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. We had their traditional fish and meat (lamb) soup and tried out their 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 go a bus, a 4wd high clearance bus and drove out to the first backpack route in the highlands Kojolur Route. This route was about 35 miles total, but including our side trips (then it was 50 miles). The bus stopped at popular “Golden Circle” attractions along the way. Geysir is their major hot spring area with several thermal features, but unlike Yellowstone there were no guard rails. Gullfoss is their version of Niagara Falls, but more gorgeous in my opinion. There is a constant rainbow in the mist created but the churning waters that carve a deep canyon into the landscape. Again to fences to keep you 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 (rods 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 were 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 this was constant though: we were walking between and could view the two glaciers Hosjukoll and Langjukoll the entire time (jukoll means glacier). Iceland’s glaciers many 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, but there are lots of sheep scattered over the landscape. We saw them often. 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 and tiny speck of civilization: a deli. It back of the deli was the “hut” or a few rooms with bunk beds. We stayed here for two nights. During the day 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 side 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 less known town Selfoss and stayed in the hostel before boarding our next bus to Lanmannalaugar where we began the Laugavegurinn Trail, a much more poplar route and one of the top 100 backpacks in the world. On this ride we passed the volcano Hekla and cross wide deep rivers (no bridges, we drove through them!). Lanmannalauger is a place where the mountains are bare, but colorful with thermals and sands and rock 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 though the crowds thinned and the decent the next day lead 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 crossed the green valley crossing several glacial rivers so cold that your feet throbbed with 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 amazing us how quickly ecosystem 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 rover 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 there was fitting as we crossed over the French red lava of the volcano and smelled the fumes of the earth. The weather did get rather stormy though, 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 a and mist lifting revealing a blue sky and the glaciers surrounding us. We descended the pass though the moraines that then over the 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 hayfield and scaling 2 barbed wire fences we reached the hostel.

Our trip now would no longer consist of backpacking though 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 was basically a house where a man lived that had guestrooms upstairs. We did some day hiking viewing the high peak, glacier 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 is “slow” and then basically raced 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 too and though it was 40 degrees at that point I was in a t0shirt and was 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 to prove 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 fell so bad for us and handed Eric his car keys (well monster pickup truck actually) and said 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 miles day hike around Skaftafell viewing the glacier’s many tongue 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. We had been hallucinating about food all day since we’d been eating he 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 by the way), 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. We 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!

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *