Hikers explore desolate highlands of Iceland.

Crossing Iceland’s Highlands: Two Filmmakers Try Breaking the Silence

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The 40,000 square kilometre wilderness region of the Iceland Highlands are being actively being developed for the first time in history. Corporate hydro interests view the desert “wasteland” as a goldmine. Filmmakers, Ryan Richardson and Hailey Playfair, are hoping to make some noise before it’s too late.

The Highlands Project Chose Us

Being Canadian, both Hailey and I recognize that we’re pretty spoiled with nature and wide open spaces. Honestly, I believe that it’s something most Canadians take for granted. Previously living in two Canadian national parks has really allowed me to see the number of people from around the world who travel to Canada to experience even just a small piece of wilderness. I’m truly inspired to appreciate the wilderness even more.

Since taking the leap into the unpredictable path of filmmaking and freelance work, Hailey and I have been fortunate to travel to many of the planet’s few remaining “wild” places. We’re often disappointed by the over commercialization of such places, knowing that we have more untouched wilderness to explore at home.

Iceland has always been the exception. With so few truly untouched areas left around the world, Iceland is abundant in nature and open spaces.

On one of our flights home from a trekking trip to the Highlands of Iceland, we learned about an initiative that was aiming to protect the region from development. The Highlands National Park initiative was attempting to create a park, it would be Europe’s largest national park.

Once we learned of its’ intentions, we felt immediately convicted to help. Having enjoyed the nature and exploration in the Highlands region so much, it’s a place I can’t imagine being lost, especially just for greed.

We Can Film and Walk

Hiker photographs flowers in highlands.
Ryan captures flora located near the toe of Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the Southern Region.

Neither Hailey nor I went to school for environmental protection, or nature conservation, etc. We’re just two outdoor filmmakers and photographers who find solace in open spaces, and use the outdoors as our office. Our appreciation for nature overrides our hesitation to do everything we can to help protect it.

The two of us recognized there’s a lot of things we can’t do to help create change. We did, however, recognize there are a few things we can do. We can film stuff and we can walk. Instead of focusing on the accolades we wish we had to help make a difference, we focused on the things we are able to do.

“Instead of focusing on the accolades we wish we had to help make a difference, we focused on the things we can do”.

Besides a few weekend hiking trips, backpacking in Europe and a few other adventures, we had never done anything as extreme as this. A fourteen day thru-hike starting in the Arctic, walking through a remote desert, and ending 420 kilometres later, completely self supported seemed beyond the scope of our physical abilities. Did I mention there would be no access to food, shelter, or infrastructure?

“What the hell, we’ll give it a shot” I thought.

65.69″N, -18.08″W

Aerial of city from airplane window.
The city of Reykjavik shot through the window our plane on our way to Akureyri.

Our route started in Akureyri in the northern region of Iceland along the shores of the Greenland Sea. Getting there meant driving around the country for eight hours in a bus or a 45 minute direct flight from the capital, Reykjavik. We chose to fly.

Seeing what would be our route underneath us as we flew over the Highlands was intimidating more than it was inspiring. It looked as if snow was everywhere, the glaciers were massive and the scale just seemed totally enormous. I had almost wished we took the bus there instead.

Once we arrived in the small town of Akureyri, we finalized our gear for the hundredth time. Knowing that the next time we put our packs, would be the last time we have access to anything besides what we bring with us for the next 14 days.

Crossing Iceland: Previsions, Revisions, and Decisions.

The Highlands – Northern Region

Hiker rests on hiking poles walking to highlands.
Hailey takes a break after a slow and steady ascend into the highlands from Akureyri.

Walking along paved road for 42 kilometres on our first day didn’t exactly feel like the “wild” and “untouched” landscape that we came for. However, we had the idea to start at the coast and work for the journey into the Highlands. Starting any other way wouldn’t have been as rewarding.

The paved road turned to gravel after 50 kilometres, and then the gravel road turn into a 4×4 track after another 20 kilometres. Finally, we felt the slow incline underneath our feet as we began ascending into the Highlands.

The transition from town, to rural farmland, to wilderness, was entirely worth the extra kilometres on our feet.

The Highlands – Central Region

Couple hiking in desert highlands.
Ryan and Hailey photograph themselves using a self timer while in the central highlands in between Vatnajökull and Hofsjökull glaciers.

“We earn our stories now” I said jokingly to Hailey as we looked at our current location on our GPS. Heading into the heart of the Highlands. We were completely on our own, self contained, and self reliable, no matter what.

“We earn our stories now”.

A warden in the north reminded us that hikers go missing every year in the Highlands because of poor decision making. “Make smart choices, and stay alive”, she said. Hailey and I were feeling as prepared as possible, armed with a healthy respect for nature and the extreme environment in Iceland. We were confident we would be alright.

We spent the next week moving through the remote and completely desolate Highlands region. Watching the sun set and rise as we walked alongside ancient glaciers while navigating black sand deserts, and weathering intense arctic storms day after day.

The Highlands – Southern Region

Couple hiking in scenic mountain valley in highlands.
A self portrait of Ryan and Hailey walking along the popular Laugavegur trail in the southern region of the Icelandic Highlands.

