Iceland in Retrospect

by Lily Minton

This is going to include a little raw intro as to why I went on the trip, some lessons and reminders I learnt along the way, some terrible puns, brutal honesty, some rambly bits, a good - to - walk podcast fan girl moment, some cheesy bangers, some less cheesy bangers and a lot of moments that made The Viking Challenge… MEGA. This blog is primarily a personal account, to remind myself of my WHY and translate all the inner work I’ve done over this time to test myself, push myself and hopefully feel the progress. However, I hope that anyone reading this can take or learn something from my little perspective; on a journey to rediscovering freedom of mind, one step at a time.

Where do I start?

I’m calling this Iceland in retrospect… probably because whilst I planned to bring a pen and paper to jot down my thoughts as we go… I forgot paper. It’s fair to say I was the scattiest of the trip. More on that later…

As I write I’m listening to my Iceland playlist, including classics from ‘cod liver oil and orange juice’ by Hamish Imlach to a bit of Oasis to Don Mclean’s ‘Bye, Bye Miss American Pie’ on the final night. Music has always been a healer for me, (ever since I got my first karaoke box and sung my heart out to bleeding love by Leona Lewis) so it’s only natural I’ve weaved a few of my faves in. Feel free to plug in and enhance your literary journey. It’s advised.

I’ll dive in deep for the first bit and then we’ll move on…

It’s hard to forget that some months back I was very prepared not to see the summer of 2021. I’d gotten into such a mental trap; built over days, months, years of anxiety, depressed thoughts and paranoia (exacerbated by some uncomfortable life experiences) that were looping back and forth, that I lost all desire to stay in this world. I asked myself if I couldn’t cope with the basics, what was the point in life? I was just about surviving but every minute was painful, heavy, foggy and I’d stopped trying to live. I hated myself for allowing my thoughts to overwhelm me entirely. It was a dangerous way to think. I felt like I’d reached down too many avenues that were leading me nowhere and I was tired of pretending or boring people with my negative headspace. I felt guilty, disappointed in myself, angry, embarrassed, confused, scared, fraudulent and utterly hopeless. Sparing a few details that I’d like not to dwell on… and fast forward quite a few weeks (dropping the latest track in the playlist here ‘don’t look back in anger’ (oh yes great one); I had just received my first dose of the Astra Zenecca vaccine by chance. Little did I know this was a huge blessing in a shit disguise. Maybe that’s a life lesson in itself?! I think so. I felt mentally at rock bottom and physically shot from the dose (first pun sorry). I lay in the bath for 2.5 hours with my back arched and wanted the water to consume me completely. I was done.

I’m popping a song here (and the whole of the 2017 album, Just Give In/ Never Going Home) that came on as I was walking to the edge of the sea on one of my daily walks. ‘Make it better’ by Hazel English - one that made me feel both crushingly self-absorbed in my misery and delightfully hopeful at my small existence in comparison to the ocean with its peppy sound. I love that music can do that; merge two opposing emotions that exist in a bit of a paradox. I think that’s why they’re called artists?

I clung to lyrics ‘I want to be seen, yet I want to be invisible’ and ‘trying to understand how to make it better’ which were sadly a very accurate representation of the alternate paradox occurring in my head. Deep down, I desperately wanted to live but I couldn’t understand how to when I was trying to fix the thing that needed fixing (my head) with the thing that needed fixing with the…

I got out slowly and lay on my bed for the rest of the day alternating between sleep, paracetamol and ibuprofen to cope with my pounding head. Then, Hamish came into my room and said, “Ed’s on the phone”. I was so confused?

Life was about to get so much better.

After a lot of support from friends, family and outside sources, taking leave from university, some shoulders to lean on, 5000 podcast episodes, music, books, research, the Samaritans, quite a few walks, a lot of time to think, some creativity, a bit of poetry, a hefty bit of self – compassion, a road bike, some yoga and finally… Millimetres to Mountains. I was starting to see a bit of a future.

I’d never heard of Ed or Lois before but reading about Ed’s story put some serious fire in my belly. I became really, really excited.

