeze off my butt in that very cold night at 4,700 m. The pass connects the Southern most section of the Zanskar valley which is dotted with many beautiful small settlements like Testa, Kuru, Tangze, Kargyak, small fertile patches in the barren desert of Ladakh. On the other side, one descends into the beautiful Lingthi valley encountering shepherds and wild yaks on the way to Sarchu where it joins the Tsarap river.

Menthosa peak, 6,443 meters

Menthosa peak, at 6,443 m, the second highest peak in Lahaul and Spiti, as seen from an unknown pass (5,300 m) while crossing over the Pir Panjal range from Saichu to Miyar valley in Pangi. Menthosa is situated in the Urgos Nallah, a tributary of the exceptionally beautiful Miyar Nallah. Here climbing up steeply from the beautiful alpine meadows of the Saichu Nallah beyond the last settlement of Tuan across vast stretches of moraines towards Great Himalayan Range to enter Miyar valley.

Trapped in a fog whiteout

“I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail.”

One of the most intense experiences during my journey. While descending from the Chobia pass, the most dangerous in the 40 crossed, I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail used by shepherds. Further descent was impossible being blocked by steep rock faces on all sides. Having lost my tent the previous day in the beautiful Miyar valley, I spend that night wrapped up beneath a small tarpaulin sheet braving the cold rains, while trying not to slide down from the inclined slope. Next morning the sunrise cleared up the fog and I was treated to a stunning view of the green Chamba valley below. One hour later and 500 meters lower I was enjoying a hot cup of chai and alloo roti in the first shepherd shelter on my way out.

Award-winning documentary

Upon returning, I shared all of the footage from my journey that I took with my OnePlus 6 and shared it with my friend Neil D’Souza, who compiled it into a short film which won the Best Mountain Exploration Film Award at the IMF Mountain film festival.

For more information on Peter’s journeys, visit ultrajourneys.org.

Instagram: @petervangeit
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit

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