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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)

The Lavafield of Leirhnjúkur

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Not far from the Viti Crater on the northeastern side of Mývatn, we encountered the lavafield of Leirhnjúkur, which is part of the Krafla volcanic region. Nearly thirty years after the last eruptions, the ground here is still smoking and hot to the touch.

Lavafield of Leirhnjúkur

There’s a five-kilometer path leading through Leirhnjúkur, which took us a couple hours to complete. It should have been faster, but we were slowed significantly by both the snow and the scenery. Many of the trail markers were completely buried and, for safety’s sake, we took our time. With hot pools, steam vents, craggy lava rocks and sections of super-heated dirt pockmarking the ground, Leirhnjúkur is not the kind of place you’d want to accidentally veer off the path.

The lavafield provided a study in contrasts. It was bizarre to be standing ankle-deep in snow, while touching a scorched-black patch of earth that was still painfully hot. The latest volcanic activity here occurred between 1975 and 1984, a period during which there were nine eruptions. These “Krafla Fires” gained fame across the world for their curtains of lava.

Another amazing sight in a region simply full of them, Leirhnjúkur was the most exciting hike we did while at Mývatn.

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Lavafield of Leirhnjúkur
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October 24, 2013 at 6:10 pm Comment (1)

A Surreal Visit to the Viti Crater

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The Viti Crater is part of the Krafla volcano range just to the northeast of Mývatn. Viti is Icelandic for “Hell”, and we experienced some unreal weather on the morning we chose to visit.

Morning Viti

The crater is best known for the astonishing turquoise water that pools in the base of its bowl, but although we walked all around Viti’s entire circumference, we didn’t see the water even once. A ridiculously heavy fog had blanketed the region, obscuring everything. With the recently-fallen snow, the whiteness was especially impenetrable, visibility down to mere meters.

Before we returned to the car, the fog lifted slightly, creating a perfectly straight line of clouds which we were standing just above. We still couldn’t see into the crater, but the panorama was bizarre. Clear blue skies above us, and white fog below. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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October 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm Comments (3)

Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar

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After visiting the cliffs of Ásbyrgi, we hopped in the car and drove a few minutes south to the Vesturdalur campsite and the start of an extraordinary five-kilometer trail which would bring us through the Hljóðaklettar (Echo Rocks) to the foot of the Rauðhólar (Red Hills).

Hljóðaklettar and Rauðhólar

The Hljóðaklettar rocks are a wild array of basaltic columns, twisted and angled in every conceivable direction. The bizarre bending of the rocks results in caves, towers and other unclassifiable geometrical shapes. It’s like being on another world, and the area has an alien and almost menacing sort of beauty. Formed when the powerful Jökulsá River washed away chunks of volcanic craters, the rocks at Hljóðaklettar have strange acoustical properties which reflect, enhance or mute the river’s roar, depending on where you’re standing. Hence the name “Echo Rocks”.

After leaving Hljóðaklettar behind us, we approached the Rauðhólar (Red Hills), volcanic cinder cones made of pure red scoria. Capped with white snow, the hills add a shocking splash of color to the otherwise black and gray landscape of lava, mountain and river. You’re no longer allowed to ascend the Rauðhólar, as over-hiking had started to degrade their quality, but that’s not a big deal. They actually look better from a distance.

Location of Vesturdalur on our Map

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October 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm Comments (3)

Ásbyrgi

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It was an early Monday morning when we visited the horseshoe-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi. We were all alone in the park and during the two hours we spent there, we hardly spoke a word. It’s the kind of place which robs your voice.

Ásbrygi

Iceland is a country full of bizarre natural wonders, and Ásbyrgi is yet another. The canyon defies logic. You’re walking through a forest, when suddenly there’s this massive cliff wall towering 100 meters into the air, encircling you on three sides. There’s a pond at its foot, into which a small waterfall is trickling. And, while you should be concentrating on the sheer magnificence of the scene, you can’t stop wondering … how did something like this form in the first place?