If Ed can climb a mountain from not being able to move his big toe and contemplating navigating life as a quadriplegic, I believed the impossible. I believed in the process of recovery, in learning some key lessons, in the (pretty bananas) power of the human mind and in changing my life in a big way. He found a focus, a purpose, a reason much greater than himself and some mega willpower. I decided this was my time too.

Cornwall Interlude

I was able to join Ed, Lois, Josh, Jess and Freya in Cornwall for 3 days back in late May with my friend Chels (A lifeline and great friend) and whilst I found it challenging and overwhelming at times, I knew I had to be there. Cornwall was the first taste of what M2M do and I was pinching myself that I was able to go. Being amongst magic views, lush countryside and the beautiful Cornish coast was a tonic for the soul. I was in awe of others on the trip testing their own perimeters, be it spinal cord injuries and/ or other mental health challenges. What stood out was the sense of community and positive energy that encapsulate the M2M team.

Getting back from Cornwall felt like a total reset and I rode the wave for a long time after reflecting and continually returning to a place of gratitude when things got tougher.

A few weeks on and I’m trailing the ups and downs of managing my mind and climbing back on the rung of the recovery ladder (is that a pun?). I was NOT prepared when Lois rang me to ask if I’d be up for joining the group for The Viking Challenge in Iceland?! Say what? Is this real life?

I didn’t have any hesitations and said yes right away. The cynic in me didn’t believe it at all so I muted the WhatsApp for fear of cancellation and resisted the urge to pour over the itinerary until I was practically mid - flight. I’m working on the ‘expect the worst and anything else is a bonus’ mantra…I think I’m making progress, I hope. A great place to stop and remind myself that burying my head in the sand means missing vital details and preparatory bits for the trip. Spork anyone? *repeats don’t look back in anger*

Never bury your head in the sand. (unless you’re in Cornwall)

Day and Night 1/2 – Arriving in Reykjavik and travelling to Skaftárhreppur:

  • First challenge: Complete. Navigate an airport alone and meet the group. Tick.
  • Second challenge – keep hold of your own passport. - Scatterbrain: 1 Lily: 0

Okay so putting your passport in your disposable boots meal deal bag and leaving it to fend for itself in duty free was never a smart move. Oh lils. (Pretty apt for the next tune on the playlist; ‘guilty conscience’ by 070 Shake, Tame Impala for holding the group up approx. 30 mins… That’ll be the Viking hat and an embarrassing reputation to follow.

Okay, Jæja! –

We met Dan and Bjartur Tyr at the Hotel in Reykjavik, made the most of happy hour and then devoured our final meal. I tried whale… It was bloody interesting. The rest of the evening consisted of drinks in Reykjavik and some serious disorientation at the realisation of almost 24/7 daylight.

The next day we regrouped with Dan on the bus and drove 4 hours east towards Skaftárhreppur:

We soon learnt that whatever Dan says (time wise) not to trust. He’s Scottish but I didn’t think there was a time translation? - Apparently 20 mins is equivalent to roughly an hour. It worked really, he kept us eager and guessing until we approached our destination… The Hut. I LOVED this bit, driving straight off grid and losing signal thrilled me and I felt like the trip had really started. I believed it now.

We met the rest of the guys at Pict Expeditions – our talented, knowledgeable and experienced mountain guides for the next five days. Seriously, these guys went above and beyond continually and I couldn’t think of a better bunch to put 100% trust in on the trip. We introduced ourselves, enjoyed some tasty burgers, guitars, an Icelandic singing session, brownies, cookies, guacamole, whiskey and beers. *Insert next on playlist* (the anthem) ‘Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice’ as well as a beautiful cover of Gúanó Stelpan by Svanhvit, Dan and Bjartur. I could sense the happy, relaxed, supportive vibe of the trip unfolding, or was it the calm before the storm?

We set up camp next to the hut and repacked our bags for the week ahead - you can see where this is going on the organisation front, blister plasters were sorely missed…) I met my tent buddy Megs and revelled in the fact that my tent- erecting skills were almost as bad as Meg’s fashion sense. Leopard print cycling shorts and the next victim of the Viking hat? All I can say is ‘you go gal’. I will say that Megs was a complete legend on this trip, a constant source of entertainment, your own personal cheerleader and most impressively, the best at napping on a Glacier. Say no more, ‘she moves in her own way’ - Alexa, play the kooks.

