Over the past 5 years, I have been seeking bigger and greater experiences.
For every challenge I undertake though, there has to be a greater meaning or reasoning than simply the challenge itself, be that raising money for charity or helping to get more people outside. The act of going nice places and doing good things.
I had been looking into challenges outside of the UK for a while, and then reading up on Icelandic Tourism (as you do…) I saw that there has been a large increase in tourism over the last few years and this has been putting increased pressure on the popular hotspots of the country. This got me thinking...
What if there was a trail that circumnavigated Iceland, linking a large selection of the hotspots, with the forgotten and less travelled fjords and highlands? A big red line on the map that would allow anyone to do any part of the route at any time by any means, and create their own Icelandic adventure, away from the madding crowds, relieving some of the pressures that the country is facing.
Cue the Iceland National Trail.
Ben's noble steed, fitted with a custom made Stingray frame bag
There are so many stories I could recount from the adventure, but one in particular describes what I think is the returning pull of adventure, once we’ve experienced it, we crave it upon the return back to our 'everyday' lives. For me, on my Iceland adventure, this was my Real World, which I want so badly to be my ‘everyday’. Even now, weeks after my return, a part of me is still there.
This very special day, was 10 August 2018, a Friday, and I was cycling around the Westfjords.
Today was going to be a very long day, 230km of hard roads, tracks, countless hills and forecasts of strong wind. To me, this is adventure; slightly unknown, bound to be physically challenging, mentally tough and in remote and unknown wilderness.
I started in overcast weather, with my waterproof close at hand just in case the rain came in, the clouds were taunting me. After previous days of some of the hardest climatic conditions I have ever faced on a bike, this was another day, forward into the fray.
I was on the roads to start with, and the hills started with a cheeky 14% gradient for 10km which, on a bike that weighed 40kg fully packed, was a bit like trying to drag a canal boat on the back of the saddle post!
Looking back before the start of the second climb
What goes up though, must come down. The Westfjords are shaped like a giant hand, with huge fingers of rock segregated with deep fjords that extend out to what seems like the real end of the earth, as if the land itself is holding on for dear life. The tracks and roads that find their way through the wilderness either go up and over, resulting in long hard ascents, or skirt around the edge. However, with the latter, the quality of track deteriorates as they snake to the very edge of the fingers, to the limit of land before the Atlantic.
On the ascent, I disappeared into a single-minded world of peddles and breathing, nothing else mattered but the movement forward. A very liberating and basic mindset, and with so many other things going on around you, be that the weather, water, more hills or incredible scenery, I became very particular about what filled the space between. There was no time or space for thoughts outside of Iceland, outside of my blinkered vision. Nothing else mattered. At the top of the hills, a quick breather, picture of the break weather, and down in true bullet train fashion (with the exception of aerodynamics!).
The third hill was different, the weather was clearing, time was continuing its unstoppable flow, and this was a very long hill. As with the others, a long slow repetition of leg movement, breathing and drinking. Closer and closer, the summit came to light among the scattering clouds until I finally felt the ground level out and the descent started. There wasn’t much of a view from the top as the fjord ahead was hidden in the dead ground, only in the distance did the mighty pointed peaks of the east pierce the sky. I started the descent, fast. Then I saw it.
As I rounded a corner, the fjord opened up in front of me, a piercing knife edge ridge peeled off the remaining rock spur to the North, glacial scars in the mineral rich, hard volcanic rock formed an impenetrable, unclimbable wall to the South. To the West was a deep red sun, bleeding into the ocean and bathing the North West mountains in a red and orange, stark contrast against the black rock. The sea was perfect blue and calm as fishing boats returned home to the town below. The grass, moss and lichens around me exploded into colour, purple merged with green and yellow, white flowers broke the spectrum and red roof houses were sparsely dotted within the masterpiece of nature in which I would be pitching my tent.
I slammed the breaks on, there was too much for a picture, too much for a blink. My mind needed time to take this in. I was in awe, I was exhausted, I had been stripped back to raw human and then blessed with the raw world.
There are studies that show the impact of being in awe and how it can ‘imprint’ itself on the brain and cleanse the mind, forming a sense of belonging. So new and different, yet so familiar. To me, this was adventure, the experience of the Real World, and something I will never forget.
Follow more of Ben's adventures by visiting Athlete Adventures