Modern-day geologists have an answer for us. Something about catastrophic glacial flooding swiftly carving a chunk out of a relatively warm lava bed. But I prefer the origin story from Norse mythology. Ásbyrgi is believed to be the place where the horse of Óðinn, Thor’s father, stamped one of his eight hooves down onto the earth. It would explain the shape, and the pool at the base of the cliff looks just like a rain puddle collected in the hoof-print.

There’s a network of trails around Ásbyrgi, and a few excellent lookouts from which you can take in the scene. We only had a couple hours, and so stuck to those which were easiest to reach. With more time, we’d have been able to climb to the top of the cliff, or even scale Eyja, a giant rock island which sits in front of the horseshoe. There’s also a popular multi-day hike leading from Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss.

Regardless of how much time you have, it’s worth going out of your way to see Ásbyrgi. It’s an area of sublime beauty, especially in autumn when a thick forest of birch and fir trees have turned colors, and was one of the surprise highlights of our trip around Iceland.

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October 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm Comments (4)

A Walk from Varmaland to Bifröst

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While in Iceland, we’ve learned that bad weather isn’t sufficient reason for modifying plans. If you insist on a sunny day to do anything, you might be waiting a very long time. So, despite the terrifying storm front rapidly approaching from the south, we zipped up our rain jackets and set out on a hike from Varmaland to the nearby town of Bifröst.

Varmaland Landscape

As we discovered upon arriving, Varmaland isn’t a “town” so much as a spattering of houses set around a geothermal greenhouse. We weren’t exactly sure about the location of the trail leading to Bifröst, and hunted around for somebody to ask. Finding a person in Varmaland is not an easy task, but finally we saw a guy working on his truck. “Bifröst?” He took a look at the sky, incredulous. “You’re going to get soaked. Why do you want to walk to Bifröst, anyway? There’s nothing to see.”

Not the most auspicious start to our big day out. Now, in addition to rain, we had the prospect of a boring hike to contend with. For the first hour, our path was just a dirt road leading to a remote farm and, just as the Icelander had warned, there was nothing to see. “At least the rain’s holding off,” I said to Jürgen, glaring at the clouds.

My fearsome stare must have intimidated Freyr, the Norse god of weather, because the rain never came. And then, once we had gotten past the Einifell farm about halfway through the hike, the scenery improved markedly. We entered a truly lovely landscape along the ridge of a lava field, overlooking the valley of the Hvitá River.

Soon enough, Bifröst appeared on the horizon along with the Grábrók Crater just to its north. This crater sits just alongside the ring road, and is a popular stop with tourists. We were feeling good, and completed the ascent in ten minutes. After checking out the view, we continued into Bifröst.

This is a university town, although as with Varmaland, you’ll have to stretch your definition of “town”. At least there’s a grocery store. We spent the night in Hotel Bifröst, which was an excellent place to recuperate after the hike. The beer at the hotel bar was cheaper than normal, and guests have access to a pool, billiards and ping-pong, all of which we used. Jürgen won in ping-pong, I won at billiards, and the beer-drinking ended in a draw. A perfectly fair ending to a surprisingly fun day.

Locations on our Map: Varmaland | Bifröst

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October 1, 2013 at 8:53 am Comment (1)

An Unexpected Encounter at Heimaey’s Aquarium

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Whereas we had enjoyed wonderful weather on our first day in Heimaey, our second day was marked by unrelenting rain. We tried to grit our teeth and ignore it, but eventually had to seek shelter. Soaking wet and in toxic moods, we burst into the Aquarium and Natural History Museum, never expecting to encounter a little fellow who would brighten our spirits immensely.

Puffin Kiss

Before escaping into the refuge of the museum, we toured around Heimaey Town. During the 1973 eruption of Eldfell, the eastern section of the town had been buried, and some of the buildings are still half-poking out the pitch black wall of rock. Today, you can walk atop the cooled lava field; memorial plaques indicate which building is buried under your feet.

