Because we’re excited by things that are new, there’s a certain thrill in being somewhere we’ve never been or seeing something we’ve never seen. This thrill is at the heart of any exploration. We want risk, fear, and surprise in our lives because they are distinct and memorable experiences. But they come with apprehension and uncertainty, elements we must train ourselves to accept and embrace in order to reap the benefits of every adventure. This was Iceland every day—a psychological balancing act between excitement and doubt, fear and daring. A mental training in how to embrace the unknown. Everyone who took part emerged better, stronger, and more motivated to explore.
Days 1, 2 & 3
From the word “go” this trip was uncharted territory for nearly all involved. Physically we were prepared. Mentally we thought we were. Emotionally… not a chance. Naturally, it took time for each of us to grow into the experience, but right away it was apparent that this would be no ordinary bus ride. The company we used misplaced our reservation and leased our vehicle to another party, leaving us with a second option that wasn’t quite so current. Apart from our vehicle being yellow and a bit short (encouraging a few chuckles from the group), it looked as though it had been through every major European conflict in the past 30 years. The tires were re-treaded, the storage compartments had to be wedged shut, and it drove with a distinctive lateral wiggle every time it turned a sharp corner. Now, along the streets of downtown Reykjavik this was no big deal. But driving from Reykjavik to our first destination in Thorsmork was another story. The route required us to drive our bus into, over, and through small rivers. (Disclaimer: This is not like when you swerve into a puddle on the freeway to see how big a splash it makes.) These were glacier runoffs that measured 10-20 feet across and 3-5 feet deep. A snapshot of the interior of the bus would’ve been a study in shock and awe, as every face was glued to the window to see if the luggage compartment was going to flood. The roads between the rivers were bumpy, if not bouldery, and the speed at which we drove them left everyone white-knuckled and sweating. It was an early indicator of how far from our comfort zone this trip would take us.
Before arriving at the lodge in Thorsmork, we stopped at what someone appropriately described as “the entrance to Middle Earth.” This was a large crack in the rock face of a volcanic mountain through which a glacial river had cut a path. Sven informed us that this was a popular spot for river walking. Nevermind that few of us even knew that river walking was an actual pastime, but the river was pure glacier melt—making it just a few degrees above freezing—and the cave was completely pitch black. Our only real visibility was created by the flashing bulbs of digital cameras. Needless to say I was curious to see how our group handled such an unconventional experience right off the bat. Happily, I watched as everyone laughed and joked, smiled and shivered, groped and crawled their way to the light at the other end. As a whole we emerged a few sandals short of when we entered, but all were thrilled by the experience. It was a perfect way to plug in to the adventure after the long days of airplane travel.
We boarded the bus and continued on our way to Thorsmork, and during the ride we were treated to our first bit of Icelandic lore. Berkor, the driver, also happened to be a tour guide. As we drove through what appeared to be your average, run of the mill, beyond gorgeous Icelandic valley, he regaled us with bits of Troll history and tales of Elvish castles in the peaks. Looking back on some of these stories now, most of us can smile and appreciate their originality. But at the time we were unprepared and unsure how to respond. I looked around the bus and it was apparent that nobody had any idea what the guy was talking about. Who knew that this unique personality would become integral to penning our script.
Arriving in Thorsmork the first night felt the way it must have felt 600 years ago, but with suitcases instead of packmules. After miles and miles of absolutely nothing, there emerged this cluster of small, nondescript buildings abutting the mountainside. It was like an oasis amongst volcanoes, beckoning the weary traveler. Our accommodations were very ski-lodgish, with all 33 of us sleeping in a finished wooden loft stacked wall to wall with single beds. I think it would’ve been possible to log roll across the things from end to end if one were so inclined. So, again, here was this motley crew of strangers being forced to accept and embrace a circumstance for which they were unprepared. Dutifully, Sven and I passed out earplugs to protect against the odd snorer and hoped for the best. Rolling out of bed the next day I heard few complaints, reassuring me that this group would be up for the long road and inevitable discomforts ahead.
