I wrote this in July 2012 after returning from our backpacking/climbing trip to Iceland. I thought it might be of interest:

Eric and I at the summit of Hvannadalshnúkur, the tallest mountain in Iceland

Eric and I at the summit of Hvannadalshnúkur, the tallest mountain in Iceland

The trip began slowly due to delta airlines changing our flight last minute from a 3 hour layover in NY to an 8 hour layover, but things ran smoothly once we landed in Iceland. The first night we stayed in a hostel and wandered around the city of Reykjavik. Eric and I had their traditional fish and meat (lamb) soup and tried out Icelandic skyr (which is basically yogurt but an Icelandic will tell you “No, it’s better than yogurt. It is healthier and made in such and such a way…..”). Icelandic folks in general speak English if they are under the age of 50 and are all exceedingly friendly, though very nationalistic. The names of the streets and everything else are impossible to pronounce. We found out later that place names are usually several words put into one which makes them so impossibly long.

The following day we got on a bus; a 4wd high clearance bus! This rugged vehicle transported us to the first our backpack route in the highlands: Kojolur Route. This route is about 35 miles total, but not including our side trips (then it was 50 miles). The bus stopped at popular “Golden Circle” attractions along the way. Geysir is the major hot spring area with several thermal features, but unlike Yellowstone there were no guard rails. Gullfoss is the Iceland version of Niagara Falls, but more gorgeous in my opinion. There is a constant rainbow in the mist created and the churning waters carve a deep canyon into the landscape. Again, no fences to keep us from the edges of the falls. People don’t sue in Iceland and the philosophy is “if you’re dumb enough to try some stupid stunt, it’s your own fault.” After many miles of bumpy dirt road (roads in Iceland outside the city are all dirt and are rebuilt every year) we reached the beginning of our first trek.

I will not go through every day on the Kojolur route in detail as I will be writing many pages then. I should mention that we did not use a tent on our treks. There are huts with beds and minimal kitchen facilities along these routes. This cut down on weight for us which was much appreciated since our packs were already 40lbs! On this route the huts were tiny and did not have running water. Water was fetched from the rivers. All Icelandic water is safe to drink without purification. The first day was, by far, the toughest as it was 15 miles (we skipped a hut) and, although it was mostly flat, the fact that it was the very first day with the heaviest pack tired us out pretty good. The landscape across the route was ever changing. We walked across lava fields, green valleys that reminded me of the valleys in Yellowstone, open meadows, across snow, crossed rivers that carved deep canyons in the rocks…one thing was constant though: we were walking between two glaciers, Hosjukoll and Langjukol,l the entire time (jukoll means glacier). Iceland’s glaciers make Washington glaciers look microscopic! The weather was in constant change: we had rain, clouds, sun and winds several times each per day. You can see the weather coming for miles as the clouds hung low and it reminded me of “big sky country”. Iceland is not a land of wildlife other than birds and very rare artic fox. However, there are lots of sheep scattered over the landscape. On our trek we also met and became friends with a German couple, Laura and Thomas, who were traveling in the opposite direction. As it turned out they would also be on the next backpack with us. We ran into 3 other souls on the Kojolur route. It is not a popular trail despite its beauty.

It took three days to reach Hveravellir a thermal area with a tiny speck of civilization: a deli. In back of the deli was the “hut” or a few rooms with bunk beds. We stayed here for two nights. During our time there we completed all of the day hikes in the area visiting a huge crater and the thermals. We also walked out to the distant mountain Rjupnafell which is not part of any trail system and climbed it. It was a 5 mile approach hike over unmaintained lava rock rubble and the mountain had large snow fields and sandy slopes that caused you to slide down every time you took a step. It was an awesome adventure though.

At night we hung out in the deli talking with the Icelandics, particularly a young man named Viktor. As I mentioned, they are very proud people, though not arrogant, and we enjoyed the conversations. He was convinced that Iceland had the best of everything: prettiest women, best sportsmen, best horses, best lamb, best weather… everything and it was fascinating to listen to him. They are also proud of their Viking history and language (they love when you try to pronounce the names!).

