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Supporting the Fire and Ice Ultra 2015

6 October 2015

Sometime back in May, Jim mentioned to me about the possibility of going to Iceland to help out with the Fire and Ice Ultra that Trekmates was supporting. Obviously I said yes but to be honest, with the build up to our biggest trade show of the summer (Outdoor, Friedrichshafen), I’d not really thought much more about it until 3 days before the flight. After a lot of last minute messing around and a couple of passport and tram related cockups, we were off!

We flew into Keflavik airport mid-afternoon. The flight into Iceland was a strange one; we were well into our descent before I could even see any land. The first glimpse of Iceland I got was this barren, windswept, rocky landscape that looked like it was only a couple of metres above see level.

We left the airport and embarked on a 5-hour coach journey to Iceland’s second biggest town, Akureyri. As towns go, Akureyri isn’t half bad! Surrounded by mountains, it sits just on the edge of Eyjafjörður (Iceland’s longest Fjord). We made Akureyri our base for a couple of nights whilst we prepared all the equipment for the 6 day race through Icelandic Highlands. All the competitors flew into Akureyi and once registered for the race had their kit checked and had a basic medical brief with the team medics. The support crew were all given a Trekmates Flameless Cook box and a Flask each and a large selection of freeze dried and wet food pouches were distributed between us. Jim, our Product Director, briefed the team how the system works and the many different ways it can be used.

Jim and Steve run through all the competitors kit for the Fire and Ice Ultra
Jim and Steve run through all the competitors kit for the Fire and Ice Ultra
Jim and Steve demonstrate the Trekmates Flameless cook system to the support crew.
Jim and Steve demonstrate the Trekmates Flameless cook system to the support crew.

During the second night in Akureyri, we also got our first sight of the northern lights!

Northern Lights over Akureyri
Northern Lights over Akureyri

The next day we drove from Akureyri to Kverkfjoll, for the race start. After passing through Myvatn, we turned off the tarmacked road and spent the next 5 hours off-roading through some of the most incredible scenery I’ve ever seen. (I think this trip may be the start of an expensive 4×4 habit!)

Within a relatively short distance, we drove through so many different types of terrain. From grassy plains to lava fields with river crossings to volcanic deserts, around every corner there was something new to keep you excited. I’ve never been to Mars, but at certain points it did feel like we were driving on the surface of another planet.

Jim parts the water
Jim parts the water on one of the many dirt tracks in the Highlands of Iceland

Throughout the whole journey, I’d been trying to compare Iceland to other countries so I could try and describe it to people when I got home. It was only when we pulled over for a break, that Helen, Andy and Jim got out of their truck, having just had a similar conversation which ended with “Iceland is just Iceland”. It’s not like any other country I’ve ever been to, and to properly understand what I mean, you’re going to have to go there yourself!

One of many river crossings we had to make in the trucks
One of many river crossings we had to make in the trucks

Once at the campsite, we quickly put all the tents up for the competitors and staff, then got the start line banner up. The campsite at the Kverkfjoll hut sits just below Icelands largest glacier and would normally be quite a cold and isolated place. But once all the tents were up and all the country flags for each competitor were set up, it had quite a friendly atmosphere about it. Also, that evening as the sun was setting the race organisers, Dave and Jorunn got married which only added to the excitement in camp.

Monday morning marked the start of the Fire and Ice Ultra. For 6 days the competitors would run a minimum of a marathon a day except today, when they would run two! We’d been out the night before to finish marking out the course, so had a good idea what the competitors were up against, no smooth tarmac on this race. Unfortunately the terrain got the better of some, one of the competitors fell and bashed her lower leg just a few kilometres into the race. Unbelievably she got up and made it to the end of the stage before realizing she had to pull out of the race. Later when she transferred to a hospital it turned out she had broken her leg! Running more than 55km on a broken leg?! Jeez, that is properly stubborn. Another competitor also pulled out before the start of stage 2 due to a foot injury.

On the second and third night, we camped by the mountain huts at Dreki. It was here that Jim suggested we bivvy it outside, rather than bothering with a tent. Best idea yet! We had a great nights sleep and woke up to an amazing sunrise. The 2nd stage of the race took the competitors within a few hundred metres of the Holuhraun lava flow (still steaming as It cools, this is the newest bit of Iceland!). It’s a pretty intimidating place; as you get closer, you’re met by this wall of solidified rock that’s stretches for several kilometers; still steaming and giving off sulphur in places. The surrounding plain is covered in shifting volcanic ash making driving interesting. We had to remark several stretches of the course as the ash had covered the markers.

