Trek across Iceland packs on the distance and the photo ops
by: ©2006 JONATHAN LEY, David Cobb, half of a recent expedition to hike across Iceland, shakes out his tent in the ever-present wind.

It was the horizontal rain that really got to them, a rain that even after six hours left a dry side on every rock.

'One time we were cold and soaked through and came across an emergency shelter,' says David Cobb, sitting in the cozy environs of Valentine's coffee shop. 'We were so pleased, then we found it was locked. We pitched our tent on the leeward side. Then we made a clothesline (for their wet clothes) from the gauze Jonathan had for his ankle, and got into our sleeping bags for 15 hours.'

Jonathan is Jonathan Ley, a Hillsboro-based engineer who with Cobb (a professional photographer) is an active member of the American Long Distance Hiking Association. For the association's people, a hike begins at 100 miles and can go on for thousands.

In June this year they thru-hiked from Hraunhafnartangi on the northern tip of Iceland, to Skóga, on the south coast. Day-hike buddies who have both done the Pacific Crest Trail (from Canada to Mexico), they discovered they had the same idea to hike across Iceland's volcanic core, where the Eurasian plate meets the North American.

'Iceland is created because the world is split there, it's all volcanoes,' Cobb says. The divide itself is not visible, although steaming vents dot the area. Other features of the landscape captured in their photos are glacial rock formations and mossy fields. In one place a rare forest lurks in a canyon, hugging its water source. These are places where regular Icelanders never go.

Their hike was a no-nonsense affair: 360 miles in 19 days. The longest day was 27 miles, the shortest 15. Setting off just after the summer solstice meant the sun barely dipped below the horizon and it never got darker than twilight. They had two resupply stops - picking up food they'd mailed ahead - and slept in a small, two-man tent.

Being compatible was important. Ley is the faster hiker (averaging a rapid 4 mph), but he hurt his Achilles tendon on the second day walking on lumpy tussock terrain. So they each walked at two and a half miles per hour. There were nine days in the middle, walking through desert terrain of the highlands, where they didn't see another person.

'That's one reason we went together,' Cobb says. 'Alone, if you hurt yourself you could be in real trouble.'

Asked what they think about while walking, Ley laughs, saying: 'Where next? That's a lot of the fun, planning the next one.'

Bringing music would have been a distraction from the landscape and its sounds (birds, wind). Books were unnecessary, since they were too tired to read at night. They walked anywhere from 10 feet to 2 miles apart, depending on terrain.

They agree that after the rain, the worst part was the grit. 'It would get in everything, the tent, the cameras, your socks. It was like constantly walking on sandpaper,' Cobb says. He brought a Pentax film camera, but was careful about exposing it to the elements. Ley used a Canon 5D digital SLR camera, with which he could switch film speeds on the fly as the weather changed.

Evenings consisted of large meals of noodles and sauce and candy bars brought from the United States, a quick slide show on the back of the camera, then sleep.

'It's cold because there are no trees,' says Ley, noting that constant wind sucks the warmth out of a hiker, and that most hypothermia starts when the air temperature is between 30 and 50 degrees. 'It was like starting a hike at 11,000 feet, above the tree line, and going up to 14,000 feet. The view was always uninterrupted. But it gave no place to hide from the rain or the wind chill.' It was more of a mental challenge than an athletic one.

'It's not an immersive cultural experience,' he says, 'but when you do meet people it's a lot higher quality.'

'No one else understands'

Ley and Cobb think they might be the first Americans to do Iceland coast-to-coast. They delivered a slide show of their walk at the American Long Distance Hiking Association West meeting in Welches earlier this month.

At conventions such as these, long-distance hikers swap tips and take first-aid classes. Anyone who has completed the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail (known collectively as the triple crown) gets a plaque. But mainly they network.

'It's good to talk to other long-distance hikers; no one else understands,' Cobb says. He lives in Southwest Portland, near downtown. Rey lives in Southeast. In Portland they drive most places. 'Cities here are not really laid out for walking,' Ley says. 'Just to get your errands done in a reasonable amount of time you have to drive.'

More photos can be viewed at and

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