We took the bus to the lesser known town, Selfoss, and stayed in the hostel before boarding our next bus to Lanmannalaugar where we began the Laugavegurinn Trail. This is a much more poplar route and one of the top 100 backpacks in the world. On this ride we passed the volcano Hekla and crossed wide deep rivers (no bridges, we drove through them!). Lanmannalauger is a place where the mountains are bare, but colorful with thermals. The sands and rock are colored red, yellow and orange. We ascended over these mountains reaching the snowline and into heavy mist. The first hut was crowded and we slept on mattresses on the floor. After that the crowds thinned and the decent the next day led into a bright green valley to the shoreline of Álftavatn Lake where our next hut was. There we had many laughs with our German friends. It was so much fun playing charades to understand each other! Their English was great, but sometimes there were fun misunderstandings! At night we hiked up one of the mountains overlooking he lake and did a quick scramble over the rock formations.

The next day would be our longest (again we were skipping a hut). The journey would take us 22 miles. We journeyed over the green valley crossing several glacial rivers so cold that your feet throbbed with a pain that brought tears to the eyes. It stretched across a black desert and descended deep into a canyon before climbing back out again. In the distance was always the glacier Mrydasjukoll. We passed our first trees; tiny deciduous ones no larger than me and saw our first gyr falcons. It amazed us how quickly ecosystems changed and that we could be looking at a dessert, green meadow, canyon, snowcapped mountains and a glacier all at once at times! On the final stretch we crossed a river so wide and deep that backpackers were taking their pants off to cross… I did likewise. By the time we reached Thormork we were exhausted, but the hardest day would be the one that followed.

We woke early (though it did matter when we began treks as the sun never sets anyway!) and began the 17 mile trek over Fimmvorduhals Pass to the city of Skogar. The pass led between and sometimes over the two glaciers Mrydasjukoll and Eyjafjallajokull (which erupted in 2010).  The climb was steep and relentless. It was dark and rainy, but this was fitting as we crossed over the fresh, red lava of the volcano and smelled the fumes of the earth. The weather did get rather stormy, but luckily we were able to take shelter in a hut on top of the pass. The warden there was a jolly Scotsman who gave us many laughs along with the 2 Belgian students staying there! The weather cleared and mist lifted revealing a blue sky and the glaciers surrounding us. Eric and I descended the pass through the moraines then over many “shelves of pasture”. Every time we thought were getting to the edge the slope where we would be able to view the city of Skogar we ended up only seeing another level of pasture. Our feet were in so much pain at that point we could hardly bear it… in fact by the time we finally did see the “major” city of Skogar which consisted of 15 houses stretched over farm acreage I was crying from the pain. We did eventually make it to the bottom and, after crossing a hay-field and scaling 2 barbed wire fences, we reached the hostel.

Our trip now would no longer consist of backpacking, although it would not be much easier. After viewing the large waterfall Skogafoss and drying our wet clothes on the porch of the Skogar bus station we journeyed to the Skaftafell district of Vatvanjukoll National Park. Vatvanjukoll is the largest glacier in all of Europe and also covers the highest mountain in Iceland: Hvannadalshnúkur. We stayed in Bolti, a farmhouse on top of large hill above the visitor center. It is basically a house where a man lived that had guestrooms upstairs. We did some day hiking viewing the high peaks, glaciers and waterfall Svartifoss.

The following day the main event was Ice climbing on the glacier tongue Svínafellsjökull. No release  formed was signed by the way. A top rope was set up and we took turns scaling a large wall of ice with a set of ice tools and crampons! This is a sport we decided we would need to do more often! In the evening we went to the mountain guide lodge for a briefing on the following day: the Hvannadalshnúkur climb! The meeting consisted of “bring food” and here is your gear. We were given ice axes, harnesses and crampons to take with us… again we never signed a wavier or put a security deposit on the equipment!

The next day began bright and early as we met our climbing party at 5:00am to compete the 13 hour glacier climb up Hvannadalshnúkur: 14 miles and 6800ft of gain. There were 8 of us total, I was the only woman. Our guide was an easy going man with a great sense a humor and a very different definition of slow than my own. He always said we were going to take it “slow” and then race up! We scaled 2500ft in 1.5 hours! At that point we roped up and began the “slope of death”…. It was so long you just wanted to die! The snow slope was steep, but what was worse was that every time you thought you were approaching the top it turned out to be just a hump…. There were more slopes behind it!  The day was clear and sunny chilly at 40 degrees. However, I  was in a t-shirt afeeling almost certain I was about to become to first person to die of a heat stoke on a glacier! Finally we reached the top of the slope after several hours. Now we would cross the volcano’s caldera to a knob. The knob (the top of the knob was the summit) seemed close, but it was at least 1.5-2 miles away. The knob was also much larger up close and scaling it proved to be the best part of the day! It was completely filled with crevasses and not mini ones. These were huge and deep. Carefully we navigated the terrain going around the crevasses when possible, but many times we had to leap across! Finally we summited the peak…. We were above the clouds and around us Vatvanjukoll glacier spread out for miles. It was cold, but the wind calmed and we were able to stay for quite a long time enjoying the view before descending

By the time we arrived back at Bolti we were more than ready for a nice shower (we had thus far taken 2 on the entire trip!), but conveniently the well had run dry! The owner felt so bad for us he handed Eric his car keys (well monster pickup truck actually). He told us to drive down to the campground with some pots he provided us so we could get water to cook and wash up in the campground showers. As you could imagine this shocked us beyond belief!

