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And Finally, We Climb a Glacier

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Almost inconceivably, we had lived in Iceland for three months without having been on a glacier. These massive chunks of ice account for over ten percent of the country’s surface area, and exert an enormous influence over life on the island. Had we neglected them, our exploration of Iceland would have been incomplete. And so, on our final excursion, we struck off across the ice.

Skaftafell Glacier Walk

We arrived at Skaftafell bright and early on a Saturday morning. Yes, I said “bright”. In stark contrast to the previous couple weeks, the weather today was outstanding. Iceland had apparently decided to send us out on a high note.

Our trip was organized by Glacier Guides, an operation based in Skaftafell which specializes in glacier tours. After meeting the other members of the group and our guide, Helen, we hopped into an old American school bus. Soon enough we were at the foot of Falljökull, which is a southern outlet glacier of the enormous Vatnajökull. In Iceland, even the glaciers have glaciers.

We affixed crampons to our boots, tightened harnesses around our waists, strapped helmets to our skulls, grabbed ice axes and began our ascent. Right away, I realized how much fun this was going to be. In the abstract, “walking on a big chunk of ice” doesn’t sound like anything special, but the reality is exhilarating. The ice crackled satisfyingly underneath every step of my metal-bladed shoes and the sun made even a light jacket strictly optional. Though a glacial landscape looks smooth and monotone from a distance, it’s amazingly diverse close up. We tramped into ice caves, peered down into glacial crevasses (one of which was 30 meters deep) and drank from streams of ice cold water running down the glacier’s surface.

Throughout our ascent, Helen kept us entertained with glacier facts, figures and stories, and faster than I could believe, we had reached an impenetrable wall of jagged blue and white ice. It looked just like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and marked the end of our trail. Which was fine. We had marched eight kilometers across the ice, and I would suffer for it the next day. But the fact that I hardly noticed the distance is a testament to the beauty of the landscape.

Volcano: ✓ Hot Springs: ✓ And finally… Glacier: ✓. We had an incredible time on Falljökull, and were only upset that we hadn’t gone on a similar hike earlier during our time in Iceland. It was something I’d have been happy to experience more than once.

Glacier Guides – Website

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November 2, 2013 at 8:16 pm Comment (1)

More Pictures from Þórsmörk

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The morning after completing the 25-kilometer Fimmvörðuháls hike, we awoke with muscles so sore that just leaving our tent took almost half an hour. The last thing we felt like was more hiking, but we had six hours to kill until the bus back to Reykjavík. And in Þórsmörk, there aren’t a lot of other options. More hiking it is!

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We decided to walk from Básar to the Langidalur campsite, on the northern side of the valley. Our path brought us to the Krossá River, a wide and deceptively powerful westward stream issuing down from the glaciers. Traversing the Krossá is easy enough for hikers, as there’s a pedestrian bridge set up near Langidalur, but it’s a trickier gambit for cars.

This isn’t a neatly defined river with grassy banks and a steady path, but a mess of streams hurrying down the valley as quickly as possible. As the glacial runoff ebbs and flows, the Krossá can become deeper in unpredictable spots. Just because someone forded the river at a certain place yesterday, doesn’t mean it’s safe today. Once we were at Langidalur, we sat on the grass and had fun watching the cars attempt the crossing. The danger of getting stuck or pushed uncontrollably downstream, or even having your car flipped, is real and it happens frequently.

We experienced the rush of crossing ourselves, later, when our bus picked us up for the return to Reykjavík. As we splashed down into the river, we could feel the bus being carried away. But our experienced driver had little problem righting the course and we emerged unscathed on the other side. In a compact car, you could never make it, and I’d be nervous to try even in a Jeep.

Þórsmörk is one of the most lovely spots that we’ve visited in a while, so deep into the interior of Iceland, and so far from any town. I’d have been happy to stay a bit longer, even if it meant more hiking.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Básar | Langidalur

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September 18, 2013 at 6:05 pm Comments (2)

Fimmvörðuháls – Fimmvörðuskáli to Þórsmörk

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The first half of our 25-kilometer hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk had been dominated by waterfalls, barren mountain vistas, and an unending uphill climb. But after passing between the two glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, our path would start its descent, and the clouds which had been plaguing us all day would clear up, revealing the valley of Þórsmörk below us: one of the most stunning landscapes we’ve ever seen.

