The Search for Santa Expedition 1998

By Tim Woolings

In the summer of 1998 five young people from across the country set out for a the challenge of a lifetime: to mountain bike 800 miles across the geothermal wilderness of Iceland's interior. Prior to departure, approval had been secured from the Young Explorers Trust and the Dorset Expeditionary Society. The following report by Tim Woolings illustrates one of the highlights from the expedition.

"Being students, we were keen to find a wilderness camp which would not further deplete our supply of Krona, but our hearts sank as we approached Askja - a massive volcano in the middle of the central Icelandic desert. Short of the crater there was not a hiding place for miles, so we were forced to pay for the official campsite by the hut at the base of the volcano.

"We'd been eagerly waiting to swim in the local hot pool, but for some reason unknown even to our rock-spotting geologist member, the temperature had plummeted this year to a mere 20 degrees C, so this plan was abandoned in favour of an evening jaunt up the volcano. Dusk was starting as we began the climb. After an hour of walking up volcanic dust slopes and climbing lava formations we hit cloud level and paused to admire the view before heading down to camp. Here we discussed, over hot chocolate, our next problem: the road ahead of us was closed. F910 is the most remote mountain track in Iceland, skirting the edge of Vatnajöokull, Europe's largest icecap, and had still not been opened after the winter. It was, closed, we had discovered, because of ‘water on the road’. We had to go on, as turning back would have made our overall objective of crossing the island on mountain bikes impossible. Our problem was how to get onto the road without our over-friendly camp warden noticing. We concluded that he had another camp further down the main road to tend to as well, and that we could slip away while he was there. Dusk was still going strong at midnight, so we retired to bed.

"Much to our annoyance on the following morning the warden settled himself in for the day and began to paint his hut. We prepared ourselves for what later became known as `The Great Escape’.  As the warden moved to paint the far side of his hut we fled cross-country in a cloud of dust. Once the hut was out of sight we stopped to regroup. This took a while, as Latto was still at camp, seemingly unaware of the urgency! Reunited, we set off to be stopped almost immediately as I had a puncture. Next to break was Craig’s pannier rack, which sheared off at the bolt. This was lashed on with a spare shoelace, and we got a good half-hour of cycling in before we hit what we thought was a small sand patch.

"Our hopes for a quick exit were finally dashed as we spent the next two days pushing our bikes through a barren volcanic dessert of black sand. But, the warden did not follow us, so we’d pulled off our escape, even if it hadn’t been a great one! We soon ran out of water and were forced to drink glacial water laden with silt. Pots of this water left to settle were found half an hour later to have a centimetre of mud sitting on the bottom, and yet the water looked no clearer! We'd been warned that this so-called ‘rock flour’ can often block up one’s internal plumbing, but the medic’s hopes of finally using the medical kit were confounded.

"On the third day we rose up out of the desert onto a rocky lava field which provided the best cycling of the trip as we twisted and turned through snowfields and alien rock formations at the very edge of the ice. This was the most memorable part of the trip, and we had plenty of time to soak up the view while Doozer fixed the three consecutive punctures he’d picked up in a mere 20 minutes! Tired, bedraggled and one day late, we finally hit the Sprengisandur route, the main four-wheel drive track across the interior, and the end of the notorious F910.

"We’d seen no one else for nearly four days, and yet now we hit a fast-flowing river at the same time as a coachload of tourists. The coach ploughed effortlessly through, and then coasted to a standstill. Much to our embarrassment the tourists pilled out and lined up, cameras at the ready, to watch our fording attempts. The pressure was on, so of course we all chickened out. Finally,  after much nervous circling, Latto made a break for it, and despite going in over his hubs he made it through. Filled with confidence, we lined up, and one by one took the plunge, all emerging splashed but safe, much to the disappointment of our audience!

"Leaving the coach, we followed the road south to a mountain hut where we stopped for lunch. ‘Hi’, a girl called out as we approached. ‘We’ve been expecting you. Would you like a coffee?’ It turned out that our friendly warden had been one step ahead of us and had radioed on to ensure us a warm welcome!

Originally article posted on the site of the Expeditions Society of the University of Wales, Aberystwyt