Ex Ice Dragon 2014 – Wales Universities Officers Training Corps

Exercise Ice Dragon 2014 was an adventurous training expedition sponsored by the Ulysses Trust. The expedition leader was OCdt Smith of Bangor Company and involved 13 members of Wales Universities Officers Training Corps (WUOTC). The two mountain leaders with the requisite adventurous training qualifications were SM Williams, currently RA and serving as PSI of Bangor Company in WUOTC and OCdt Samuel Smith, who has just finished his third year with WUOTC. The expedition’s objective was to take the team hiking along the famous Laugavegur Trail, a 55km route between the Landmannalaugar and Porsmork national parks, and one of the most challenging and spectacular hiking routes in the world.

The group met at Bangor train station at 1200hrs on the 1 Aug 2014 and were transported to Caernarfon Barracks where expedition kit was issued.  Stores from Bicester included rucksacks, down jackets, waterproofs, tents, walking boots and poles.  That evening we headed to Birmingham Airport and grabbed a twilight flight to Keflavik Airport, Reykjavik, and the most northerly capital city in the world. As the plane came in to land, we had our first introduction to the vast, volcanic landscape that we would soon be travelling through. Our transfer picked us up from the airport, the driver being a bear of man with a thick beard who wore leather trousers with a knife stuck in to the belt. It became clear that you had to be a particular type of person to live in this harsh environment.

The following morning was spent shopping in preparation for the next 4 days on the trail. Mid morning we set off for Landmannalaugar, leaving unnecessary civilian kit in the guesthouse and packing our rucksacks for the 4 days of hiking ahead. Half way into the journey, we left the comfortable coach for a mountain bus, jacked up with large deflated wheels and high ground clearance, more suited to the terrain ahead. Those of us who knew “The Lord of the Rings” films likened the landscape to that of Mordor; barren, black and rugged. Travelling along ash covered tracks and past frozen lakes, the brief journey gave us all an opportunity to get to know each other and set a good tone for the trip ahead.

Our approach to Landmannalaugar was across a vast expanse of flat glacial land, ribbon rivers and red rhyolite mountains. Not knowing what to expect, we were greeted warmly by camp staff and shown where to set up our tents. The loos were some distance away from the campsite and consisted of modern showers and mixed toilets. On the other side of the camp we encountered our first taste of Icelandic hot springs. This was a bizarre experience for all. Most expected the water to be tepid at best yet we were all pleasantly surprised to find the water extremely warm, to the extent that OCdts Rushton, Hudson, Jeffery and Lawrence were able to boil their ration packs in two streams feeding into the pools. We remained in the water until we were suitably pruned and pink. Getting out of these springs and into our tents was a less than pleasant experience and one best undertaken at speed. We will no doubt all remember the start of our trip as a surreal and amazing experience, our heads chilly in the Icelandic tundra, our bodies extremely warm from the hot springs.

We began the trail at 0930, with a climb up into the rhyolite mountains; Landmannalaugar spread out behind us. The views were stunning, so different to anything any of us had previously experienced. As we hiked the 25km, it was akin to walking between different continents, from the red rhyolite mountains, smoking with pungent sulphuric acid fumaroles dotted across the landscape, to more barren black rocky hills and glaciers. We explored tunnels under a glacier towards the end of the walk, which was a somewhat surreal experience, being underneath such a powerful shape of the landscape. Luckily, the weather held out for the most part, particularly lucky for OCdt Whatmough who decided to be cotton clad head to toe for the entirety of the trip. Finally we reached the peak of a mountain, which represented the change from the reds, blacks, and whites of the rhyolite hills, to more lush green vegetated mountains.

A seemingly small lake around the western side of the largest mountain was our first view of our accommodation for the night at Álftavatn. That night we cooked food in the excellent kitchen facilities. OCdt Duckworth had valiantly carried a vat of pasta and bolognaise sauce 25km from Landmannalaugar and inadvertently fed the vulturous OCdts who sat waiting with primed sporks.  OCdt Roden gave us an evening talk on the origins of the Landmannalaugar trail, informing us that it was in fact set up in order to transport moonshine between Reykjavik and Landmannalaugar. Unfortunately said locally brewed alcoholic beverage was less than readily available at the hut. The beds and shelter were a welcome contrast to the rocky, sodden sleeping arrangements of the night before.

