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Thursday, 23 September 2021

Iceland 9: to Hvanngil

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Thursday 1st September 1977

Our walking holiday in Iceland continues. 

Strutslaug, Iceland, 1977
Leaving Strutslaug - the hut is in the mid distance on the left

On the road again, or rather, up a frozen river in a snowstorm and a slide down a glacier. Today, we skirt the southern edge of the Torfajökull ice cap and move to Hvanngil.


Paul and the ‘bridge school G.T. boys’ leaving us behind yet again

Neville boasts of being an expert ice slider on account of his skiing experience. Bridge School Mike is entirely the opposite. At least that’s one thing he can’t do. As I follow Neville by sliding down on one foot keeping perfect control by punching the ground with mittened fists, Mike shoots past head first on his back at about fifty miles an hour. Still, he seems to be enjoying it. 

We shelter from the weather in a snow cave to eat our sandwiches.

Later, we have to cross a stream. Steve and I are too close to each other with one rock common to both our routes. He gets there first. I fall full length but escape with only a wet leg. By then the snow, which had turned to rain, has stopped and the wind soon dries my trousers, but only after Paul takes full advantage of the opportunity to make sardonic comments. 

Today I am carrying the billy cans. They jingle-jangle constantly behind me against my metal mug. Now I know how cats must feel with bells on their collars. Everyone carries their share of  the equipment and everyone does their share of the housekeeping – washing up, making sandwiches, burying rubbish and fetching water. Paul does all the cooking on a primus stove. Perhaps the main selfishness, which I have only just caught on to, is in arriving at huts as early as possible and bagging the best sleeping spots.

The countryside gradually turns greener as we get nearer the enormous Markarfljót river. My day off yesterday at Strútslaug has paid off. In the afternoon I zoom along with Paul and arrive at Hvanngil first, but as it is the most comfortable hut so far, there is no real advantage.

Ed is once more a long way behind. He really should have rested yesterday, too. He struggles along, but his feet are now worse than mine were. He has bad blisters and swollen ankles, and must be in awful pain. Somehow, he keeps going and will not let anyone else carry his share of the equipment.

Someone jokes that his injuries have been imposed by the killjoy Icelandic government. They run a country in which only low alcohol beer is permitted. Despite being the size of Ireland, there are only eight shops allowed to sell spirits. Paul says they do permit the sale of home-brew beer kits, but insert a leaflet warning it is against the law to put any sugar in. Blisters and swollen ankles are decreed by statute. 

The Hvanngil hut

Hvanngil (pronounced “Kwanngil”, possibly meaning water ravine) is massive. It has two floors. Upstairs, accessed by ladder, is equipped with tables, chairs and mattresses. It is also very warm: in fact too warm for super-acclimatised Paul who decides to sleep downstairs in the horse food trough. This leads to speculation about what his house in Newcastle-under-Lyme is like: stable downstairs, corrugated iron roof, Karrimats instead of beds, food cooked on paraffin stoves and eaten with spoons out of mess tins, a shovel outside the back door for digging convenience holes in the neighbours’ gardens, leaky and draughty windows, no heating, mugs and toilet rolls hanging by strings from hooks in the walls. 

Notebook Pages
Late at night as we are going to sleep we are awoken by heavy footsteps outside, with shouting and clanging pans. It turns out to be a group from the tour organisers bringing provisions. They are trying to make us think we are under attack by drunken Icelandic revellers. Some manage to sleep through the commotion. The group consists of Paul’s wife Judi, another walk leader called Jenny, and the elusive Dick Phillips himself. As they come up the ladder, Mike wakes up and asks Jenny if she is the legendary Dick Phillips. Gavin then wakes up and asks Dick whether he is something to do with the Dick Phillips organisation.

The real reason Paul went downstairs to sleep in the horse trough only occurs to us later. From her broad accent, I spot straight away that Judi is from Leeds. 

Dick Phillips is every bit as formidable as his photographs suggest, frighteningly serious and knowledgeable, confidently in command of all around through thick dark beard and equally thick dark spectacles. In the morning, I catch the flash of his piercing gaze observing me critically as I dawdle languidly over a late breakfast. I quickly finish and start tidying and washing up. Bang goes any chance I had of being invited back as a walk leader.