Our last proper toilet for 5 days and sense of civilisation. I was a mixture of terrified, overwhelmed, nervous, excited but (tent)ative (wahey).

I had NO idea what was coming. As I said, I’d had a brief glance of the itinerary and left the rest to the imagination. In some ways I was glad I hadn’t pre-planned it to the nth degree as a private challenge for me was meeting everyone, waiting for my little introduction, and holding my own. I had a million thoughts on rotation… What will I say? What will they ask me? What if I have a panic and cry right there on the spot and make everyone uncomfortable? I don’t have anything interesting to say. I returned to my place of gratitude and used all the tools in the box. It worked. I’d climbed the first hurdle and felt a sense of relief. The evening concluded with more beer and a questionable stand-up comedy show around the campfire…

Day 3

We woke happy and relaxed as the morning sun warmed our naive faces, about to get our first taste of a dried breakfast and briefing by Bjartur for what was in store for day one. There were echoes of ‘safety harness’ and ‘steep’ so we braced for impact. Dan said it was “four metres” – fine. As mentioned, this was a rough translation of x4 due to a Scottish language barrier. On approach we realised that it was in fact at least three times Dan’s polite estimation at 15 metres, so fear and adrenaline descended the group. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Dan and Bjartur were both patient and calm which enabled everyone to make it safely to the top. In classic Lily style, I didn’t listen to the part where they were explaining the additional ‘safety rope and chain’ so I climbed hell for leather and appeared as a ‘’natural’’. “Have you done this before lily?” I can’t say I’ve ascended a sheer rock face as a pre-prep, but I was stoked to hear it and I have to say, I loved it.

Context – For a long time, I hid my body and my legs especially, they were “too muscly” and I was always a short, stocky build. A catalyst moment was the end of year eleven. The yearbook had been finalised and we were assigned ‘lookalikes.’ I was Gollum. I hadn’t seen The Lord of The Rings before but a quick google and my stomach sank. I realise this was supposed to be funny and I tried to see the hilarious side of it, but I was completely devastated that what I perceived in the mirror was also what other people saw. I’d developed body-dysmorphia and it gripped me like a vice.

With help, I now realise the importance of self-deprecation, that we do share some similarities (that I laugh about now) but that most of it is something I’d created from off-hand comments, spending too much time dwelling on them and most of which remained firmly in my head. This trip reminded me what my body can do, how much fun it is to utilise it and not what it’s supposed to look like. I went from collapsing in tears in the mirror, paralysed in the porch with social anxiety about saying hello to a neighbour and finetuning the angle at which people looked at my face, to free styling it in a harness in shorts, makeup free, IN ICELAND, in front of a bunch of strangers.

…“show off…!”. I would give it to you Ed, had I genuinely seen the extra safety ropes. Being in your own head sometimes has a few Icelandic rock-climbing perks. Who knew?! HAHA

Wednesday 4th August 2021. Time of writing: 1.45am.

I’ve decided to keep this blog raw and honest - I will admit the past week has been tricky. Testing positive for COVID19 and spending 8 days in one room alone, I felt a lot of negative thoughts resurfacing and developed a strong rumination game.

Complete isolation and an already anxious mind were a heady mix. Pun number? I was worried all the progress I’d made personally was disintegrating and it was at this point I realised the power being out in nature really had on my headspace. I experienced total peace in my sleeping bag, I didn’t have any nightmares or even dream which sounds silly to type but I really think our stripped - back way of living and purpose driven days freed me and my overactive mind.

In search of renewed hope, I went back to a podcast episode of Ed’s (I promise I’m not playing teacher’s pet here - As I was discovering M2M before Cornwall, the podcast seemed like a perfect pre-curser to Walk The Coast and I enjoyed ‘getting to know Ed’ through his easy to listen style, in conversation with people that had overcome huge obstacles in their lives). The podcasts felt like a real pocket companion and introduced me to tree-bathing. Don’t laugh, just google and try it.

One episode was called ‘the stranger on the bridge with Jonny Benjamin MBE’. It provided a lot of hope on first listen, so it was comforting to re-play it. Whilst I couldn’t relate to his story entirely, how he felt resonated, and I was moved by a stranger’s act of selflessness and human compassion.