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After passing the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, we emerged into serious glacier land, and were forced to trudge across huge banks of snow. The terrain was surreal. Between the snowbanks were fields of lava, strange tiny cones of ash and sinister black craters. At one point, we noticed that the land was smoking. The ground here was still super-heated from the 2010 explosion of Eyjafjallajökull. I reached down to touch the soil, digging down before yanking my fingers back. It was a little much for my mind to process… was I supposed to freezing here, or burning?

Once we had the smoking landscape of snow and lava behind us, the sky cleared up and Þórsmörk came into view. This valley is one of the most beautiful areas in Iceland. In fact, when we asked locals about their favorite places, Þórsmörk was the most common answer. And I can see why. Having it laid out before us from the mountain heights was absolutely magical.

With the valley visible below, we figured the final few hours of our hike would be easy. Nope… nothing like it. This was by far the most challenging stretch of the day, requiring extremely steep descents on tricky terrain, at a point when we were already physically and mentally fatigued. Some sections even forced us into scooching along the ground on our butts, terrified about kicking loose a stone and tumbling down.

But slowly, slowly we made it. Our tent was waiting for us at the campsite of Básar, and we had just enough energy left to set it up before collapsing into our sleeping bags. It had been quite a day… we’ve done a lot of hiking in different places around the world, but I don’t think for sheer, majestic nature, anything holds a candle to the Fimmvórðuhals.

Locations on our Map: Fimmvörðuskáli Hut | Básar

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September 17, 2013 at 8:32 am Comments (8)

Inside the Volcano

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After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift… the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t resist.

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The Þrihnúkagígur (“Three Peaks”) volcano southeast of Reykjavík has lain dormant for over 4000 years, but it wasn’t until 1974 that a team of local adventurers led by Árni Stefánsson discovered the cavern which is accessible through the mouth of one of the craters. Here was a perfect magma chamber, without any of the magma. Immediately recognizing it as a place unique in the world, Árni labored for years to open the volcano to tourism, finally succeeding in 2012.

Tours inside the volcano are run exclusively by 3H Travel. A bus picked us up in Reykjavík and brought us to the Blafjoll Mountain Ski Resort. From here it was an hour-long hike over a lava field to the camp at the foot of Þrihnúkagígur, where we met the team, examined diagrams of the magma chamber and played with an injured arctic fox cub that had taken refuge there.

Although it doesn’t look like much from the base camp, the underground dimensions of Þrihnúkagígur are impressive. It’s spacious enough to comfortably fit the Statue of Liberty and taller than Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja. But these are just facts and figures; we weren’t able to truly comprehend the volcano’s size until being lowered into it.

Þrihnúkagígur is unique in that it has managed to retain its conical shape even after the release of its magma. Scientists believe this is because the magma drained out the bottom, instead of exploding out the top… “It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug,” said Haraldur Sigurdsson, the volcanologist who founded Stykkishólmur’s volcano museum. The lift takes about seven minutes to reach the floor, and the tour allows a half-hour to explore, before the ride back up.

It’s an amazing feeling, crawling around the jagged rock, peering up at the tiny crater now 400 feet overhead, feeling the walls which have been either scorched black by the lava’s heat, or are still vividly colored by the earth’s minerals… yellow, red, orange. It’s exactly how you always thought the interior of a volcano might look, and the experience of simply being there is unforgettable.

There’s no denying that at 37,000kr ($310) apiece, the tour is prohibitively expensive. But turning people off is partially the point, since this is the kind of operation that simply can’t support large numbers. Still, after you’ve paid $310, driven an hour out of Reykjavík, hiked an hour, and then waited at camp for your turn, it’s a little frustrating to have only 30 minutes inside the chamber.

But this is a petty gripe. In the grand scheme of things, these were probably the only 30 minutes I’ll ever spend inside an actual volcano. Overall, it’s an experience we can’t recommend enough.

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September 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm Comment (1)

A Day in the Hornstrandir

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The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, in the northwestern corner of Iceland, has been almost completely spared from the corrupting fingertips of mankind. No roads scar the landscape and there are no permanent residents, unless you count the arctic foxes which abound in its hills. We spent a long day exploring a small section of the reserve.