The last few days in the Highlands laid a beating on us. The journey was filled with long days and little rest, if any. Our shoulders constantly ached and our feet were swollen. My feet were so swollen I could barely fit them in my shoes anymore so I didn’t risk taking them off.

“My feet were so swollen I could barely fit them in my shoes anymore.”

Then there were the blisters. My blisters had gotten so bad by the time we reached the south region, I didn’t think we would finish. We arrived in Landmannalaugar after multiple 50+ kilometre days on our feet. We tried getting there as fast as possible because we knew we had our one and our only food cache shipped to Landmannalaugar.

It Wasn’t Going to Get Any Easier

Garmin inReach map of Iceland and our route from north to south.

Walking faster was better than rationing food. I can handle long days, but I can’t handle an empty stomach. The sand, wind, and lack of shelter in the Highlands made it impossible for me to take care of the blisters on my feet. I taped them tightly and waited until we were in the Landmannalaugar to look at them.

Hailey and I sat in our tent and began unraveling the tape protecting my toes for days and hundreds of kilometres. As the tape started coming off, the smell hit me before the site of the blisters did. It was bad. After a closer look, I was pretty sure this meant we were going to have to throw in the towel here in Landmannalaugar.

We were approximately 88 kilometres away from the coast to the south. I just couldn’t imagine walking on my feet, as bad as they were, for another 3 or 4 days. However, I learned from my mother, Leanne Richardson, “never quit at night, if you’re going to quit, do it in the morning after you rest”.

Europe’s Last True Wilderness is Under Attack.

Quitting Wasn’t an Option

Hiker exposes blisters on his feet.
Ryan’s taped toes and heels protecting his many blisters and sores.

There are a few circumstances I would be less reluctant to quit, such as bad weather. If the weather in Iceland shut us down, there’s nothing we can do. Mother nature is always the boss.

Another circumstance would be injury. Not discomfort, or pain, but debilitating injury. If one of us had a stress fracture or some kind of trauma, that’s a no brainer, you pull the plug.

Otherwise, I couldn’t think of many other scenarios where I could imagine being back home, thinking about our trek objectively and being OK with us quitting.

We were in so much pain for so many days, and already achieved so much more than we ever had in our lives. Walking our first marathon distance, our first ultra distance, and then our first 100k, 200k, 300k, multi-day treks while on this Journey.

We couldn’t quit now. What’s a little more pain after so much pain already?

The Light at the End

Female hikers walks in highlands valley.
Hailey descends into a colourful glacial valley in the southern region.

Trekking through the southern Highlands breathed a new life into us. The ever changing landscapes, being surrounded by other energetic hikers in less remote areas on softer terrain was the medicine we needed. Everything just came together for us. We felt like we had a second wind.

The last few days were cold and wet, but the smell of the ocean was beginning to fill our nostrils. Watching our GPS location on the overall map of Iceland was mind boggling. We couldn’t believe we had nearly crossed the entire country. It was so far beyond what we had expected, in every single way.

We were much more inspired now than ever to get to the coast as quickly as possible. The thought of touching salt water and accomplishing our first objective, crossing Iceland was within reach. It was exciting knowing that this mission was only the first phase of our plan to help protect the highlands.

Walking Across the Country Lends Us a Platform, it Helps Give Us a Voice

Two hikers walk on road in highlands.
Ryan and Hailey stumble upon remote hydro infrastructure scattered along the central highlands. Gravel track turned into paved roads used for maintaining the thousands of hydro pylons, dams, and towers.

Crossing Iceland, coast to coast, 420 kilometres… it was the hardest thing both Hailey and I have ever done, however, it’s just a small part of the bigger picture. Although we set out to capture our experience, the story is more about the human experience in vast wilderness. The relationship between us and nature.

The bigger picture is also sharing the beauty of the Highlands with as many people as possible. So few people will ever experience this remote, far off the grid region for themselves. It’s tough to inspire someone to care about a place they’ve never been to, let alone imagine. Hopefully with our films and with our images, we can close the gap between far-off imaginative places and tangible, beautiful places, places worth protecting. Places worth giving a shit about.

Written by Ryan Richardson, edited by Hailey Playfair.

Special thanks to Pelican for getting behind this project as our film sponsor. Film to be announced soon.

To learn more about how you can protect Iceland’s Highlands, please visit http://halendid.is/#thjodgardur-1

Images shot on Sony A7RIII with G-Master 24-70mm FE 2.8 and G-Master 100mm FE 2.8. Crossing Iceland was shot in collaboration with Sony Imaging and Pro Support.

Thanks to Arc’teryx Toronto for assisting with fundraising efforts and providing necessary equipment to accomplish our expedition.

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  1. Thank you for sharing. So much respect to both of you to keep going despite blisters and discomfort. Thank you for bringing awareness of what is at stake. Congratulations Ryan and Hailey for this incredible accomplishment! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words and support, Carl. It’s a truly special region. I don’t doubt you would enjoy it very much!

    1. What an incredible section of Trail! I hope you enjoyed good weather and nice views on your adventure!

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