The next few days followed a similar format as we walked across the Icelandic national parks, a relatively early start with a small break in the middle of the day when we stopped for lunch in one of the many wind huts which are scattered every 15km’s or so along the trail. Each day the route would get progressively longer and despite the terrain being relatively flat it was often punctuated with some steep and fairly lengthy inclines which tested the fitness and skills of even the most athletic members of the group and often resulted in a two steps back, one step forwards situation. Towards the 2nd day on the trail the weather changed and the team began to get hammered by high winds and both temperature and visibility dropped considerably.  It became very apparent how easily one could get exposed out here. A particularly ominous strong wind blew that morning outside, OCdts Rushton and Smith lost contact lenses to its mercy before setting set off for the 15km ahead, to Emstrur huts.

The 4th August saw yet another change in landscape, from the green mountains to more desolate landscape, blanketed in black ash and lava remains. This day involved our first river crossing. OCdts Evans, Clark, Roden, Rushton and WO2 Williams crossed together, trouser-less, as two German hikers before them had done. OCdt Roden valiantly offered to walk behind Rushton, lest she slip. Chivalry is not dead. Arms linked, we crossed the river, thigh deep in the freezing water. When in Iceland, do as two Germans who crossed the river before you do. The rest of the group crossed slightly further upstream and were able to merely roll their trousers up. Another river crossing was bridged across a wide waterfall, deeply inset into the land. We walked through more flat, black desert-like terrain, had lunch on what OCdt Jeffrey accurately described as a “lunar landscape” and reached our huts at around 1700hrs that evening. We ate and walked to the “Icelandic grand canyon”. This canyon was indeed vast; a huge steep sided valley with burned amber walls, a river running through its base, which was only visible when peering over the edge, a task OCdt Smith undertook with far less confidence than he’d led us through the deep clay the day before. A waterfall dropped across the other side of the canyon, which meandered through the volcanic black desert and green hills. We returned to the huts and prepared for the next day.

The walk to our final destination at Langidalur hut, Porsmork, took us around the canyon we’d visited the night before. Our final river crossing was the largest. OCdt Jeffrey, so sure footed for the entirety of the hike, immediately toppled putting her foot on a slippery rock before entering the river. Upon reaching our destination at Porsmork we headed to the local hot springs at the Volcano Huts. We therefore indulged in hot beverages and chatted until the evening. That evening was our last attempt to catch the Aurora which sadly continued to evade us in the summer cloudy sky and we retired at 2300hrs.

The next morning OCdt Leighton and myself woke up early, as a result of WO2 Williams’ alarm, which was still set to English time. We woke to a rainbow spanning the valley below; a truly beautiful sight to end the hiking stage of the expedition. The mountain bus took us back to Reykjavik that morning not before OCdt Clark gave his talk on the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption as we waited, insisting we all learn how to accurately pronounce the Volcano.

We arrived in Reykjavik that evening, showered (a most welcome relief!) and prepared for the Blue Lagoon. This was also a surreal experience, the milky blue water set amongst the dark lunar terrain. We basked in the water, clad ourselves in sulphuric mud and steamed away the aches and pains of the hike. OCdt Hudson’s feet were in particular need of a good soaking. After our relaxing evening, we dined in the Blue Lagoon restaurant, most of the group indulging in three courses at a slight extra personal cost. The following day we undertook the Golden Circle tour, the most amusing part had to be being taught how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, slightly more effectively than OCdt Clark, yet somewhat less amusingly. Gulfross waterfall was vast and did indeed seem to fall into the depths of the earth itself, as the guidebooks detail. Upon returning, we got together for a night out in Reykjavik after OCdts Rushton, Jeffrey and Leighton had prepared a pasta bolognaise dinner. We ended in an “English Bar” which had live music and presented a good night for all.

Our final day provided an opportunity to tour the Silfra Fissure in the morning, this turned out to be a fantastic experience and great memories providing an excellent end to the expedition. Our thanks go to the Ulysses Trust for making the expedition possible and to SM Williams and OCdt Smith for his indispensible contribution to its organisation, planning, execution and, as a result, its success.

Participants: OCdt Smith, OCdt Rushton, OCdt Clark, OCdt Hale, OCdt Evans, OCdt Roden, OCdt Jeffrey, OCdt Leighton, OCdt Hutchinson-Smith, OCdt Duckworth, OCdt Hudson, OCdt Lawrence, OCdt Whatmough and WO2 Williams.

OCdt Harriet Rushton, Bangor Company, WUOTC.

With thanks to:

Ulysses Trust

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