After a Spartan breakfast of hard boiled eggs, Icelandic yogurt, some deli meat, and liquid fish oil (this turned out to be a right of passage throughout the trip), we tackled the first major obstacle of our journey: the 25 km overland hike across the coastal mountains. From the valley floor where we began, we would climb over 4,000 vertical feet to what felt like the top of the world, then descend the same distance to the sea. The network of canyons and rifts that have imprinted themselves upon this landscape was breathtaking. Every view was better than the last, every scheduled stop the best Kodak moment of your life. It was almost overwhelmingly beautiful.
Along the way we stopped to snack and chat, attempt various feats of strength, and pose for more handstand pictures than I can count on one hand. The group became an accordion snake traversing the mountainside, at times miles apart, but always re-converging to maintain the whole. This created pockets of privacy, giving individuals the chance to connect with the vast nature around them and groups the opportunity to get to know one another beyond their names. We learned of “Iceland time,” which essentially is just a chronic underestimation of distance and pacing. “8 more k’s” felt like 15, “30 more minutes” wound up being an hour. This would prove to be another running thread that everyone embraced and gave our trip color.
In all, we hiked, ran, and climbed for close to 7 hours that day. Chowing down at lunch afterwards I realized I’d seen 3 times as many waterfalls in that day as I’d seen in my life. And they weren’t trickling little faucets either. These were gushing, roaring, monsters of snow melt. All that beauty had come at a price, however. Many of us had blisters, a few had taken spills, and almost all had sore joints and muscles. Not that this was unanticipated… The plan had been to follow the hike with a trip to the natural hot springs nearby where everyone could lick their wounds. But Murphy’s Law was there to intervene. The bus had suffered a flat on one of its rear tires, requiring us to take it to the service station and postpone our soak til the following morning. While disappointing at the time, this wound up being a blessing in disguise. The springs turned out to be far more valuable as a means to loosen tight muscles the next day than they ever could have been the night of. Everyone agreed that if we’d gone as originally intended the fatigue and length of the day already spent would’ve affected the experience. Additionally, the occurrence of a shared misfortune like a flat tire always tends to bring groups closer together. I think this particular incident, coming so soon after the hike, gave the experience incredible scope. People had time to reflect on how truly special and rare those 25 km were. We could commiserate over our bad luck, compare bumps and bruises, and throw back a few beers in the process. Tables turned.
Hitting the hot springs first thing in the morning took a little bit of resolve (it was NOT warm outside), but as soon as you were in the water it was worth it. The “tub” was actually just a depression between the rocks where naturally heated spring water was flowing and collecting. There were hot spots and cool spots that migrated due to the current of the river feeding the spring. Chasing these became the order of the day, but you could absolutely get too close for comfort. The closer you got to the source, the hotter the water you were in; to the point where it was nearly boiling. Being that this was, for most, a once in a lifetime experience, we took our time.
After drying off we hit our first WOD for the day: 5 minutes aggregate partner handstand holds followed by 100 hollow rocks and 100 good mornings. Meant to be a skill development session, this was done more for exposure and coaching than for intensity. The location was just to the side of the hot springs in a green meadow that was in full view of the other tourists and, as usual, the looks and questions laid our way were priceless.
Later that afternoon while crossing the highlands we decided to stop where there were no tourists whatsoever. In fact, we may as well have been on the moon. The ground was a mixture of ash and rock that formed a sort of cushion similar to what you’d feel on a memory foam mattress. The landscape was barren and desolate, the weather cold, windy, and uncomfortable. The WOD was 5 rounds adding weight each set of: 2 deadlifts, 2 power cleans, and 2 jerks. After each successful complex we jogged a quarter mile. Rest intervals were measured by need, so each set was done with fresh muscles. To this point in the trip we hadn’t done something so surreal. In the middle of nowhere, on soil that barely belongs to this earth, there were suddenly 30 people doing a barbell complex. For my money, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.
But it did. More to come soon...