The amazing sunrise over the Dreki hut in the Highlands of Iceland
The amazing sunrise over the Dreki hut in the Highlands of Iceland

Pretty much our entire time in the highlands, we’d been able to see this imposing solid lump of a volcanoe called Herðubreið, which is also known as The Queen. The Queen’s distinctive shape sits alone in the middle of this huge barren plateau and is visible from most of the surrounding area. The 4th stage of the race took the runners round the back of The Queen, before they got to our camp on the East side. Apart from the midges, this little camp site was like a hidden paradise. The sun came out and we had some of the warmest temperatures of the trip. It was even warm enough to take a dip in the glacial melt water stream that ran through the middle of camp! It’s hard to pick my favourite moment of the trip, but bivvying under the shadow of Herðubreið, whilst watching another northern light show is an experience I’m never going to forget.

The first of many nights under stars in Iceland.
The first of many nights under stars in Iceland.
Jims tests out the new Trekmates Travel Poncho in Icelands glacier melt water
Jims tests out the new Trekmates Travel Poncho in Icelands glacier melt water

The next day we were reminded of just how lucky we’d been with the weather so far and got to experience some Icelandic rapid weather changes. We had to transfer the event camp of 18 tents to Camp 4, a historic lava and ash field in the middle of no-where. Icelanders are extremely protective of their landscape and wild camping in the Highlands is forbidden but the race had sought special permission to camp here. We had to take every things with us… including toilets. And take everything away with us… including full toilets!! When we arrived, the wind was picking up and the rain was just starting to set in. Setting up the tents was a chore, as tent pegs just kept pulling out of the ash as the wind swirled around. We had to tie each guy line to a piece of lava, dig a hole in the ash and then bury it. Whilst we were doing this, the wind changed direction completely and became very strong, breaking a couple of tent poles. Like artic explorers we ended up digging in all the tents into the ask. Once camp was set up and the competitors were in bed, we set off to mark out the next days course. Doing this in the dark, whilst it was blowing a gale and raining, was pretty grim. Lack of sleep also made this the toughest day of the week (for me, anyway).

Fortunately though, the next day was ace! The weather brightened up mid- morning and the rain stopped as quickly as it had started. Best of all my vehicle didn’t have a full porta loo in it! The route for the competitors weaved in and around rocky grassland (proper Lord of the Rings scenery) and even went past an extinct volcano crater, before finishing at Peturskirkja (Peter’s Church). That night’s camp was a little drive away, back at Myvatn Nature Baths. I wasn’t sure if I’d get chance to have a swim in the baths, as after getting food, we still had to mark out the next day’s route. Thankfully though, we got this done just before the baths closed for the night, so I got ten minute soak. Bearing in mind, this was only the 2nd time I’d taken my base layers, off all week, it was worth every second! This trip was an ideal testing ground for rapidly learning the benefits of Merino.

We had special permission to camp next to the Myvatn Nature Baths. Under floor heating for tents!
We had special permission to camp next to the Myvatn Nature Baths. Under floor heating for tents!

Despite enjoying a sunset on top of a volcano the night before, the speed of Icelands changing weather hit us again as we were woken up early on the last day of the race, to strong winds and heavy rain. It was bearable at first, but then the wind really picked up and was blowing tents down faster than we dropped them. We had to rudely awake competitors and ask them to gather their stuff as quickly as they could and transfer to the Nature Baths’ changing rooms, so the support team could get all the tents down as quickly as possible. Not a great start to the day, but the weather brightened up again around 9am.

The last stage of the race was just over 20km, although the shortest day distance-wise, the route still lead the runners through some sticky mud, as well as the usual rocky/volcanic terrain. They ran up and around the rim of the Hverfjall crater that we had marked the night before. It was bloody windy walking round the rim of the crater! The path in places was little more than 2m wide with steep drops at either side, which made it pretty nerve-racking to even walk, let alone run! After descending from the crater, it was a short run back to the baths, ready for food and finishers belt buckles!

Just some of the competitors of the 2015 Fire and Ice Ultra
Alex, Garrad, Liz and James; some of the competitors of the 2015 Fire and Ice Ultra

The rest of the day was spent in the vehicles transferring back to Akureyri, we had a few more hours of work, to sort out all the kit ready for storage, before an evening meal to wrap up the event. After a week eating boil in the bag and freeze dried ration packs, anything fresh was going to be good. We had a great meal, followed by a short film/slideshow of the event, provided by event photographers Chris and Bjorn. Click on this link to Chris’s Vimeo promotion video for the 2016 event. 

After the meal, whilst we were all chatting, everyone was called outside. The northern lights were visible again! It couldn’t have finished off the week any better, surrounded by great new friends, beer in hand, watching the northern lights!