Meet Louis-Philippe Loncke, art enthusiast-turned-engineer-turned explorer extraordinaire. Last summer Lou-Phi, as he likes to be called, completed an exploration first; when he crossed Iceland from its most northerly point, Rifstangi, to the most southerly, Kötlutangi, completely unsupported. Furthermore he plans to outdo this effort and make the same trip this year, but this time in the dead of winter. Ever wondered what makes a man want to don his boots, grab his sleeping bag and face off into the great unknown? Hopefully ten minutes with this adventurous Belgian will satisfy your curiosity.
First up, Lou-Phi, I gotta ask were you one of those Jacques Cousteau/Ernest Shackleton explorer obsessions as a kid? I know I was…
Not at all, I saw some parts of Cousteau’s shows but didn’t really have the opportunity to watch an entire documentary. I only discovered the world of modern exploration in 2006 when I started to meet explorers, or just outdoor people. My parents are interested in modern art so as a kid I spent a lot of time in museums and galleries. We also have a tiny family carpentry business for generations, so I spent my youth with a hammer and a saw in my hands, not an ice axe and a sleeping bag. But I caught up about explorers and I believe I’m up to date now.
Tell me a little bit about what inspired this particular adventure? Why Iceland?
Before I got the bug of travelling, I was impressed by Iceland like no other country. Of course the wonderful landscapes I saw made me want to go on holiday and see it in the way most tourists do now, on the beaten path and viewing famous attractions.
But I knew the right time for Iceland was right when I ticked the Simpson Desert off my adventure list in summer 2008. The idea of the Iceland North-South crossing came after a French friend showed his photos after a two weeks trek in July 2007. I just tried to find a challenge to suit my needs.
Now, while many people would love to throw caution to the wind, channel their inner explorer and take off on an expedition, the reality obviously takes a serious amount of commitment and work. Has it been difficult to get sponsorship and get the project off the ground?
Well, for the summer trip I didn’t have sponsors, so I paid for everything. But as I had most of what I needed from previous expeditions, all I was missing were some new hiking boots. For the winter part, around January 2012, I will need sponsors for sure.
Can you clarify for our readers what exactly ‘unsupported’ means in the context of this expedition?
My definition is: no outside help at all. No re-supply, no pre-placed food caches, no use of huts and avoiding roads, tracks, people, bridges. Contact is allowed only for emergencies, not to ask about the weather or ask for motivation. I must feel completely alone on the island. Equipment failure means the end of the attempt, not asking for a replacement so I can continue. It’s risky and difficult but much more rewarding.
So you started the walk in July, and it took approx nineteen days? What were your best, worst and scariest moments of the trip? And be honest!
The best moment was the start at Rifstangi. The weather was magnificent and as I decided to delay the start until the following morning I took the time to explore the area and have fun. I had no clue there was a ghost house there! It’s where I started to shoot the Inspired by Iceland video bluff.
The worst moment happened when I was not paying attention and fell in a forty-centimetre lava crevasse and hurt my leg. I was in shock as I saw blood flowing and my tibia bone. During the next forty-eight hours I walked very slowly not knowing if my leg was in bad enough shape to stop the attempt. It got infected and swollen but the bleeding stopped.
The scariest? Well day eighteen was the scariest of my life and it lasted for fourteen hours. I woke up on the Myrdal glacier [Mýrdalsjökull] where the mist made the visibility very low, the temperature had dropped and the ice was slippery after the rain, not crusty like it had been. I had no crampons, no ice axe, and no glacier gear. Just 50 Euro hiking boots and my trekking poles. I fell many times and was so afraid I would fall in a crevasse (to be found five hundred years later?). I crossed Vatnajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers because it was safer than crossing the glacial rivers that were apparently bigger and deeper this year. I knew that morning that unless I wanted to give up and asked for rescue, I’d have to stop walking as soon as I found safety.
Coming down off the glacier I had to cross over fifteen rivers and streams, some of which carried massive ice-balls the size of basketballs that hit me twice in the legs almost knocking me over. If I fell I would have been carried away with the river. Next time I’ll have an explorer dry suit and crampons!
Were you tempted to ask for food or assistance from any fellow hikers and travellers you met along the way?
