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Interview with Jonathan Ley

I struggled to find credible, in-depth information about backpacking in Iceland while I was planning my trip. Thankfully Jonathan Ley, an accomplished American long-distance hiker and map-making guru, had gone in 2006 and had posted some very helpful information on his website. I interviewed him in late-April 2008 with some follow-up questions that I had. Below are the rough notes that I had typed while speaking with him…

Trip Planning

Why did you pick July?

June is driest month. Late enough that snow is melted. Early enough that 4-wheel drives weren’t out there yet. And not so warm that the glaciers were melting quickly and making river crossings impassable. The melt might be bigger in July/August, but it varies quite a bit depending on weather. Changes a lot, very erratic. Skies change rapidly.

How did you pick your route?

Maximizes neat scenery, and fitting to start at north tip. National park in north-ish area. Southern end is famous hut-to-hut route, fantastic area – colorful, bubbling pits. Middle, needed to connect north and south ends — picked what was reasonable and it looked okay. Unmarked track parallel to route, but very scant. In descript landscape — tough to navigate across.

Maps? Any improvements since?

Passed law in 2007 where they privatized Iceland Land Survey, so they are being made and printed by a private group now. Suggestion: go with the 100,000 maps, not the 50,000 maps, which don’t offer enough landmarks in the distance. Land Survey makes some, and then there are some private maps too. Major problem with print size on CD-ROM. They ended up using pre-printed paper maps, which are available over there. Planning becomes hard though. There are separate maps for hut-to-hut section and national parks. Maybe use a hybrid approach: use the CD to plan, then buy the paper maps when you get over there. But you’ll want to print out some sections too.

How did you select the actual route?

In Highlands, lava flows are nasty and cross-country is really dicey. The new ones are worse than the old ones. The F roads will help you get through them. There’s not much traffic. Often stuck to the roads, but then would cut off big bends and go cross-country when convenient. In some areas it was like walking in sand, so roads were firmer.

Feasibility of ice cap travel?

Did not, but looking back on it he would have though more about it. Crevasses do not seem to be a huge problem — they are mostly just slabs of ice. The surface underneath is not steep. Definitely carry a PLB if you are solo and going over glaciers…it’s pretty unforgiving landscape, a weird feeling to it, completely deserted.

What about an east-west route?

The whole country is pretty cool. But that canyon in the north is awesome, and the hut-to-hut is really neat too. Have heard of people doing other routes. Might have diverted to see a Crater Lake-looking feature north of big ice cap; small pond next to it is 70-80 degrees. There’s an F-road to it; and a hiking path that goes from NE to SW in that area, hitting a hut along the way. There’s a bus that goes N-S across country on F-26, and the bus would probably drop off a package at a hut along the F route.

Any helpful Iceland contacts that would be willing to help me?

One guy on website, the German.

How do you start planning?

Dave had gone over the year before in order to collect info — generic planning. Then Jonathan put the routes together, did the logistics. Brought food with them.

Logistics

How many resupply points?

2 resupply points, plus start. 4.5 days to 1st, 8-9 days to second, 3-4 days to last.

How did you choose them? Where did you get the info?

Look at map and you’ll see that there’s nothing out there. Not much choice — the only 2 places were the only place you could resupply. Going east-to-west there might be a few more options.

Opportunities for maildrops?

There is a general delivery-like system. In a town, they did General Delivery (PO)…pretty straight forward. Other package was to a backpacker camp, and there’s a once-a-day bus, private place, but really nice people and contacted ahead of time…went smooth.

Travel to and from starting points: airline and bus?

Straight forward. Look at website.

The Experience

Recommended?

Definitely, awesome. Anyone into hiking will enjoy themselves there. Very different.

Difficulty/Intensity?

The hiking was not hard — very flat — but the difficulties were in the weather (more concerning for them than actually a problem), particularly the wind (e.g. sand storm) and the unpredictability.

Notable hazards? Rivers, bugs, wind?

Rivers can be a problem, depending on route. Going east-west, there will be more streams. On Ley route, there was one really concerning river, but they hit it right and it was only thigh deep. But that river can get chest deep. Usually someway around them, via bridge (seldom) or go into the headwaters. The further you are from the ice, the worse the steams become. Lava flows make it hard to see where drainages are flowing. Continental Divide, yes, but everything generally flows away from the ice. Water can flow from underground.

Pace?

Doing ~20 miles a day and it felt about the same as it did here. Easier than CDT on the body because it was flat.

Typical weather?

Got lucky with the weather. Can make a big difference. Sand storms, snow storms in the middle of August, etc. are all possible. Probably not likely.

Thoughts about solo travel?

Yes, but bring a PLB, sat phone, or Search and Rescue beacon. And sign up for Iceland Search & Rescue.

Regrets, recommendations for improvement?

Might take some personal time in order to take the Rim Road around the country.

Language issues?

Many people speak English. Helpful to know German because of the tourists.

Gear

A tent, not a tarp?

Recommended. The wind just does not stop. And across stretches there are no places to seek protection, just rolling landscape of gravel. No trees, save for a few patches. Wind picks up pumicy grit. Wind would calm at night.

GPS?

Needed it in a couple of spots. If they had been paying closer attention, they might have been okay, but it definitely helped. Easy to lose bearings in a landscape that looks the same. Larger maps would have made it easier to leave the GPS at home. “Not a necessity.”

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