I also found a video on YouTube that helped in the small hours when I was struggling to sleep. It’s titled ‘you are not your thoughts’ by Jonny Benjamin. I cannot explain the change to my head after watching this. I turned my lights off, listened to my breath and went straight to sleep. I could FEEL the silence in my room rather than hear my racing heart or fast-track mind (Even if you never struggle with your mental health or share some of the same thoughts or feelings, I encourage anyone to watch the video or simply appreciate Jonny and his story…he’s helped change the game in the mental health space for an illness that still carries a lot of stigma today as well as shine light on men’s mental health. The video reminded me of the potential of neuroplasticity and the ability to choose the way we respond. I’ve found viewing my thoughts in this way gives me a greater sense of autonomy and able take back control thus changing how I feel. GAMECHANGER.

Onwards and back to day 3!

A quick stop for lunch and a breath-taking waterfall sighting on the approach! Fresh mountain and glacial water fused to create an impressive split-colour blue lagoon. We spent some time admiring this natural phenomenon, refuelled and acquired a fond appreciation for Icelandic moss. After a pee with a view, we set off for the next three hours towards the next (just as impressive) waterfall. Iceland provided constant visual amazement but what feels impossible to convey in writing is the energy and force of the water. The strength was palpable; it had a somewhat sedative effect on me and any overthinking I was prone to falling into.

“Be water, my friend” – Bruce Lee.

Before arriving in Iceland and without knowing if hiking sticks were on the ‘must bring list’ or the ‘basic kit list’, I honestly thought they’d be a bit redundant. How wrong I was. Iceland saw us become frenemies with ‘scree’ and besties with our sticks. The landscape was vast and sometimes dangerously steep. They became an essential for our safety. I was worried whilst walking of being asked why I was there or what made me come along on the trip…. I didn’t want to go over the past or take a step back when all I want to do is keep walking forward but I had very little headspace for such unhelpful thoughts when avoiding slipping into the fast-flowing glacial run off or almost vertical cliff face.

My dad always said: “don’t think, just do” or remind me that “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself” and so a tool I use when I find myself wrapped up in my head and in what I like to call ‘analysis paralysis’ is simple but so important to remind myself before a spiral. Iceland’s terrain was THE definition of this much heeded yet often impossible to implement advice; shifting my perspective from internal to external helped shift my focus.

Camp 2 off grid and transition to Day 4...

With blistered feet and some slightly tense shoulder muscles we made it to our first rogue camping spot and tents pitched and ready this time by our guides. What a treat! After an evening ritual of some dried fish, a cuppa soup, cheese and crackers and an impressive, rehydrated dinner al-fresco, we basked in our exhausted haze and admired the relaxing environment of Iceland’s alluring and majestic surroundings once more. Despite the flies, spirits were high and we congratulated ourselves for making it thus-far with only minimal blood, lots of sweat and a few tears. Before bed, we climbed to view the challenge that would descend day 5, Europe’s largest Glacier. I cannot explain the vastness of this view… It looked a convincingly intergalactic, otherworldly, warped or distorted illusion. Mike pointed out that our next campsite was “just over there”, so I spent some time trying to gage the distance between where we were sat and the point in which we’d meet the foot of the mountain. I felt my true insignificance here and gained a lot more of the old cliché - ‘PERSPECTIVE’. It was hard not to sit there and compartmentalise any untruths that accumulated over the years. The moment conjured thoughts of ‘Holocene’ by Bon Iver, one that captures that same paradoxical feeling; devastatingly alone with my thoughts yet humbled by the insignificance of time and our fleeting existence.

Lois asked, “How’s this for headspace Lil?”

No words for this feeling; grateful for the sunglasses, my vision blurred, and I was streaming a few happy tears.

I went to bed content and social media free, passing out for 8 hours. Luckily, I’d remembered a key part of the packing list, an eye mask. In the summertime, Iceland experience only 3 hours of darkness, so this was a TOTAL ESSENTIAL and carried us from dusk to dawn with steaze. (style and ease for the less woke amongst us).

