(Correne Coetzer) In June, four Spanish speaking friends crossed Iceland; traveling on foot and with packrafts, without any outside assistance or support.
Eduardo Muñoz, José Carmelo Peñate (firefighters from Canary Islands), Juan Carlos Jimenez and Hermenegildo (Hilo) Moreno Cela (mountain guides at Antarctic Spanish Science Station) started the 372 km route with 33 kg backpacks on challenging terrain.
Exweb caught up with Hilo Moreno who tells about impressions from 30 years ago, choosing wrong expedition footwear, the gruelling and idillic landscapes, the type of packrafts, his biggest challenge, and his work on Antarctica.
Explorersweb: Where did the idea come from, to cross Iceland?
Hilo: When I was a little child a class mate’s father came to the class and showed us some pictures about his trip. He had crossed Iceland in an old truck. I still remember that day and those landscapes remained in my mind for a long time. This happened 30 years ago .
At that time the Spanish polar explorer Ramón Larramendi made a ski traverse of the island from East to West crossing the three main glaciers.He was 19 years old and that trip was the beginning of Spanish modern polar exploration.
Nowadays Ramón is my friend and his explorations have always been a source of inspiration for me.
Explorersweb: Tell us about your route please?
Hilo: We originally wanted to cross the main glacier Vatnajokull from south to north and then continue packrafting to the coast but we decide best to avoid ice as some of our team members have no experience with skis. We decided to make a longer route but without stepping on the ice road.
Important for us was to start on the southern coast and finish in the north, crossing the middle of the island.
We found some shelters along our way but we didn't see anyone at all until the penultimate day of travel. In the northern area we planned to use the tracks for off-road vehicles in the inland, but they were all buried under the snow and it was a difficult terrain to progress due to snow and poor visibility due to the fog.
In the final phase of the journey we descended the River Eyjafjardará. It is quite simple river except at a stretch with difficult rapids in which almost everybody tipped over and end we had portaged our boats. The last kilometers to our destination, Akureyri, we have to walk down the road because the river became a wide lake with a headwind.
Explorersweb: Who helped you with logistics in Iceland?
Hilo: The company, Tierras Polares. I usually work with them. They have a branch in Iceland and they helped us with transfers, logistics and information.
Explorersweb: You had no assistance and carried everything on your backs, right?
Hilo: Yes. When we started the trip, the weight was 33 kilograms, at the end it was 20ish kilograms.
Explorersweb: What was important to take because you were also on the water. In particular an item like boots. They are heavy and get wet and you got snow conditions.
Hilo: In these amphibians travel conditions, the choice of material is key to success.
We had to use versatile and very light material that serve for water, snow and earth, and that's not easy. Choosing good footwear is a key factor. We choose wrongly in the end when we decided to make the trip with low trekking shoes (LaSportiva ultra raptor); we found too much snow, making us walked drafts from the first day to the last.
We wanted to use a single type of progression walking shoes and for rowing sessions and also be lightweight. Only one of us got two different pairs of shoes, a lightweight boot and slippers for paddling: he was right. The rest of us payed the price of using just ultralight, in the form of minor injuries caused by cold feet.
Explorersweb: Iceland is known for its awesome landscapes. Tell us about the terrain that you crossed?
Hilo: We crossed a really diverse land from the first day of trip to last. The first days were characterized by the abundance of rivers we had to cross, the rivers emerging from a large glacier we walked parallel with.
The following days we went to the "highlands", that was the toughest terrain because it’s a combination of flat mud extensions with a lot of accumulated snow. The worst were the snowfields with a thin layer under it, which was shallow lagoons. Doing kilometers above the ground with such heavy backpacks was exhausting.
The end of the trip was sailing in a green valley and gentle descent. The horses galloped along the river and the birds flew over us in big numbers, it was really an idyllic landscape.
Explorersweb: You and José Mijares had a packraft expedition not long before. What type of packrafts did you use on these two occasions and why these?
Hilo: Three months ago I spent eleven days skiing and packrafting in Lapland with my great adventure mate, José Mijares. We travelled for 200 km paddling in the ocean and skiing on the mountains.
In that trip we made a Svartisen Glacier west to east ski traverse and we arrived to civilization paddling a class III river with our packrafts fully loaded. That was a tough challenge for our gear, specially for the packrafts. But they worked great, I really trust in those tiny rubber boats!
I brought my Alpacka Raft Denali Lama on that trip and also to Iceland. José has a Yukon Yak, from Alpacka Raft. The reasons for that choice are the lightness and toughness of these boats. They resist the most strong conditions and are easy to repair on trip.
Explorersweb: What were challenging about this Iceland expedition?
Hilo: I think the main obstacle or difficulty has been to carry a heavy pack many kilometers every day on uncomfortable terrain.
During our trip many days were almost 40 km with a backpack, weighing more than 30 kilos. In those long days we had continuous river crossings because we made the crossing in the thaw.
Rivers have been the second challenge, on the one hand we had to cross them frequently and the other we had to cross an area of rapids more difficult and technical than we would have liked in the Eyjafjardará river. One of the members of the expedition was dragged for several meters and injured while beaten against the rocks.
Regarding the food, it also had its challenges: The other fellows could not avoid carrying iberic ham as a snack for the long days while I had passed that, eating depressing energy bars. I think that was the hardest for me!
Explorersweb: Three tips of advice to people who want to do an expedition on Iceland?
Hilo: First of all, gear is so important to be waterproof on these amphibian trips and specially in Iceland because of the poor weather and extreme moisture. It is fundamental to keep everything dry. Doubtless this is my first advice.
The second one is to be extremely cautious with river navigation, Icelandic rivers can get very wild. We paid the consequences of that because of our unawareness.
Last advice is to talk as much as possible with locals, they are great people and always ready to share information with foreigners.
Explorersweb: Anything else about Iceland?
Hilo: Once you are done with your expedition, try Icelandic doughnuts and rotten shark!
Explorersweb: Your Antarctic job: What do you do on Antarctica every year?
Hilo: I work as a mountain guide and field assistant for researchers at the Spanish scientific station on Livingston Island, South Shetland Archipelago, during the austral summer. Mostly I collaborate in a project that study ice dynamics on two main glaciers.
I also work on logistics and station maintenance. My job is very varied: one day I have to guide a researcher to the top of a mountain to set up an antenna and the next day I go to catch penguins with a vet for a blood test.
Explorersweb: Do you again go the end of this year?
Hilo: Yes. I will be working at Juan Carlos I Antarctic Science Station from November the first to mid January. This will be my eighth season working in Antarctica. I am looking forward to go again.
Iceland crossing expedition data:
Start point: Vik (South Iceland)
End point: Akureyri (North Iceland)
Start date: 16 June
End date: 28 June
Total date on the trail: 13 days
Distance travelled: 372 km
Days/distance rafted: 3 days on two different rivers (around 50 km.) and 2 river crossings by packraft
Check this VIDEO about Iceland South to North Traverse
ExWeb interview with Jaakko Heikka, “Vatnajökull is a great destination for a little expedition”
Heads up: Team crossing Iceland on mountain bikes (2015)
Heads up: Hilo Moreno and Daniel Lambert 1300 km Yukon paddle (2012)
Debrief: Hilo Moreno and Daniel Lambert 1300 km Yukon paddle
Debrief: José Mijares and Hilo Morenos Svalbard expedition (2010)
Jose Mijares: Kola, the forgotten Lapland (2014)
Hilo Moreno Iceland Traverse website