Monday, August 1, 2011

The death of my tent & rescue mission

Photos: (1) N1 Gas station in Þingeyri; (2) The start of the trail; (3) Kirkjubólsdalur; (4) Grjótskál; (5) Kvennskarð pass; (6) Last photo of my tent, Fossdalur, Arnarfjörður

Today is the start of part two of my adventure. I have always wanted to see the abandoned farm of Lokinhamrar ever since seeing the documentary film about the last farmer who lived there. There is a jeep track there that hugs the coastline and is known for its spectacular scenery. The nearest town, and the start of my adventure, is Þingeyri. With a population of about 400, it lies about 50 minutes south of Ísafjörður in Dýrafjörður fjord.

I leave some supplies at the Hotel Edda and catch the tourist bus (ISK 2000) to Þingeyri at 8am. I’m the only person who gets off at the N1 gas station in town, where I first enjoy a few cups of coffee before starting the trek. It’s really windy today, but partly sunny and a nice day for hiking. I shoulder my pack and head out of town on foot at about 11am. On the way I pass a guesthouse and make a mental note. I would like to stay in a room again when I return to shower and rest. The first 4 km follow the road north out of town. There’s a nice view but I don’t like hiking on pavement. At the airstrip, I turn inland onto a gravel road and soon reach a sign pointing the way. A footpath crosses through a farmer’s property at Kirkjuból, and the sheep coming running out to greet me. The footpath eventually crosses the jeep track, which is grassy at times, or very rocky, and I stay on the track through Kirkjubólsdalur valley. The jagged snow-peaked mountains are ominous. The wind is really strong and taking a break is difficult because it quickly gets too cold, but the weather is otherwise dry and fine. The hike is easy and pleasant, and eventually climbs up a steep pass to nearly 1000 m. The prominent mountain here is Kaldbakur at 998 m, but my goal today is not to climb to its peak. The track follows along various streams so there is plenty of water, and there is not a lack of skittish sheep to accompany me either. At the top of the pass, the view is spectacular. If I stand in the right spot, I can see the ocean on both sides. I head down the pass into Fossdalur with a view of Arnarfjörður fjord in the distance. This fjord is supposedly the most beautiful in all of Iceland and I’m really looking forward to the next few days of hiking along ist coast. As I exit the valley, I’m getting quite tired and hungry. It’s been over 20 km again but I’d like to make it to where the track intersects the coastal road. It’s 5pm when I finally reach the spot, and there are plenty of nice places to pitch a tent along the river with a great view of the ocean. If it only weren’t for the wind! I stand in various spots to see if there’s a place with some shelter, but no matter where I go, the wind whips from the mountains behind me and from the ocean at the same time. Oh well, I’ve survived wind before and I feel confident that it won’t be a problem.

I have no problems pitching the tent in the wind, since I’ve done it often before, but it’s not standing right today. Although it’s staked well, the wind is leaning into it hard and that ominous creaking is back. I throw my backpack inside and get some water at the river. I’m starving and my first priority is making dinner. As I sit inside, I notice that it’s actually quite warm out of the wind, and looking out over the ocean, I look forward to relaxing this evening in this beautiful spot. But it’s only a matter of seconds when I hear a sickening CRACK and I immediately know something is wrong. It takes me a minute to locate the problem – the short third pole above my head has cracked. But just as I spot the damage, the jagged edge of the pole tears a foot long hole into the roof of the fly. I quickly slip a splint over the jagged pole but the wind rips through the hole and tears and tugs at the tent violently, and suddenly the whole seam along the zipper opens up, leaving a tear along the whole length of the zipper, roughly 150 cm. I can understand the pole and first tear, but the seam ripping apart is surely a manufacturing problem! In any case, it’s immediately clear that the tent is totalled and this is an emergency.

I’m amazingly calm as I think and act. First I remove the damaged fly. The inner tent is fine with the pole now splinted and it offers some shelter from the wind, as long as it doesn’t rain. But rain is inevitable, and the sky indicates that it’s just a matter of time. I check my cell phone, but there’s no service, not even a tiny bit. I am exhausted from the 24k/6 hr hike, freezing from the drying sweat, and really hungry. There’s no way I could hike the entire way back over the pass, even if I rested and made dinner first. I have my Spot messenger with various options. I have set up a button if I need help but am not in immediate danger, but the people on this help list may not read the email messages until tomorrow. I set up this button to use, for example, if I am safe in the tent with enough food, but maybe am injured and cannot hike anymore. But although I’m currently fine, a sudden change in weather could turn this situation into a serious problem. I see no other option at the moment and realize I will have to push the SOS button. This would send my GPS coordinates straight to the Icelandic Search and Rescue team and help would surely come quickly. However I am hesitant at initiating a search and rescue action when I’m not in serious trouble.

As my conscious is struggling to accept this decision and push the button, a jeep approaches. Pfuuuuhhhhh. A breath of relief. I have no idea how often this track is used since I am aware that the quality is really bad and parts of it are only accessible during low tide. But one vehicle is all I need! I run up to the road and flag the jeep down. The Icelandic couple from Reykjavík is more than happy to help! It only takes a minute to pack my things since I hadn’t even unpacked my backpack, and the couple makes room for me in the back seat. We drive along the fjord and cut through the mountains via the regular road, all the way back to Þingeyri. The car is warm and I smile and relax and enjoy the scenery. It really is beautiful and I’m incredibly sad that I can’t continue my hike. Up the pass, it begins to rain and I count my lucky stars that I’ve been „rescued“. Back in town, the couple leaves me off at the guesthouse I spotted this morning. I make sure to note their address and will send them something from Germany in thanks.

Luckilly there is a single room available and it’s incredibly cheap at that. The owner is very kind and helpful, though I’m a bit beside myself at the moment. Although I really need to process what just happened, I push the day’s events out of my head to take care of myself and my priorities. I fix a hot dinner, take a hot shower and crawl into bed. I’m utterly exhausted. Sleep is restless, and I find myself thinking about what happened. But I am able to push it out of my mind again and again and return to sleep. I will allow myself to process it all once I’m rested. There will be plenty of time tomorrow and in the coming days.