Changing your mind on expedition
Updated: Oct 27, 2019
As part of my other job as a freelance trek and cycle leader I’ve just been to Iceland to lead a group of rock stars, music and telly producers and kind supporters of a blood cancer charity through a landscape of volcanoes and ice. It sounds fabulous and it was, but only because we changed our mind. We trekked the wonderful Laugavegur route which if you get the chance is worth doing. Actually though we didn’t quite make it. Hurricane Dorian having hurtled her way across the Atlantic, in repose danced across Iceland turning a late summer walk into a very wintery blowout. 2 hours into the glorious scenery the snow started to fall, completely at odds with a fine weather forecast.
We slowed right down in the thick snow and windy, slippery conditions. Mostly the group were well equipped but some kit found its limit. A pole broke, waterproof trousers leaked, rucksacks without good straps felt heavy, poor hoods let the cold cut in, shoes squelched and gloves were soaked. And even the fittest (and there were 3 half iron man finishers and 1 full iron man finisher) were tired and ached. This wasn’t the weather that we had prepared for.
And then I couldn’t quite get to the front in time to divert the group from a pile rocks ‘In loving memory of a couple who had lost their lives to a blizzard at this spot’. This didn’t help.
It’s a good idea to encourage a group to take head torches in case of ‘be-nightment’ (love that word). Very rarely are they needed although there was one notable incident in the Cambodian jungle mid rainy season when floods kept us out after sunset. I will forever remember 25 middle aged Northern Irish women in their pants with their legs wrapped tightly around a fleet of bemused motorcyclists roaring us to safety. At around 3pm in Iceland it was obvious that I would again be walking into the darkness with a group and the best I could hope for was to get us low enough to avoid the deepest snow and windiest conditions and then to move steadily and safely to bed. It’s not as easy to find willing knights on shining scooters as it is in Cambodia. Of course in an emergency the services are exceptional. But the insurance case wasn't looking strong enough for this and if the price of a pint is anything to go by it would have been an expensive ride.
Plodding along into certain be-nightment it was clear that plans had to change for the immediate future and for the rest of the trip. It’s too easy to hold onto an itinerary, for lots of reasons, like a sense of purpose and achievement, the pre-trip Facebook brag, difficulty seeing how to do it differently, bookings and cost. As a trip leader there is the pressure of the group’s expectations and whether you can judge individuals’ physical and emotional tolerances to the difficulties. The temptation is to just wait and see but decisions are best made ahead of a crisis and in anticipation of how things might go.
So my Icelandic guides, office management and I changed the itinerary. We didn't sleep in tents that night and went into the cozy, adorable hut. It was 10.30pm when we finally arrived, the weather was horrific and we had just crossed a glacial river...so, so cold. We decided not to cook for the group and had this prepared for our arrival at the hut. We would be too busy with the most exhausted who needed to be dried out and fed before bed. And we blew the fuel budget to dry the group’s kit in our mess tent. Then we decided to walk the next day in bad weather when we would be lower than the snow line but not to walk the third day when the forecast was to be worse than the first day. Instead we offered a sheltered walk to appeal to the hardiest in the group and rerouted our transportation to Reykjavik.
These decisions were based on the safety, enjoyment and comfort of the group and crew. And there were no objections. Most had started the trip wanting an exciting challenge and to have lots of fun along the way. Sure it’s always disappointing when you don’t quite make the objective set out in your itinerary, but this group left with a much richer experience having met the unexpected challenges along the way with the very best of human nature.
I always remember when my husband Jon tucked a book into my rucksack when I first did Everest Base Camp with a group, probably about 15 years ago now. It’s really not so hard of a trek, but not without risk. The book was called Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, a story about the Mount Everest 1996 disaster when 8 people were killed and loads stranded by a storm. My Jon wrote in the front make sensible decisions, always. I like that as a maxim for an adventurous life.