The following day we took a 10 mile day hike around Skaftafell viewing the glacier’s many tongues and climbing up to the Kristindartinar. At the end of the day I calculated that we had walked over 150 miles worth of trail on the entire trip.

We headed back to Reyevick the next day where we spent the evening. Eric and I had been hallucinating about food all day since we’d been eating the same meals for 2 weeks. We spent the rest of our korona on pizza (yes I was so famished I ate pizza…it was better than American), crepes, ice cream and cake. We spent the night at the hostel.

The journey back to America took 40 hours. I won’t go into too many details. I will say that we were delayed in JFK for 28 hours. Eric and I spent two 3 hour sessions on the tarmac, waited on a line with 7000 people to be helped by 5 Delta employees to rebook our flight and spent the night on the airport floor. Moral of the story: don’t fly Delta. 

So there you have it… the saga of Iceland: a land of fire and ice where people trust each other!


For two weeks in western Washington a high pressure system kept fog low to the ground making for low visibility and damp weather. This resulted in zero wind and stagnant air. With the remnants of our yearly autumn colds still lingering, Eric and I decided to escape the Puget Sound weather and head over to the east side of the cascades to get in some late season climbing. The weather for Leavenworth looked promising so we headed over Stevens Pass Friday afternoon in search of clearer skies, wind and rock.

Our plan was to complete a multi-pitch route that has been on our list for some time: R&D. R&D is a 5.6 trad route on Icicle Buttress about 6.7 miles down Icicle Road. We awoke Saturday at 6:30am in our tent in the climbers parking lot to a very cold morning. Eric and I love to start out our climbing adventures at first light. However, this late in the season it was impossible to take our gloves off that early in the morning. We patiently wandered down the road scouting out other climbing areas until the sun’s rays finally touched the rock of Icicle Buttress at 9:30am.

There are several ways to start the first pitch of R&D. We originally were going use the “Cocaine Crack” Variation (a nice slab with 7 bolts), but when I reached the first bolt on the pitch I found that it was spinning around very freely. Not wanting to take any chances on the old, loose bolt I down climbed. Instead Eric belayed me up the classic start to R&D which takes trad gear. The straight forward pitch with cracks for gear had good, juggy hand holds to a ledge. Note that there are no fixed anchors at the end of the pitches. You must build a gear anchor.

The second pitch was very similar to the first. It led to a large and comfortable belay ledge where we stopped for a quick lunch break and enjoyed the views of the canyon. Then the real fun began. I watched Eric lead up low angle face of the beginning third pitch and disappear into the chimney. I could not hear him call off belay over the roar of the river, but after belaying out half the rope very quickly and a series of rope tugs I knew it was my turn to climb. A radio would have come in handy. The chimney takes a minute or two to get situated  as there is bulge one must get over, plus my pack didn’t help (the follow always carries the pack on our climbs). Once out of the chimney it is an easy friction climb (my favorite) to the belay station.

The final Pitch involves using your choice of a finger or hand crack. I am not a fan of or very skilled at crack climbing, so Eric took the lead. Again a radio would have come in handy. The pitch was a full rope length so the lack of a suddenly fast belay and the weakness of the pull signals delayed my ascent. After 15 minutes of no movement or signals I took down my anchor and was relieved to find that Eric pulled in rope as a climbed upward. This proved to be another fun pitch. We chose to use the hand crack. Very classic crack climbing moves, but none that shred your hands. The final ascent after the crack was another classic friction climb.

We didn’t spend too much time at the top. It was 4:10pm and the sun had vanished over the mountains and it was getting dim and chilly. We found the infamous dirty, steep gully marked by a cairn and followed it back to Icicle Road. The hike down took about 30 minutes.

All in all, a wonderful overall climb with the final 2 pitches being the most enjoyable.

Gear: DMM Dragon cams 0-4, full set of nuts, green & yellow wildcountry hexes