Dr Richard Stephenson explains why three doctors have decided to attempt the world’s first packraft descent of Iceland’s Skjálfandafljót river
Sometimes our regular medical careers can be pretty stressful. There’s only so much saving lives and breaking hearts that each one of us can take before we start to feel a bit burnt out and in need of some respite. There is nothing shameful or weak about feeling stressed; nothing unprofessional or cowardly. It takes insight, reflection and strength to see when our well-being as doctors is at risk, to recognise that this is inextricably linked to our long-term ability to care for our patients and to make the decision to do something about it.
This is why Gareth, Dan and I decided to take a little break. Gareth and Dan are both anaesthetists in Australia, and I’m an emergency physician in New Zealand. We’re passionate about the great outdoors, so we decided our break should involve a little bit of wilderness…
As with all great adventures, it started with a map and a couple of pints. I think it was Gareth’s idea originally, he’s usually the one to come up with these things; “Let’s cross Iceland,” he said. I was immediately sold on the idea, everything else was just a matter of detail. That was two years ago, and things have evolved a bit from that initial flash of inspiration.
In April 2019, we will set off on an expedition to traverse Iceland from South to North. We’ll begin on the south coast at the mouth of the Jökulsárlón ice lake before crossing the 7,900km2 Vatnajökull icecap. Next, we’ll be completing the first ever packraft descent of the Skjálfandafljót river; 180km of roiling snowmelt cutting through the volcanic basalt wilderness of Iceland’s central plateau before it reaches the edge of the Arctic Ocean on Iceland’s Northern coast. All in three weeks, unsupported.
The challenge we’ve set ourselves is pretty epic. Previous expeditions have tried and failed to put this route together in a single unsupported push. The difficulty lies in the multifaceted nature of the trip… well, that and some of the most challenging terrain and weather on the planet!
When we start up the entry glaciers towards the summit dome of the Vatnajökull icecap, we’ll have over 40kg of gear each. That means taking sleds and skis to man-haul everything over the deep snow and crevasses that stand in our way. Along with three weeks of food, fuel and survival gear, we’ll also be dragging packrafts, life vests, paddles, dry suits and a variety of other cold-water river gear to use later on. We’ll have to complete an unknown number of kilometres of good old fashioned foot-slogging with all of this on our backs while we hunt out raft-able water in the headwaters of the Skjálfandafljót river in the little-explored highlands of Iceland’s central volcanic plateau.
Once we’ve found raft-able waters, there’ll be the small matter of attaching the sleds and skis to our inflatable rafts in a way that won’t turn us into surprised bits of flotsam being washed to our doom in the ice-melt torrent!
You’re probably wondering: why? Why take on such an epic challenge when life is already a bit crazy? Why decide that the solution for too much work, is to cross Iceland in the most logistically complicated way we could think up? Well, I think Dan explained it best in a characteristically wise statement when the three of us were talking to MedWorld’s managing director Sam Hazledine a few weeks back; “sometimes the solution to burnout isn’t to do less work, it’s to do more of something else, something that inspires you, something you’re passionate about.”
The wilderness is something that inspires and impassions us. There’s places and environments in this world where life is stripped of its complexities – its roster gaps and research deadlines, its mortgage repayments and school runs, its ED overload scores and its P1 theatre cases – and reduced to what really matters: shelter, food, warmth and comradeship in adversity.
Over the course of the last couple of years that this expedition has been in the planning, all three of us have managed to pass our Fellowship exams and finish our training to become specialists. Gareth and I have continued to raise only slightly feral children, and Dan has managed to produce a brand new one of his own. The organisational challenges involved in turning inspiration into reality have been enormous, but in just a couple of weeks from now we’ll be taking that little break from work and setting out into the Icelandic wilderness.
– words by Dr Richard Stephenson
Team ‘River of the Trembling Spirit’ are:
Follow their journey: