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- Henry David Thoreau

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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

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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