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Iceland. Mind Blown!




Travel to Ísafjörður, Iceland:

 

I didn’t know anything about Iceland and had very little idea of what to expect. Looking out from the plane window, it was like the moon or a totally different planet! Until we approached Reykjavik, the capital city, I saw almost no roads, towns or anything! It was so barren with much of the land completely white with snow. Craters, volcanos, high plateaus, mountains and large crevasses were all visible. And where are the trees!? I saw smoke just pumping out of the ground and large amounts of steam coming out of the recently erupted volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula. This place is very out there!




Stepping off the plane I was hit with a very gusty wind. I found out that Iceland is very very windy…. almost all the time! The first bus driver I met was funny and joked that it should be called “Windland” not “Iceland”. I then went to a swimming pool before having a look around Reykjavik. All a lot of fun! Reykjavik itself felt like a seaside fishing town with a very arty and cultural feel.






The next day I met my travel companions and the three of us started our 8 hour car journey north to Ísafjörður in the Westfjords region. The first 2 hours of the journey were across brown, dry and rocky land. The great North Atlantic Ocean was to the left, and on my right and ahead I saw dramatic snowy plateaus, volcanoes and mountains. The landscape felt out of this world.




The map showed various towns on our way but mostly these towns consisted of a few farms and barn houses. I have definitely never seen so much uninhabited land. The population of the whole country is around 377,000, smaller than the city of Christchurch in New Zealand! And when you think over 300,000 live in the capital city, Reykjavik and the neighbouring Southern Peninsula and Southern Region it gives an idea of how few people live across most of the land. The weather was changing very often from blue skies, to thick cloud to snow. The only constant thing was the wind. I felt in total awe of the whole place and couldn’t comprehend the fact that people were living here! Craziness!


Soon we started driving over mountain passes and entered full snow land. It was white everywhere with no trees. The road was marked by orange poles on each side and covered in snow and ice - actually barely half a road due to wind-blown snow.



None of us wanted to be driving our 2wd station wagon here during any type of snowfall, nor at night, so we continued with very few breaks. Many kilometres with no people or even farm houses made me feel we were very vulnerable to the elements and unpredictable nature of Icelandic weather. I have never had that feeling of being so isolated and at the mercy of nature. The last pass took us onto a large plateau and down into the Westfjords. 



Eventually we approached Ísafjörður. I just can’t describe how crazy this place was! I felt like we were on the edge of the world. It was breathtaking! I could see the ocean for miles and very large, snowy plateaus rising dramatically from the waters edge. I honestly felt like we were in an Ice Age movie! It was surreal. From what I had seen on our journey in terms of “towns” I was not expecting much, but Ísafjörður was pumping! It has a population of 2,600 and was easily the largest populated area I'd seen since the capital city, 500km away. There are no active volcanoes in the Westfjords, but the wind, snow, avalanches, earthquakes and isolation mean the people living there have a very unique life - closely intertwined with the elements and nature. I wanted to find some local people to learn more about their lives here.





Race day: 27th of March, NæturFossavatnið (Night Fossavatnsgangan), 70km Skate

 

I had the day of the 27th of March to chill out and try to prepare myself for my first night ski outing. Despite feeling confident I could ski the distance, the night factor was really throwing me. I felt very nervous and got myself into a bit of a mental pretzel! Was I going to feel super sleepy? Would it be hard to keep my eyes open? Because it’s dark surely that means it’s going to be crazy cold? Maybe this isn’t such a good idea? Looking back it all seems silly but these were the funky concerns going through my mind! 

 

It was a public holiday in Iceland and there were a lot of festivities in Ísafjörður. During the day they were piling huge amounts of snow onto the main street. In the early evening there was a 100m ski race (knockout) event down the main street. There was a live band and many people gathered on the side of the road/ski trail to watch. I did one round and then watched as the field got smaller. It was a lot of fun and I got a real sense of the community spirit.



