Raphael Fourau

Iceland Exploration

Raphael Fourau
Iceland Exploration

I raise my shutter, stiff neck craning up against the cabin window eager to catch the first glimpse of land. Iceland. Home to stunning landscapes, volcanoes, puffins, Vikings and natural hot springs. All good reasons to travel to this majestic paradise. Although these attractions were not what drew us to this isolated land.

Off the beaten track, in a country much untouched, the call of the wild beckoned seven European climbers—Florence Pinet, Danielle Vialletet, Gérome Pouvreau, Mathieu Menoud, Adrien Boulon, Raphael Fourau and myself—to play. To explore uncovered rocks and develop new routes. This 10-day adventure promised to unfold secrets and we were well prepared. Or so we thought.

My buddy Adrien had a close connection with Iceland after working there a few years back as a tour guide for a French company called Nord 66. He dreamed of returning one day with a strong crew keen to scout out what the climbing potential was like. Iceland is well known around the world to trekkers and photographers for its dramatic environment and real wilderness, but it is probably the last place on earth most climbers would consider traveling to for a climbing trip. So when I got a call from Adrien explaining his plan, the climbing team he had corrupted to come and the contacts he had already with the small local climbing community, I jumped at the opportunity to get on board as one the photographers along with Raphael, my partner in crime concerning media productions. Spending 10 days exploring this piece of land in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, hunting out crags with a crazy bunch of dirt bag climbers, promised to be a memorable experience!

We all arrived on the island only to discover at the airport that 5 of our 7 checked bags were missing! It turned out that this was unfortunately a classic service for the cheap airline we all booked with. So with now pretty much all of our climbing equipment missing, we were starting the trip on the back foot.

Our base at Reykjavik was at Nord 66, so we holed up there for a few days discussing our options while waiting for news on the whereabouts of our stuff. However, disappointingly we received no updates or ETA about our luggage and getting cabin fever, like a lion in a cage, we decided to start the trip anyway with the little we had. We packed the truck and the trailer we hired with some camping gear lent to us by Nord 66, and we hit the road, first destination: Hnappavellir.

Driving along the ring road that serves as the main road circling the island, the great vastness of the place started to come into perspective. Almost unreal. Huge flat desolated pieces of rock and cold lava, wild beaches and dramatic sea sides. The more we headed west, the more hills there were, and suddenly we could see enormous glaciers crawling down from flat, high volcanoes. 

Our destination was sitting at the bottom of this stunning landscape, on a peaceful green patch quite far off the road. The cliff was a basalt wall a few kilometers long, reaching 50 meters high in some parts. As soon as we saw it, our climbing motivation was back. We spent the next few days climbing and exploring this place, driven by local legends Eyþór Konráðsson and Valdimar Börjnsson. We were all fighting tiredness. It was June, and that means no night time. Making it hard to rest, to stop climbing, it felt like an endless day. Valdimar showed his project Kamarprobbi, the hardest line on the island, to Gérome who tried it and in spite of the total degradation of his skin's fingers, sent it after a few runs supported by an international crowd of encouragements.

The connection with local climbers was going well and after a few beers late in the non-dark night, Eyþór told us about a bouldering spot which hadn't see heaps of visitors and was mostly developed by locals. A mystical place jammed between the Atlantic Ocean and steep imposing mountains, Vestrahorn. Our Grail.

The next day after some re-energizing hot springs, we found ourselves driving along a beach in our 4x4, trying to keep up with Eyþór going like the clappers along the hard packed sand ahead of us. After a few kilometers in this spectacular landscape, almost hidden over a hill, the beauty of the place unfolded. Foggy mountains on one side, chaotic ocean on the other and wedged in between, boulders, fields of boulders were sitting there, as far as we could see.

The rough Icelandic weather decided to come on board the next morning, bringing a strong cold wind, shaking up the tents and dropping the temperature, welcoming us to the day. It was more than tempting to stay inside the comfort of the sleeping bags, but our thoughts kept drifting back to what was right outside, and that was what we had been searching for. The motivation came back, so with dozens of layers and big down jackets we got up and we were ready to play.

Jumping from one boulder to the other, our crew was sending problems, making repetitions and opening new ones. The potential here was just enormous, and the special vibes of the area helped us to keep climbing despite the harshness of the environment.

With the tight timing we had due to the loss of the bags and its pointless wait, our days were quickly counting down to the end of the trip. But one other reason we came to Iceland was to search and attempt to climb basalt towers—and this quest hadn't been achieved yet. Sitting around with warm coffees inside a cute Viking cafe, we bumped upon a photo on the internet showing some basalt tower formations. The picture was taken somewhere near Fludir, a little village located on our way back to Reyklavic. It was time to play with the rack of trad gear. Our next quest was suddenly on. 

The result unfortunately did not reach our expectations. The basalt tower formation wasn't so natural. Originally great standing columns, the spot had been partly destroyed into a quarry. Despite this we decided to give it a go anyway and we experienced climbing ephemeral lines, unusual for rock-climbers.

Sitting in the back of the truck on the way back to Reykjavik, I had a quiet moment to reflect back over the past 10 days. All in all, it was a great trip. We were stoked with the quality of rock and development of crags so far on the island and the different locations of climbing areas were all superbly unique in their own way. The hospitality of the local climbing community was second to none. I do however feel that we only just scraped the surface of the potential here and that there is plenty more to discover with a little more exploration. Next time!

French dad and photographer, specialized in climbing, travel and outdoor photography