Finding my Way

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Perhaps learn this first – Ófært means impassable in Icelandic. Undeterred Emily Chappell set forth. Here are her photos and a report about riding at the top of the world.

“There’s no way I can do this” I said to myself, as I packed away my cooking pot and started to take down my tent. A few minutes beforehand I had been perched on the edge of the American tectonic plate, eating my porridge and gazing out over Iceland’s broad rift valley to the European plate that lay a mile or two to the east. It was still an hour or two before the first tourist buses turned up, and for now I could pretend I had the place to myself.

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Secretly, I was rather glad of the fact that hundreds of people would soon be stamping their way around Thingvellir, the site of Iceland’s ancient parliament and currently my own private campsite. The previous day I had ridden a circuit of the enormous lake further down the valley, and been alarmed by how few cars I passed, by the villages marked on my map which, in reality, were just small clusters of one or two houses, with no people in evidence. Having grown up on a tiny crowded island, and spent most of the last decade living in London, I wasn’t used to having the world to myself. I was frightened by Iceland’s great emptiness, even though that was really what I’d come for.

Bike in the snow

And I was breaching another comfort zone too. I’ve always been a road cyclist (though few would call me a roadie), and a confirmed tarmac fetishist. But the road I’d taken the previous day had been hemmed in with snow drifts, and quite often glazed with a shimmering layer of ice that even my large soft 4-inch tyres could barely cope with. And today I was planning to leave the road altogether, and follow a tiny, little-used track that wound in and out of the mountains north of Thingvellir, skirted a couple of glaciers and then hairpinned its way down to the tiny village of Husafell, a long day’s ride later.

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I had been shown the track by a bike shop owner a couple of days previously, and as he traced his finger along the tiny grey line on my map I’d felt nothing but excitement at what lay ahead. Now I remembered that this man was an experienced mountain biker, that I had barely ridden off-road before, let along on snow and ice and whatever else lay ahead of me. And the road was closed for winter, meaning that if I did come to grief in some way (I pictured myself buried in a snowdrift, unable to call for help), there would be no one along to rescue me. I rolled reluctantly up to the northern end of the valley, where the beginning of the road was marked with a sign that read:

Ófært
Impassable

Impassable

I took one last, longing look at the now familiar mountaintops of the valley I’d circled the day before, and then pushed myself off into the unknown. The road followed the edge of the valley for a couple of miles, its ragged tarmac gradually deteriorating into gravel, and then reared up ahead of me, curling its way through the golden brown winter landscape and gradually growing whiter and icier as it climbed towards some unseen pass.

And all of a sudden, I knew it would all be OK. I had felt this fear before, as I contemplated other mountain ranges, as I set out to cross deserts and as I rode away from border crossings into unfamiliar countries. And it had always been OK. In fact, it had been wonderful. The fear ripened into a sense of discovery, and my breathing quickened as I followed the narrow road up the side of the mountain and over the top of the pass…

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And then I was in a new world. It was a world of vast, empty, undulating, snowy brilliance; of distant mountains and sweeping lava fields and long icy lakes. The road that meandered in and out of the rocks and icecaps was sometimes half a foot deep in crisp white snow, so that my fat tyres crunched through it, roaring out into the great silence all around me. Sometimes it was a solid river of ice, which I rolled cautiously over, every muscle tensed to keep the bike upright and to dive clear of it if it started to slide. Sometimes it was corrugated like a BMX track.

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Sometimes all that was visible of it was a set of very old jeep tracks, crawling precariously up and over the spurs and slopes of the plateau. And sometimes, just for the fun of it, or to avoid a particularly large patch of ice, I would venture off the road entirely, bouncing over the thick black rocks with my enormous tyres, hooting with laughter and singing out loud with joy as the bike happily rolled over boulders the size of beachballs.

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Eventually the sun began to sink towards the mountaintops, my arms began to shiver with exhaustion and the road turned downward towards Husafell and the lowlands. Half an hour later I passed another temporary road sign, informing me that the way I had just come was;

Ófært
Impassable

And I smiled back at the icy road, no longer afraid of it – in fact, no longer even afraid of the parts where it might disappear entirely. I had breached the limits of the tarmac, that thin grey line that winds its way across the map. I had learned that, even where there is no road, there is still a way.

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