No. On day seventeen I met a group of hikers. I was ready to leave after drying my clothes, so I took my pack and a guide grabbed my trekking poles on the ground and gave them to me. I had just explained what I was doing so I asked him to drop them back on the ground. I grabbed them, said bye and started walking.
Did you have any moments where you thought to yourself “what the hell am I doing on top of this glacier/mountain/general all round not-safe-to-be kinda place?”
Adventure is about surprises, going for unknown grounds, finding solutions to find safety further ahead. Admittedly, sometimes, I do take some big risks but I try to minimise them.
That expeditions take a mental toll on explorers is a well-documented phenomenon. Did the trip prove a mental as well as a physical challenge for you, and to what extent did one influence the other?
For this trip, it was not so much about the physical challenge. Being in good shape and being able to keep a good balance with a thirty-kilogram pack without getting injured was the challenge.
However, saying that, it’s very tiring to be focused all day. Even on the last day I didn’t have any room to hesitate. I had to focus and preserve as much energy as possible. The cognitive tests I do measure the effect of stress in extreme environment. One of the tests I have is to call out a hundred letters randomly like B, F, K, R, Z, O … I can’t call any letter in sequence, like B, C. One day I was so tired that I said “7, 8” in between the letters, and I realised that sometimes the mind can be so tired we don’t even see or admit it. This is where judgment becomes risky and reason must be greater than passion. This means stop and rest, progress later.
What piece of equipment was most important? And what was your most unexpectedly useful item?
Well the tent was the most important thing. It’s your only shelter against Iceland’s biggest enemy—the wind, and of course the rain!
I have no useless equipment but without trekking poles I would be dead. I need four feet while crossing rivers or on glaciers or to help climbing ash/rock slopes.
You been developing some new equipment as a result of your experience in Iceland, can you tell us a little more about that?
Well, for the winter trip, safe shelter is without doubt the most important element. Icelander Halldór Kvaran has developed the ‘sleeppulka’, a mix between a tent, a coffin and a pulka. It’s wonderful. I want to make something similar but modifying the shape and materials. I’m busy making drawings of the new prototype called ISSNIGILL.
So was this the first time this has been done? Was the expedition an official world record attempt?
I claim to be the first to have walked solo and unsupported between these extreme latitudes. Christopher Mike from the UK did a twenty-seven day trip in 2008, thus claiming first. He had a food cache but the day I hit the news he suddenly started telling Explorer’s web and the press that he didn’t use his cache at Nýidalur. He also admitted taking an antibiotic pill from other hikers, as his leg was feeling bad. I asked him a year ago if I would be first to complete this expedition without re-supply or aid, and he didn’t contradict me. Other Icelanders have made the journey, but all with the use of huts, or food supplies, and as of yet, I haven’t found anyone who has completed the journey in wintertime.
To me, making a world’s first is not simply about bagging a record. I’m not interested. I’m interested in finding solutions to challenges; in proving the impossible can be possible. And as I’m not an athlete, if I can do it, anyone with motivation can do it, if the right preparation skills are applied.
What have you been up to training wise for the winter trip and when do you plan to come back to Iceland and get started?
I did my first ski trek last April alone in the Vercors in France, I’ll pull my desert cart on the beach this winter, and I want to train in Iceland in January 2011 for two weeks using the sleeppulka.
I’d love to start in Rifstangi at Winter Solstice in December of 2011. That means just two minutes of daylight, so it will be a major freak out but that’s what I want. It would be an excellent testing ground for my cognitive tests, with maximum stress bringing new results.
It has been 100 years since we reached the South Pole and still no one has crossed Iceland in the winter. It just shows how hard it is. Last year in front of seven UK polar explorers who’d all been to the South Pole or who had crossed Greenland etc., I announced my intentions for the Iceland trek and asked for any advice on how to prepare. All guys below forty had nothing to say. The most experienced then opened his mouth and said “good luck”.
What does an explorer do on his day off? Are you a ‘relax with some cocoa and your feet up’ kind of guy or is a twenty kilometre hike more your style of chilling out?
I’m a normal guy, I like to have drinks with friends and, yeah, relax. But I must admit a real day off doesn’t happen often. I’m currently not making money with expeditions, but it’s my passion so all my evenings and weekends are for preparations. I have treks in preparation and over ten other ideas.
Has the experience brought any personal philosophy that you care to share?
I want to inspire and motivate people to show anything is possible, though it does need some courage and determination.