In the morning I woke early but reenergised and at peace. I brushed my teeth in the stream and walked across to one of the lakes just up from camp. The water appeared black and imposing which contrasted with the stillness of the air and softly lit horizon. I felt completely in this moment and practised a little mindfulness as I walked around the edge, dipped my toe in the water, traced my finger through the black sand, constructed a little sandcastle… (just kidding, I didn’t have a bucket and spade and that definitely wasn’t on the packing list, I checked) then trundled back to my sleeping bag for a snooze. I realised I was falling a little bit in love with this place.

Day 4

Fuelled on granola and caffeine, we packed our bags, conducted a ‘stupid check’ for anything left behind and made headway for Vatnajökull. By 10am we’d stripped to bikinis (or nothing) and bathed *okay this sounds idyllic - it was COLD!* in an emerald pool at Sveitarfélagid Hornafjördur right next to the glacier. It felt surreal to be beside the black and white ice, clamber down the rocks and into the freezing water, then out to dry off from the warmth of the sun. Freshly invigorated, it was time to attack the beast…

With crampons on and an extra layer or two as the air was cooler, we set off for the next 7 hours. The only way I could describe our surroundings is as if we’d transported ourselves to mars; the floor was a sea of ice, peppered with volcanic ash and laced with flowing glacial water that meandered jagged - black peaks, thick with the remanence of previous eruptions. We had a bitter-sweet realisation that although we were refilling our bottles with the purest, freshest drinking water, we were also witnessing the effects of climate change first-hand. You hear about global warming but it’s not until I was there, seeing the beauty and experiencing this natural wonder of the world that the reality dawned. I’ll probably never do this again, so it felt like a huge privilege to be there in that moment.

As the time moved along so did the landscape and we were now surrounded with a textural cloud of ice and even more beautiful turquoise river-like streams. I glanced back and then forward… hold on… the distance is the same? We were so close, yet so far. Three hours in and just over a third of the way across, underfoot slowly became more treacherous and our mental/ physical metaphorical flag had loosened to half- mast. I could feel the latest ‘hot-spot’ developing on my foot and the knees and ankles were put through their paces. I’m 22 - what am I talking about…

The last third of the crossing greeted us with crevasses that were deep and cavernous, a quick peak revealed a chilling reminder of why we were told to “stay away from the edge”. These gaping chasms were quite literally, a death trap. Dan, Mike and Bjartur guided us professionally and safely however, allowing us to stop and regather on request. We eventually reached the end of the Glacier and faced a steep climb ahead. It was a lot warmer by now, and I realised despite a low air temperature, my forehead had gone a deep shade of rouge. Sun cream? What sun cream, I was going to ICE-land, I didn’t need sun cream. Another essential that had totally bypassed me. I tell a bit of a lie; I’d packed a small tube of spf 30 for my face, but this required sun block and a lot of it.

By four o’clock we’d reached one of Iceland’s glacial lagoons; lake jökulsarlón. Huge chunks of ice and a milky smooth pool provided an awesome spot for more photos and appreciating how far we’d come. The national park of skaftafell had a few extra (literal) gems; Antóin had carefully curated an array of stone quartz and displayed them on rock for us to marvel. It was these little details that showed how above and beyond our guides went which made it that extra bit special.

A couple of hours traversing scree, some challenging sections and the final vertical push up to camp 3, we made it. There were tears of relief and disbelief that we’d all made it safely despite underfoot conditions against us. Nothing could have prepared me for the view we were about to see… This bit was magical.

Picture a vast expansive glacial field, lake jökulsarlón from afar and panoramic mountain views…The sun beat down on us, we removed our heavy bags and lined the cliff edge with our legs dangling on a giddy cloud nine. I made a makeshift cap from my top to preserve any skin that hadn’t been totally singed... Ahhhhhh

Alexa, play T-shirt weather by the kooks.

The evening ritual of dried cheese and crackers, soup and some whiskey commenced followed by a respectable rehydrated dinner once more. We found just enough energy to scale the hill and watch the sunset…The sky had illuminated an ethereal pink, and a soothing breeze lingered as Mumford and sons played in the background.

Day 5

A wholesome morning… I’d woken earlier as usual and attempted a stroll to the stream in sliders; they’re called that for a reason as I almost toppled down the slope. The small hop was worth it however and the verdant green of the moss coupled with the crisp air and soothing sound of the trickling water provided a very peaceful place to regather my thoughts and pinch myself for the hundredth time. If I’m going to add another song here it’d be ‘islands in the stream’ by Dolly Parton, melodic and warmth inducing with the appropriate amount of cheese.