 

Then it felt like a waiting game. The race was to start at 10pm. By 8:30pm I felt like going to sleep. I really hoped I wouldn’t feel like this when I was skiing! 

 

Because the race is at night, it is a requirement to ski in a team of 2 people. I teamed up with Robert from Canada. How we ended up to be a team is a story for another day, but I was so excited to have him as my teammate and have the opportunity to ski together and in such a unique place and event.


Around 9pm we drove up a mountain road to the local cross country ski hut, where the race would start and finish. The ski hut had a real community, local club feel. Including all participants and volunteers there must have been less than 20 people in the room. Only 3 teams were registered to take part in the 70km race with a few more in the 35km race.






Robert and I lined up together at the start line with the plan to enjoy it as much as possible, ski together and finish together! The race started with a climb to the tops. The snow conditions were fantastic. It was a clear night with some classic Icelandic wind. The course was not lit so everyone wore head torches. To me it was such a unique experience and looking around, thinking about what we were doing and where we were, it felt surreal. Sometimes I would laugh to myself. I could see the lights of Ísafjörður down at the bottom of the mountain. After 5 laps, all the 35km racers had skied back to the ski hut and finished. There were now only 5 other head torches out and about.  




By now the wind was blowing a gale! A good tail wind on sections and then it would switch to a full blast head wind!. But I kept thinking it could be worse… much worse! It’s Iceland! 


Robert and I got into a good rhythm and we found that every second lap was a good time to have a pit stop. The great thing about doing laps was being able to leave some personal belongings at a table which we skied past every 6 or so kilometres. Among various items, I left two hot thermoses, one of green tea and the other of miso soup. Now, I love both these things, but in this situation they really came into their own. It felt like a real luxury and oh so delicious! It was so tasty and even Robert got amongst the green tea action! At this table we saw the Australian team every so often and I enjoyed sharing a laugh with them. As we skied further through the race, I felt better physically and mentally. It surprised me how much I enjoyed the last half of the race. I did also get very giggly, which Robert did extremely well to cope with.


I honestly felt very grateful to be taking part in a very unique event in such a special place. Doing it together with Robert made it even more special. Crossing the finish line around 4am we were greeted by an enthusiastic Bobbi, the race organiser. I felt a real sense of teamwork and accomplishment. I think Robert and I were an unlikely, but great team. It felt fantastic! Bobbi and his team did an amazing job of organising the event and I appreciated how many hours of hard work went into making it happen. Also I know he missed many hours of sleep that night staying on the mountain to keep everyone safe and wait for the last team to finish.

 

At 4am, in a mountain ski hut in Ísafjörður, Iceland, was my last time on cross country skis until next season. What a time and place to wrap up this part of my journey. There a few key things that stand out to me when I look back on the last 3 months:


1) It is all about the people. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to come to Europe without two very important people: Mary from the Merino Muster committee and Martin from the XC academy in Seefeld, Austria. I couldn’t be more grateful to both of them! Then there were so many other people along the way that helped me, sometimes in really big ways or smaller ways. There were people who showed me kindness, support, help and friendship. Whatever the case it was connecting with these people and learning from them that made this trip so special to me! 


2) The kindness and collectiveness of the ski community! It goes deeper than just sharing the same hobby. It feels like everyone loves the sport and knows what a simple yet unique and special form of movement it is. When I think about it, I never would have learned to cross country ski or had these kinds of opportunities without the passion and kindness of many people in this community. 


3) Cross country skiing is a constant journey of learning! During the last 3 months I have been able to ski more often and in more places and differing conditions than ever before! It feels like a big world has opened up in front of me. Not only a literal world but also a world of learning! The more I have skied, the more I realise there is to learn. It makes me excited to keep skiing, learning, meeting new people and going to new places! 


That’s a wrap from my ski adventures in Europe. I genuinely want to say thank you again to the two people who made this trip possible and to everyone who supported me along the way. 

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