Monday, 2 September 2013

An Icelandic Adventure

Having run out of frozen meals, Kathryn and I decided to go to Iceland. Our main objective was the Laugavegur trail, which runs from the hot springs of Landmannalaugar to the glacial valley of Þórsmörk, with an optional extra day or two over the Fimmvörðuháls pass to Skógar. The route would take us past the  Eyjafjallajökull glacier, the scene of the 2010 eruption which disrupted flights across Europe. When it comes to words I am physically unable to pronounce, Icelandic is rivalled only by Welsh. Try saying Eyjafjallajökull three times backwards as fast as you can...
The geothermal pool at Landmannalaugar

Around Landmannalaugar

Our Nordic Odyssey began with a one night stay in Reykjavik. I was probably more excited than I needed to be about the slight sulphurous smell in the showers (the hot water is pumped straight out of the ground) - it was a sign of smells to come.

The following morning we took the coach to Landmannalaugar. The combination of a 4wd bus, unpaved roads, river crossings and views of the volcano Hekla kept our spirits high, despite the drizzle that had been persistently falling since our arrival.
River crossing at Landmannalaugar

We planned to spend the afternoon exploring the environs of Landmannalaugar before starting our trek the following morning. The best way of exploring the area is to lie in the natural geothermal pool for a couple of hours, relax, and occasionally swivel your head from side to side to take in a slightly different view. The thermal pool is created by almost boiling water from a hot spring meeting colder water. By moving relative to the hot inlet, and raising or lowering your body (there is quite a big vertical temperature gradient) fine temperature control can be achieved, with anything from "this bath is getting a little cool and we're out of hot water" to "ow, ow ow, I put my foot in the bath before I'd added any cold water" possible. The cold (perhaps 8°C) air temperature only served to enrich the experience!

To be fair, we also went for a stroll to a nearby water-filled volcanic crater. In fact it turned into a 10 mile march as we forgot that our map had a 1:100 000 scale.


Day 1: Landmannalaugar to Álftavatn

After a night disrupted by an astonishing display of snoring, our first, and longest, day took us 24km over a 1000m pass (where the Hrafntinnusker hut is found) and down to the hut at Álftavatn. An hour in, the drizzle started, and as we gained height it turned to sleet and then snow. Other than removing the view, it didn't detract from the day too much though - we were far too excited by the lava fields, fumaroles, sulphurous pools and bubbling hot springs to care. The landscape was vastly different to anytihng we had seen; mulitcoloured mountains and tephra/pumice everywhere. The highlight was probably heating up a boil-in-the-bag corned beef hash in a bubbling pool. The lowlight was our rye bread, carefully selected because we reckoned it would last us 5 days without going stale or mouldy. It doesn't go mouldy because it is so unpleasant that even fungi can't stomach it.

By the time we had descended to the level of Álftavatn, we were below the clouds once more, and arrived at the hut reasonably dry, after negotiating a river crossing via a dubiously balanced plank.
The view from the hut at Álftavatn

Day 2: Álftavatn to Emstrur

A much shorter day today, with spice added by two river crossings. The black ash of the lower hills was covered in vivid green moss, a huge contrast in atmosphere from yesterday. The rivers were about knee deep and negotiated hand in hand, wearing sandals, with rucksack straps undone. The water fell very firmly into the "so cold it hurts" category. After the river crossings, we traversed a vast desert-like plain of black ash, later christened 'Mordor' by fellow travellers in the hut at Emstrur.

As we arrived on the slopes above the hut, we caught our first glimpse of the vast Mýrdalsjökull ice cap (under which lies the volcano Katla), which would be a constant presence on our left for the next three days. We had arrived at the hut quite early, so had time for an afternoon walk to look down into the vertiginous Markarfljótsgljúfur canyon (doesn't that name just roll off your tongue).


Day 3: Emstrur to Þórsmörk

A day of nearly constant drizzle and and icy wind, with a particularly "fun" river crossing, which required de-trousering. By late afternoon, it had cleared up and the wide Þórsmörk valley was pleasantly lit up by the evening sun. Many of the people who had been in the same huts as us got the bus back the Reykjavik, their treks being over, but we still had two more days left.


Day 4: Þórsmörk to Fimmvörðuháls

This was the day when we most wanted good weather, and the Icelandic weather gods obliged. Beneath a sunny sky we traversed several kilometers across the Þórsmörk valley and began ascending the lushly vegetated slopes below the Fimmvörðuháls pass. As we gained height, the views became increasingly staggering. Behind us, and beyond the birch forests in Þórsmörk, we could see the black sand desert, vivid mossy green hills and the multicoloured volcanic mountains above Landmannalaugar, 50km to the north. The Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull ice caps extended to either side ahead of us. We approached the pass via a high level ice-rink-flat plain, where the top of a mountain appeared to have been cleanly chopped off, presumably by a glacier or an angry Nordic god with a scythe. On the far side of a ravine, another similar plain, extending to the Mýrdalsjökull, bore a river of melt-water down to a huge waterfall. And next to the waterfall lay what appeared to be a frozen "lava fall", with lava from the 2010 eruption still steaming.

We continued to climb, and soon entered the clouds once more. Our route now took us straight across the 2010 lava fields. At one point we noticed that the cold wind had suddenly warmed up, and the fog was actually steam. Plunging our hands into the volcanic ash for more than a couple of seconds was unbearably hot. This is from an eruption 3 years ago!
The view north east, climbing the Fimmvörðuháls pass
The Fimmvörðuháls hut was perched at the very top of the pass. The blustery wind toyed with us as it revealed tantalising views one moment, only to obscure them with cloud the next. This was possibly the best day's walking we had ever done.


Day 5: Fimmvörðuháls to Skógar

What a contrast to yesterday. The 50km visibility was more like 50m for the entire day. We expected to drop out of the clag as we descended to Skógar, but it was with us all the way and we got a thorough drenching! Nevertheless, there were some spectacular sights to see, as the route followed the Skógá river down a sequence of increasingly impressive waterfalls, culminating in the 70m Skógafoss. We had a few hours to spare in Skógar itself before our bus back to Reykjavik. We used the time constructively by sitting in a café, eating burgers and cake and feeling thoroughly chuffed with ourselves.


Random thoughts if you're planning on doing the trek

  • We spent 3 days walking from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk and 2 from Þórsmörk to Skógar. It would be entirely reasonable, if you are fit, to get to Þórsmörk in 2 days and then Skógar in a further day (although bus times would mean an early start in Þórsmörk or a night spent in Skógar).
  • Did I mention that the weather can be somewhat less than clement? The quality of the walk is so high that it doesn't really detract from the experience (other than spoiling the view a bit) but be prepared - we even had lunch in our bothy bag at one point!
  • We booked huts in April, by which time some were already full. The camping spots looked really good though, with the exception of Hrafntinnusker, where it was very rocky.
  • Finally, definitely definitely do the trip, it's amazing. Even if the weather is as shocking as it was for us!

We had a couple of days based in Reykjavik after our trek. The first day was spent doing a 'Golden Circle'  coach trip, to see the mighty waterfall Gullfoss and the Strokkur geyser at Geysir. Our final day was spent in Hveragerði, where the river Varmá is warmed by some very impressive hot springs. After initially scolding the soles of our feet, we found a lovely spot to lie in the shallow stream for an hour or so.
A muddy hot spring near Hveragerði

In summary, go to Iceland.

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