On December 3, 2015, four friends from the UK, ages 19 and 20, set out to cross Iceland on lightweight alpine-touring skis, without support. You may have heard about them: a series of setbacks and two monster storms doomed their attempt, and the team accepted a helicopter rescue from the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, known as ICE-SAR, ending the trip well short of the goal. Cold and soaking wet, the four young men and American filmmakers Renan Ozturk and Taylor Rees, who joined for parts of the expedition, were flown 100 miles from a hut in the gravely hills on the southern part of the island to Reykjavik on December 29.
After the evacuation, the four Brits were skewered as irresponsible and cocksure by Icelanders and media outlets around the world. “Grand ambition is no substitute for common sense,” read an editorial in the Times of London. Three people sent the team death threats. Rees recalled a local man confronting the Brits in a Reykjavik coffee shop after their evacuation. “What the fuck are you guys doing?” he snarled. “Leave already!”
Although the team members lacked experience on big expeditions, they compensated with social media and marketing savvy befitting seasoned professionals. They dubbed the expedition the “Coldest Crossing” and put together an extensive media kit detailing their plans. Team leader Charlie Smith designed a website that looks as slick as any you’ll see in the outdoor industry. They had a filmmaker friend cut together a trailer about their trip using footage from a five-day training hike through Iceland they’d done last summer.
Two months before the expedition, Smith sent Rees the trailer on Facebook to get her thoughts. She had never heard of the Brits or their plan, but their objective and glossy presentation intrigued her. She and Ozturk happened to have a block of free time in December, so they signed on to document the expedition. “Part of the reason Renan and I committed was, ‘Wow, first winter crossing of Iceland, that’s pretty unique,’” Rees says.
At least, the group’s website and film trailer claimed the Brits would be “the first to cross Iceland unsupported in winter.” In fact, a handful of other adventurers had completed unsupported crossings of their own—east to west, diagonally, and north to south—the earliest ones dating back nearly a century. Smith later told Outside that the team aimed to be the first to traverse the island country “from the northernmost point to the southernmost point,” unsupported, in winter. That was always their plan, he said, even if the key distinction wasn’t clear before the expedition.
By then, the Brits had cultivated such a buzz that big-time sponsors, including Fjällräven and Atomic, were approaching them with offers to contribute. Ozturk and Rees were behind them. News outlets were running articles. The outside support and interest did two things: legitimized the expedition and created a tower of expectations. The young men tried not to let the hype affect them.
“The initial and main reason we were there was to inspire young people to go [outdoors] and try something,” Smith says. “At the end of the day, if I didn’t think we were up to the challenge, we wouldn’t have tried it.”
For many adventurers and explorers, drumming up media interest, securing sponsors, and attracting funding is the hardest part of pulling off an expedition. The physical part is what they’ve trained for their whole careers. The Brits, by comparison, approached their expedition in reverse. “They were extremely well researched,” Ozturk said. “They just don’t have some of the sixth sense that comes from doing this stuff over a lifetime, and that’s not their fault. A big point of the trip was for them to go out in the world and find that.”
The failed expedition and vitriolic public reactions that followed raised broad questions about the makings of an explorer in the 21st century, and the evolving mechanics of the adventure industry. Authenticity and ambition used to go hand in hand on professional expeditions. Now, some wonder whether authenticity has been usurped by accessibility—the need to invite the world aboard, or risk being left at home. “They might want to think about just having fun adventures for themselves, not somebody else,” wrote Icelandic Alpine Club member Sveinn Sveinsson in a scathing critique of the trip. Perhaps the most significant question is this: Have we reached a point where it is more important for adventurers to be shrewd with presentation than proven in hardcore environments?
This is the first section of an online feature at Outside Magazine.