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Hornstrandir is a major destination for hikers seeking to get away from civilization, and most stay for four or five days, walking from one end of the peninsula to the other. The experience must be incredible. Unfortunately, our schedule didn’t allow for such a long excursion, so we had to be satisfied with a cursory peek into Iceland’s wildest corner.

The ferry let us out at Hesteyri, where there’s a café/guesthouse catering to hikers passing through. A number of ports around the peninsula are irregularly served by tour companies based in Ísafjörður, but Hesteyri is the easiest to reach. By the way, the process of booking tickets to Hornstrandir was the most frustrating and expensive part of our trip. If you’re planning a journey, try to arrange tickets as early as possible.

With seven hours to kill, we decided on a hike to Aðalvík Bay, just over a hill to the west of Hesteyri. This was a simple hike, with a clearly-defined trail and moderate incline. The lack of challenge was initially disappointing, as I had been expecting, and perhaps unconsciously hoping for, a “vicious clash with nature” in the lonely reaches of the Hornstrandir. But since we didn’t have to waste time searching for the trail or battling the elements, we were better able to appreciate the amazing nature surrounding us.

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Our path went through a gorgeous field of purple and yellow flowers, over patches of snow and through a massive field of stones, and we needed two hours to arrive at an overlook from where we could see Aðalvík Bay. There was a lonely red farm house below us and a beach of white sand, but we didn’t descend. We wanted to make it back to Hesteyri with time to spare, since there was something else which warranted our attention.

A couple kilometers from the guesthouse are the remains of a decommissioned Norwegian whaling station, called Stekkeyri. Following the station’s founding in 1894, Hesteyri grew into a functioning community with a few families residing there full-time. But when the factory closed up in 1940, the settlement was abandoned. The skeletal remains of Stekkeyri are easy to reach from the guesthouse, and fun to poke around.

Locations on our Map: Hesteyri | Aðalvík

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August 29, 2013 at 4:07 pm Comments (2)

A Week in the Westfjords

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Bumpy gravel roads, killer avalanches, and jagged mountains carved out by glaciers are among the defining characteristics of the Westfjords, the giant peninsula which makes up the northwest of the country. We rented a jeep, packed our tent, and spent six days exploring one of the wildest and most remote regions in Iceland.

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Only about 7000 people live in the Westfjords today, scattered around a few towns on the coast, but the region wasn’t always so sparsely populated. A century ago, there was twice that number. But people started to leave in the 1960s after a catastrophic decline in fishing stocks. During our week in the Westfjords, we saw a lot of desolate places.

A decrepit herring factory. An abandoned whaling station. A once-thriving town with boarded-up shops. However, there was a sense of optimism lurking under the surface. The herring factory has become an art gallery. The whaling station is a favorite stop for hikers. The fishing town has refocused on a burgeoning tourism industry. In a world that’s always busier, more urban and less exotic, desolation can be a selling point. In open defiance of irony, solitude-seeking tourists have begun swarming in droves to the unspoiled nature offered by the Westfjords.

So it’s impossible to call the Westfjords “undiscovered”; we saw plenty of other tourists during our time there and most of the hotels we contacted were booked out well in advance. But on the open roads of the region’s endless coastlines, even “a lot” of tourists can spread out pretty well, and we often went hours without seeing another soul.

Our trip started in Hólmavík, from where we would make a counter-clockwise circle around the peninsula, up towards Djúpavík, west to Ísafjörður and around south to Látrabjarg… with more than a few stops on the way.

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August 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm Comments (3)

Underground, Underwater: Lava Caves and Hot Springs

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Driving around Iceland with a guidebook and a map can be rewarding, but even the most astute tourist won’t find everything on their own. To reach certain places, you’ll have to enlist the help of experts. That’s what we did, in order to explore a secret lava cave and an amazing hot spring.

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Our trip was run by Icelandic Mountain Guides, a tour company operating out of the capital. Shortly after our pick-up, we had helmets affixed to our heads, and were entering a tunnel found in a lava field just outside Reykjavík. I’ve been in caves before, but none formed by a flowing river of lava. The experience was different. At 4000 years in age, this cave is relatively young and fairly shallow.