The morning concluded with a group Qi Gong session, ridding ourselves of any tension in mind or body and ready to put one more foot in front of another for the fifth consecutive day.

Day 5 felt like a long slog, but the expansive views of the mountains provided ample photo opportunities, alternating terrain and even snow angels and snowball fights! Buoyant with the prospect of a view even more breath-taking than the last, I started to question if they could get much better… spoiler, they did. The white striped mountains from afar became a prism of rainbow delight as we were confronted with Iceland’s unique minerology. How sophisticated.

The heat intensified and consuming small handfuls of snow did little to cool my raising body temperature; it was inappropriate to ask Dan how far we had until summit and the answer would neither be useful nor correct so I remembered a Buddhist documentary I’d watched a few years previously. The main takeaway was to create harmony with yourself and the pain…. Move with it not against it. After all, no pain, no champagne… uh, gain.

We put our best Buddhist feet forward, adjusted our backpacks, consumed the necessary pain relief and climbed.

The moment we reached the summit shattered any preconceived ideas. Mile upon mile of pure extensive beauty. The height created an entirely new visual perspective. The clear blue sky enabled a view that comprised each milestone; from the glacier, to the lake, to the ribbon-wrapped snowscape and across the other side towards the plains below. It felt like a natural culmination of the journey and we enjoyed that sense of intoxicating satisfaction to have covered a considerable distance!

Descent proved a new challenge as our stick technique altered for balance and I’d received constructive feedback in how to avoid sliding southwards on the rear after attempting to ski in hiking shoes down the snow slope. Embarrassment behind me, our vision became slowly greener with each downward step and entertaining the thought of a lie down at camp provided enough motivation to plough on.

We reached a beautiful pool that merged azure and cobalt hues, creating a soft aqua reflection that danced over our lead heavy limbs. (Forgive me, I’ve gotten a bit carried away with this creative writing malarky…) The relief of the bitingly cold water renewed the soul, we replaced our socks and shoes and continued onto the penultimate night of inflatable mattresses and 5-day old French plaits…

We collapsed into bed around 11.30.

Woken to the sound of wind increasing in strength, the tent wailed and I envisioned the headline ‘Brits abroad swept off cliff in tents’. I swiftly removed the sweat-encrusted and damp belongings from the floor and stuffed them away for safe keeping. The horror story never materialised but Frey had taken the brunt of the storm whose tent did actually flatten… She’d taken a serious one for the team, what a hero.

Relieved to have left a potential danger zone, the weather turned a sunny corner and we began the journey through bushy paths (lots of bush wacking), rocky trails and across heavy boulder plains. In an orderly fashion, we zig - zagged twisted turns, evading branches and began a game of ‘name the actor’ from A-Z. Lois your go…. “D, D, d….”, ermm “Donald Duck”.

A natural hot spring provided a welcome break in the journey and a quick point out to where civilisation resumed elicited sweet dreams of cold amber nectar…

We refilled for the final time in the Glacial river and I was assured that the cloudy lemonade appearance was still drinkable. We crossed the bridge and a hop, skip and a jump from Jess proved more ‘unique’ than graceful as we rounded the finish line. I opted for limbo and forgot that the bag on my back didn’t exactly lend itself to the manoeuvre… Headed northwards towards Skaftafell visitor centre, the appearance of other tourists and families seemed alien as we’d not encountered a single soul in the days previously, but it was a pleasant reminder of the fish and chips and beer that lay ahead…

As promised, heights turned to pints and we bathed in the glaring sun, exchanging stories from before and enjoying the happy daze of the afternoon before driving to our final night under the stars… except there were no stars. We were in Iceland in July. This spot was called the slaughterhouse and though we would have died happy, it consisted of lush green grass, a waterfall and all the hallmarks of happy country life in the land of fire and ice.

The evening continued the good vibes, the guitars made a welcome appearance and strums of Bruce Springsteen transitioned to Don Mclean to John Denver. Oh country roads….take us home… to the slaughterhouse?!