Duluth, MN resident and photographer Ryan Rumpca shares his firsthand account of a recent trip to Iceland. You can find him on Instagram @ryanrumpca and at ryanrumpca.com
Two and a half years, four countries, 13,000 miles of traveling, and to some, five complete strangers. That’s what went into an epic adventure in the land of fire and ice. Originally scheduled for late March of 2020, our plans were hampered by unforeseen events on a global scale. Still, years later our ragtag group of Norwegians, Swedes, Swiss, and Americans stumbled into the Reykjavik airport terminal rubbing our eyes from jetlag. We were an odd group whose hailing countries strung together on a map looks more like a murder mystery than likely travel partners. However not only would a hypothetical string be our binding agent, but more than anything our joint love for travel and adventure. As we drove out of the city, we were in awe of the incredible landscape surrounding us. It was as though we were driving on the surface of Mars, passing through moss-laden lava fields, windswept mountain passes, and steaming streams warmed by Earth’s own geothermal activity. Our destination was known, but we had no clue that getting there would be half of the adventure.
Iceland’s interior is made up of 4400 square miles of glaciers. About 11 percent of the country is covered with ice, and we were heading straight for it. Our gateway to the glaciers was F249. “F-roads” make up the webbing of rugged, highland roads interlacing the interior of Iceland. Some portions hardly can be considered roads as many are littered with ever-changing river crossings, deep ruts, and barren volcanic landscapes. Only 4x4, high-clearance vehicles are legally permitted to travel on these “roads”, and access is limited to the short summer season. We were most likely some of the last to enter this area for the season. As we turned off highway 1 – Iceland’s famous Ring Road, our anticipation mounted with every passing danger sign. We barreled and bounced our way down F249, glaciers looming ahead when we arrived at our first river crossing. Anxious about the consequences of a rental car being swept downriver, we proceeded to scout the river by foot. Testing the depth and developing the best strategy across, the icy glacial water gave a shot of adrenaline no cup of joe could match. Confident with the game plan we gingerly continued forward. 20 miles and 15 river crossings later the attitude was much more “send it” than the timid first crossing. That was until the Krossa…
The Krossa is an ironically fitting name for the last major river crossing on the journey to Thórsmörk. This daunting crossing is known for its uncanny ability to swallow vehicles. Thanks in part to its depth, steep sides, and the need to turn upriver and drive against the current, this river usually claims a couple of vehicles a season. Hearts pounding, we begin our journey into the Krossa. I tried to calm myself, attempting to feather the clutch to the perfect torque and speed ratio. This is quite hard to do as you bounce your way over unseen river rocks, knowing that too little will stall the vehicle, and too much may cause traction and momentum loss. As we neared the far bank the vehicle suddenly rose and fell into a dip, stopping. Here we were up the creek without a paddle – or a boat for that matter.
Luckily for us, this gut-wrenching dip was just us going over a large boulder in the middle of the river. Even for those few nerve-wracking moments, it felt like the water was almost up to the windows. In short order and with a little more lead than feather on the throttle we were off again, reaching camp a short while later.
We would call Thórsmörk home for the next couple of days. As we set up our tents our beverages cooled in the frigid river a stone's throw away. Consumed in the process of setting camp, I would occasionally stop and remember where we were. Surrounding us on all sides stood towering, craggy peaks. Glaciers cascaded down the high-altitude valleys looking more like an Oreo dessert than an ancient, ever-changing sea of ice. High above us to our East, a strip of white made up the edge of the Vatnajökull - The largest glacier in Europe. Any of the ice field beyond was shrouded in a thick layer of fog. Water spilled from glaciers and plummeted down high mountain faces, leaving waterfalls dotted all around. A sense of scale was difficult to comprehend, as there were no other human-made objects as far as the eye could see. My trance was only broken by the call to help stake down a guy line, and I snapped back to the task at hand. There would be plenty more mountain peeping in the next couple of weeks.
As night fell and dinner was had we explored the grounds. Passing by every jacked-up adventure rig, we realized how small our “Trusty Dusty” Dacia Duster was in comparison. These local folks don’t mess around when it comes to adventuring, and locals they were, as we found. Maybe it was the late season keeping the other tourists at bay, or maybe it was the outgoing nature of our group, but we found ourselves in the hiker’s base camp “pub” (read shack) surrounded by locals. Originally drawn by the live music, we were quickly shoved a fistful of Icelandic singalong song books the second the latch swung shut behind us. The six cumulatively known languages didn’t seem to help either, as the group stumbled over foreign letters and words. Out of our element but loving every second of it, a tune started that broke right through any language barrier. With an odd fascination, the entire tightly packed room started belting out “Country Roads”. Relieved that we could finally support the grizzled song leaders, we belted right along with them. After many more songs were sung we retired back to our tents, guided along by the green glow of the Aurora Borealis overhead. We fell asleep to the ribbons of light dancing from the heavens. A great start to an unforgettable trip.