At times, the tunnel narrowed precariously. In order to complete the tour, we had to get down on our hands and knees and wedge through a couple small openings. Not a huge problem for me, but a considerable one for 6’6″ Jürgen (who, it turns out, does a very clumsy crab walk). We saw some stalagmites and the bones of a poor lamb which had become lost in the cave, and learned a lot about the unique geology of Iceland.

Next up, the part of the journey I had most been looking forward to: hot springs. We drove out to the Hengill Mountains, where we’d recently completed a fun walk lovingly nicknamed Hengill Death Hike. But today would be less dangerous. After a 30-minute hike past steaming vents shooting out of the over-heated earth, we arrived at a river in which people were bathing.

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The river here combines both cold water streaming down off the glacier and hot water bubbling up from the earth, mixing to create the ideal temperature for a bath. Despite the difficulty of reaching it, the location is no real secret — a lot of other people were present when we arrived. But no matter. The river is long, as rivers tend to be, and we were able to find a nice quiet spot to soak our bones.

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August 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm Comment (1)

Hengill Death Hike

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The three of us laced up our boots and started off in high spirits, excited for a day-long hike through the Hengill volcano range. A few hours later, I was alone on the top of a mountain, terrified and shouting until my throat was raw. This was supposed to have been an easy day out. Where had it all gone wrong? And where the hell was Brandt?

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See you on the other side, right guys? … Guys?

We had been prepared! I had carefully studied our route and plotted the exact path we’d be taking on my GPS device. We had a map, snacks and plenty of water. Nothing could go wrong. Our goal was the summit called Vörðu-Skeggi, about six hours round-trip. The weather, though not ideal, was supposed to improve as the day went along. No problem, right?

The initial ascent was brutal and almost immediately we were enveloped in a dense fog. Though the path was well-marked with posts, the cloud had reduced visibility to about ten meters, and we couldn’t see any landmarks; nothing with which to orient ourselves. Without GPS to guide us along the way, we’d have been completely lost.

Our friend Brandt was visiting from the States and had joined us on the hike. He’s no fan of heights, and so the fog worked to his advantage, while it lasted. We were inching along a narrow cliff when the cloud suddenly lifted. The effect was phenomenal. Where before had just been white nothingness, we could now see for miles. And Brandt, who had been moving at a steady clip, now stopped completely. For the first time, he could see how high we actually were, and how precarious our cliff-top position was.

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So from here on out, our progress would be slower. But that was fine. With clear weather, the hike had become exhilarating, and we were still approaching the summit well ahead of schedule. World-beaters!! Feeling invulnerable, I barely registered the presence of a giant snowdrift blocking our path and trudged across without much thought, easily reaching the trail’s continuation on the other side.

But Brandt and Jürgen hadn’t followed me. I looked back, surprised to find them still on the other side. And when I took a second look at the snow drift, I understood why. Not far from where I had crossed, the snow dropped off at a terrifying angle, and straight down a cliff. A death trap! Had I somehow slipped, or had the snow given way under my feet, I could have slid straight off into the void.

Brandt found a different way around, by going up and over the drift. Higher up, the snow ended and the dirt seemed a safer prospect. We all agreed. “Yes, good idea!” But halfway across, the gravel began slipping under his scrambling feet. He kicked loose stones which bounced down the slope at a sickening velocity. Advancing slowly, he eventually made it to where I was waiting, but was shaken up. His path had been even more dangerous than mine.

Having watched both of us court death, Jürgen wasn’t about to do the same. But neither did Brandt or I want to chance a return over the snow. Reluctantly, we all agreed that the least horrible option would be for the two of us to continue, while Jürgen returned to the car alone. Not good, but he knew the path already, and we all had phones. We would check in with each other every half-hour.

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Now down to two, Brandt and I soldiered bravely on. Our path soon looped back around the mountain, and we realized Jürgen might be able to rejoin us. We left the path and ran up the nearest slope, in order to spot him. And this is where we made a rookie hiking mistake: never lose sight of your companion. I ran up ahead on the hill, reached the top and … there! I could see Jürgen off in the distance. He saw me, too! But he’d already made such good progress on his lonely return that, over the phone, we decided he should just continue.

So I turned around to rejoin Brandt… and there was no Brandt.

