After oatmeal Eric and I journeyed into the meadows beyond Routeburn Falls Hut deeper into the wilderness. The trail followed the river within the boulder fields as great mountain walls loom above on both sides. The morning was cloudy and clear. As the sun rose above the peaks golden light spilled across craggy summits. Eric was a bit slow as he, for some reason, decided to only eat two packets of oatmeal which, unbeknownst to him, equaled 250 calories. We stopped near Harris Lake, so he could catch up on his lack of energy with some more carbs. The lake a lovey hidden gem in the alpine surrounded on almost all sides by rocky walls. A boulder was nearby with a great problem that looked like a V1. I made an attempt as Eric ate, but lichen and mosses dirtied the upper holds so I down climbed. Not worth it without a proper crash pad. Reenergized, Eric stood and we followed the rocky ledge around the side of the lake and up onto the famous Harris Saddle.

Harris Saddle marks the border of Mt Aspiring NP and Fijordland National Parks. Splendid views of glacier clad mountains beyond the saddle opened up before us was we neared the edge of the saddle. A rugged and wild landscape of pure beauty that made me long for my rope and crampons! A shelter and restrooms are nestled on the saddle’s green alpine grasses. Fragile Area signs urge travelers to stay on the trail. Eric and I left our packs in the shelter beside some other rucksacks. We then followed the sign that pointed to the trip up Conical Hill beside the shelter.

Conical Hill is more of a class 3 scramble small mountain than a hill. The trail beyond rocky after the first few switchbacks. Hands are definitely needed as the route goes straight up the “hill’. I was happy to be wearing my mountaineering boots. We reached the top in about 45 minutes where our breathe was quickly snatched away at the sight of the glorious view! You could even see the ocean way off! Two men on the summit stood discussing mountaineering… we couldn’t help but eavesdrop as we took in the sprawling scenery. Descending the hill took longer than ascending since the rock was a bit damp. But we made it back down and sat int he shelter for lunch. One of the men joined us. He was a mountaineer, Don, an Aussie who had a love for the Andes and regaled us with stories of the alpine. He knew from a young age he wanted to climb and that he couldn’t afford it. So he began to business, paid his workers well, gave them incentives and built things until he could hire other people to run it while he was off on climbing adventures. A great NZ quote he told us “What do you call a wifeless climber? Homeless!”  Basically, climbers are either funded by their wives or dirt bags.

We trekked on following the side of the mountain just below treeline. Everywhere glaciers glistened in the distance and we paused every now and then to discuss approach routes up. There were massive tote bags of gravel in the middle the trail at several points  for some odd, unknown reason. Finally we rounded a corner and caught sight of the Mackenzie Hut far below us on he shore of Mackenzie Lake. The descent featured extremely long switchbacks into the treeline.In the forest more long switchbacks eventually brought us to the lake shore and Mackenzie Hut at 3:00.

The hut was one building this time. The sleeping quarters were upstairs. There was a long row of beds with not space between them on one side and then several bunks on the other. The kitchen was downstairs. It was early, so after picking out our beds and writing them on the chart, Eric and I headed out to walk around the lake. After all, there were lots of boulders beside it! We found a pretty large number of routes. I completed a first ascent of a V0 friction climb I named “Barefoot Only” since I climbed it barefoot. It was on the right side of the lake from the hut. Further on we found lots of other problems that we did not name. We were about to do the VB, V0 and V1 vertical problems with our sandals (or barefoot). Unfortunately we couldn’t do some of the awesome roof and V2+ problems without proper climbing shoes. It was fun to work out the problems in our head though.

We had dinner and waited for the warden’s meeting at 7… at 7:30 he still hadn’t come and Eric was falling over in his seat from exhaustion. At least Don entertained us and an Aussie family with climbing stories. The warden did arrive and proceeded to give a long winded safety talk which he made into a comedy routine… but it was just to late for us to enjoy it. I told Eric to go to bed halfway through. The warden did not collect our ticket after the safety talk. He proceeded to go about a project he was running trapping stoats, the little invasive weasel killing the birds. He talked about this for 20 minutes and asked for donations. Again… really not the time for this. Finally he collected the tickets and donations.

Bedtime

10.2 miles

2804 Ascent / 3088 Descent

 

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!