(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

43 comments:

  1. I am glad that my first name is not Dick. If it was I would have received more than sardonic comments through the years. I wonder what the sardonic remarks were that Paul made about you - probably to do with wetting yourself and not being able to wait to go.

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    1. I could believe you and Paul were of the same mind, except he would have thought Dick a perfectly good name, especially as he was hoping for a partnership.

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  2. I wonder how much global warming has eroded that glacier today.

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    1. I've also been to glaciers in Norway and Switzerland and wondered exactly the same. I suspect where once there was ice there are now grassy hillsides.

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  3. Tasker the more I read about this 'holiday' the more I admire your determination to stick it out. Fantastic experience as shown by the photographs but I think I would have had a nervous breakdown by now.

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    1. There was no choice but to keep going. The only way out was to keep walking. Actually, from this particular hut one could have gone back with Dick Pillips in the Land Rover, but no one did. Believe it or not, this was one of the days I enjoyed most. A sense of achievement, just like my hero, Chris Bonington.

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    2. Weave, when one is on this type of travel expedition or tour there is little or no way of giving up unless one has to be removed for medical reasons.

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    3. And in 1977, the only way that could be done would have been for someone to walk back as quickly as possible to somewhere there might be a Land Rover or radio equipped vehicle. If, say, someone had had a heart attack at Strutslaug it could have been 2 days before help could arrive.

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  4. Goodness, this does not sound like a lot of fun to me! Sounds like very hard work in uncomfortable surroundings! Glad you survived to blog about it!

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    1. It was great. It would kill me now, but blogging about it lets me experience it again.

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  5. I’m enjoying this read although I wouldn’t class this holiday as fun
    But I’m a lightweight

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    1. You would have been the most solid guy on the walk. Everyone would have told you their troubles and you would have consoled them.

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  6. Quite marvellous.
    I can imagine this as a novel with photos, *Hvanngil*.

    Published by Daunt Books or Quercus or Serpent's Tail or Picador.
    The blue pen of the Notebook pages, blurred with rain, is the colour of a frostbitten man's veins.

    There is a strange dynamic between a book and its purchaser.
    *Hvanngil* : the title alone hooks me.
    And the through-a-glass darkly character of Dick Phillips would wind me in. Dick has a touch of Pincher Martin, Alberich in Wagner's Ring, and Milton's Satan.
    *No light, but rather darkness visible*.
    Haggerty

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    1. Icelandic Dick was a one off. There will be more of him later, including a video. I am drawn to eccentrics and he was one of the best, but he probably thought I was a pointless waste of space.

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    2. You are like Billy Budd, and Icelandic Dick is the obdurate taskmaster. Claggart, in Melville's story.

      Terence Stamp played Billy in the movie, Robert Ryan was Claggart.
      Ryan was an actor I liked so it was hard to watch him as the brutal master-of-arms.
      Glad we have not seen the back of Master Phillips.
      You have changed the names, haven't you?
      Haggerty

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    3. Some names are changed, but there is little point in changing the names of the walk organisers as they are obvious to anyone who knew these trips.

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  7. I suppose the scenery made up for what sounds like a rather torturous 'holiday'. Bread must have been welcome after an absence of a couple of days.

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    1. People go on far more demanding holidays than this, such as Himalayan ascents where you die of the cold and lack of oxygen while queueing to go to the summit of Everest. I'm baffled now by the bread comment in the written version of the notebook (well observed!) because the photograph shows us eating something I described as 'sandwiches'.

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  8. The green of the first photograph is stunning!

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    1. It probably looks brooding because it was raining and misty with low cloud as we set off. I think that picture is on an Agfacolor slide, so whether it was 24ASA or not I don't know, and I might have photoshopped it too much when removing all the dust and hairs sticking to it.

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    2. The first picture and the last delight the eye as Joanne said.
      The snow cave would have drawn me in as a child, as I enjoyed books about explorers in our library.

      As for the Hvanngil hut, I hope hardy honeymooners are now enjoying its intimate amenities.
      Haggerty

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    3. I like the contrast in colour between the walkers and the ash and snow.

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    4. A good memory enlarges with every act of remembrance, important for our sense of well-being.
      Your memories of Iceland's landscape, of ash and snow, can only intensify your pleasure in walking today, your interest in maps.

      Reading these posts has me pulling books from my shelves:
      *Climb the Lost World* by Hamish MacInnes.
      Joe Simpson's climbing classic, *This Game of Ghosts*
      And curiously, *Snow on the North Side of Lucifer* by Alan Sillitoe.

      I am reading a new book about John Auden, a pioneering geologist of the Himalayas and Michael Spender, the first to draw a detailed map of the north face of Mount Everest.
      *The Last Englishman - Love, War and the End of Empire* by Deborah Baker, now in paperback.
      Haggerty


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    5. Is there anything you haven't read?

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  9. That snow and those bare legs!!!!! Makes me shiver to look at them. The idea of shooting down a glacier headfirst on your back at 50 MPH sounds a bit foolhardy to me. I've always meant to ask, has anyone from the trip contacted you?

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    1. I don't think he intended descending like that. It was steeper and more slippery than it looks in the picture. He wasn't the only one I saw sliding down helplesslessly out of control, but he was the most extreme. I am still in touch with 'Neville' who I went with on the trip, but apart from an exchange of pictures with one person just after, I've never heard from any of them again. I do know how to contact Paul the walk leader, and might send him the link to all this when I've finally got it all together. That would be interesting!

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  10. I am constantly blown away at the determination and strength all of you must have had to make this trip! It appears there is absolutely nothing easy about any of it. That snow cave looks like it could cave in on you at any minute. All of these pictures are incredible. You know, you really could write a book about this trip.

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    1. It was basically a tough walk. Nothing like going to places like the Andes or Himalayas. The snow was solid. As this was in September it would be there all year round (then - I don't know whether that's still true). I guess if I were to include more description and information about the area this could be that book. One wonders whether the walk organisers ever considered a book.

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  11. Well funnily enough after admiring the way everyone stuck to a difficult adventure. Thoughts turn to the first explorers of this hostile land. It has a late history, and archaeological evidence shows Gaelic monks from Ireland there as well before the Norwegian colonists.

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    1. It must have been very challenging if they stayed through the winter months in darkness. They would have had to take supplies to see them through, and one imagines there would have been all the problems of scurvy and other health issues.

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  12. Flippin' Nora... brave souls, or foolish?

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    1. Just wanting a holiday that didn't involve sitting around on a beach.

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  13. Not being the outdoorsy or adventurous type, I would never undertake such a trip as you have been describing in these posts. But I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your encounter with the great out-of-doors in exotic Iceland! A vicarious traveler, that’s me!

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    1. Bob, blogging allows us to do lots of things vicariously - living in America for example.

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  14. Love that first photo.

    I wonder if Paul ever did make partner. He seems to have been cut from the same cloth as Dick.

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  15. By seeing that beautiful but icy landscape I look happily into "my" Arcadian green valley here :-)
    I enjoy your "beside"-comments very much, characterising your fellow-wanderers so vividly, and it makes me laugh.
    Normally that sort of remarks I find more in the woman-domain :-), but then: humour and irony come from observing well. Which you do so precise and with powerful eloquence and fun, thank you!

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    1. Thank you. I've never been able to take things 100% seriously, which I know can be annoying, but I find it helps to see the funny side of things. Much of the humour came from others; I'm just the reporter. The comments about what Paul's house in England must be like had me in stitches. As you can see, the countryside becomes much greener from Hvanngil.

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  16. I'm not quite sure that, even in my fittest walking days, I was up to all that. It's fascinating, though, living it vicariously through you.

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    1. I'm living it again vicariously. We all managed it, even those less fit than others. I'd do it all again if I thought I could.

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  17. Bare legs in an ice cave?! I've just been digging about in the memory banks for the file on what that feels like. Top of the Milford Track 2007.... If you ever decide to visit NZ let me know and we will take you over the Milford. This saga is truly Icelandic.

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    1. Paul the leader and around four others walked in shorts whatever the weather. I didn't, but I have worn shorts since in blizzard conditions and it's not too bad. I find it unpleasant only when there is a really cold wind. Milford Track looks as if it could deliver that, despite being a stunning walk.

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