No Brandt! I returned to the spot where we had left the trail. No Brandt. I walked up ahead on the trail. No Brandt. I re-climbed to the viewpoint from which I had spotted Jürgen, to see if I could spot Brandt. No Brandt. I shouted. No answer. I screamed. No answer. He had been right behind me as I ran up that hill. And now he was gone.

Panic set in quickly. There was nowhere for him to have gone! He had been right behind me! I shouted until my throat was raw. Images of Brandt laying unconscious at the bottom of a ditch. Images of worse. “Calm down,” I admonished myself. “Think rationally.” Rationally? Rationally, a person does not simply disappear. Rationally, Brandt is almost certainly… no. I pulled out my phone to call the emergency number (112), but decided to give it another couple minutes. I shouted again, with all the power I could muster. Where could he be? I was absolutely sick.

And then… there was Brandt, coming up over the hill. He had momentarily lost sight of me when I sprinted ahead. Thought I went right, when I’d really gone left. And figuring that I had found some path which led back to Jürgen, he continued going right. Luckily, he heard one of my final frenzied screams, and realized the mistake.

I’ve never known such relief as when he came into view. Dropping to my knees, I could feel the panic, this heavy sickness which had clutched my soul, rise off and fade away. I doubt I’ll ever forget that feeling.

The rest of our hike was happily uneventful. The path led downhill off the mountain, past some geothermal vents, and through a wide valley back to the car where Jürgen was waiting for us.

Iceland’s nature is beautiful, but not without its dangers. The experience taught me a few big lessons, chief among them: impulsiveness is not necessarily an admirable quality. But despite the drama, we had fun. This area of Iceland, just east of Reykjavík, lays claim to some amazing land. Definitely worth checking out… just don’t forget to keep your wits about you.

Locations: Our Hike’s Start | Vörðu-Skeggi

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August 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm Comments (11)

Snorkeling at the Silfra Fissure

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Floating on your stomach in near-freezing water is normally an experience one has only after being murdered by the Mafia. But in the right circumstances, it can be enjoyable. When you’re alive, for instance, and looking through crystal clear glacial water at the Silfra Fissure.

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All the underwater shots in this post are courtesy of Dive.is

As the North American and European tectonic plates drift away from each other, Iceland is being stretched apart. The island is growing at two to three centimeters a year, and the rift valley near Þingvellir provides an incredible view of tectonic motion in action. Silfra is just one of the many fissures in the valley. Deep and narrow, it’s filled with glacial water that’s been filtered through miles of volcanic rock, and is of absolute purity.

We went on a Silfra snorkeling excursion with the folks from Dive.is, and had an amazing time. I had been worried about getting into such freezing water (around 2°C / 35°F), but we were wearing drysuits which kept the cold out and the warmth in. After driving to the site and suiting up, we hopped into the water. In addition to keeping you dry, the suits also keep you bobbing on the surface, making it easy to float… or rather, impossible not to. We popped the snorkels in our mouths, flipped onto our stomachs, and the show began.

What a show it was. Silfra is heralded as one of the best freshwater dive sites in the world, thanks to the flawless visibility of its water. Even though the sky was a bit overcast, the rift was colored a rich, dark blue, and we could see clearly for hundreds of feet, as we floated with the current. The initial section was fairly shallow, but then we entered into Silfra’s “Cathedral”: a chamber over 60 feet in depth and about 300 feet wide, ringed in by walls of lava. It’s breathtaking… especially when your breaths are being taken through a snorkel tube.

Dive.is provided a top-notch experience. We had an excellent guide and the equipment was flawless. The company also offers diving excursions into the fissure, which I would have loved to do. Snorkeling was nice and, considering the water’s perfect clarity, might even offer the better views, but scuba diving into the rift between two continents must be an amazing adventure.

Location of the Silfra Fissure
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Tauchen Silfra Fissure
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August 3, 2013 at 1:25 pm Comments (9)
And Finally, We Climb a Glacier Almost inconceivably, we had lived in Iceland for three months without having been on a glacier. These massive chunks of ice account for over ten percent of the country's surface area, and exert an enormous influence over life on the island. Had we neglected them, our exploration of Iceland would have been incomplete. And so, on our final excursion, we struck off across the ice.
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