Stafkirkjan

Walking across the lava was neat, but by the time we reached the Stafkirkjan (Stave Church) bordering the harbor, the rain had dampened whatever enthusiasm I’d started the day with. Despite my rancid mood, even I could recognize the simple beauty of this black-timbered church. A gift from Norway, it was built in 2000 and modeled on the famous Urnes Stave Church in Bergen.

We stayed inside for awhile, drying off, and then darted across town into the Sæheimar, Heimaey’s aquarium. We weren’t expecting much, and were only visiting because it was so miserable outside. But the place quickly won us over. There’s a room with stuffed models of the birds of Iceland, another with the island’s various minerals, and a third with aquariums that house all manner of indigenous fish and crustaceans.

It was enjoyable enough and worth the 1000kr ($8.30) ticket price. But then, as we were about to leave, the staff introduced us to a young puffin who was found orphaned as an infant, and now lives in the building. He’s known humans his whole life, and is completely comfortable with our species. “Cute” doesn’t even begin to describe him. He was so soft and quiet, so colorful and personable, I thought of putting him in my pocket and sneaking out.

By the time we left the Sæheimar, we were feeling great and had completely forgotten about the awful weather. Of course, minutes later we were soaking wet again, and the smiles had disappeared our faces. But for a short period at least, the Sæheimar and its resident puffin had cheered us up.

Locations on our Map: Stafkirkjan | Sæheimar
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September 21, 2013 at 11:03 am Comments (5)

A Walk Around Heimaey

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A stroll around the island sounds nice, we thought. A leisurely pace, pleasant weather, verdant hills, volcanoes, beaches, cliffs and a bit of puffin-spotting… a perfect way to spend the afternoon! Hours later, collapsed onto a couch from which we were physically unable to arise, we reflected on this early optimism. The ridiculous buoyancy in our step as we set out on an “easy stroll” around Heimaey. Oh, we remembered how cheerful we had been. We remembered with blackest hate.

Heimaey Stock Photo Westman Islands
The view from Klif (not Herjólfsdalur)

The weather was so nice, and we had been so optimistic about the ease of our planned hike, that we decided to start by climbing up to the rim of Herjólfsdalur, the crater which forms the northwestern corner of the island. We even eschewed the normal trail, and started at the back of the crater, near the port. The trail here looked rough, requiring the use of a system of ropes, but our spirits were high and we set off upwards without a second thought.

After about forty minutes of pulling ourselves up the hill, our arms and legs were burning and we had worn blisters into our palms. But we were now high enough to survey the scene… and realized that we had climbed the wrong mountain. Entirely the wrong mountain. We weren’t on the Herjólfsdalur crater, but Klif, its neighbor to the east. I suppose we had been worrying about tumbling down the hill to our deaths and not concerned with silly trivialities like “thinking”. But this was an extremely bone-headed mistake.

Still, the view from Klif was nice.

This misadventure cost a lot of energy and time, but we continued on our counter-clockwise walk around the island. First, we passed by the crater we had planned to ascend, Herjólfsdalur. This bowl-shaped formation cradles the town’s campground and golf course. On the first weekend in August, it hosts the popular Þjódhátið festival, which attracts thousands of hard-drinking, music-loving youth to Heimaey.

Streets Vestmannæyjar

Continuing south, we approached the hill of Stórhofdi which sits like a ball at Heimaey’s foot. Along the way, we saw thousands of puffins in the water and air. We crossed black sand beaches and admired some of the other islands that make up the Westman archipelago. All quite beautiful, and nearly enough to distract us from the hike’s length. It took hours to reach Stórhofdi. I couldn’t believe it, and still don’t know how we underestimated the island’s size so severely. It looks small on a map? The clear northern air makes things appear closer than they are? We are idiots? Probably all three.

After circling Stórhofdi, we started back north along the eastern coast of the island. By now, our happy spirits had vanished, and we trudged in brooding silence along the Brimruð beach to Ræningjatangi, also known as Pirates Cove. It was here that the Algerian pirates anchored their ship in 1627 before ransacking Heimaey.

We arrived back in town at around 8pm, utterly destroyed, and marched straight to the nearest bar. In spite of our aching bones, it had been an amazing day out… but if we had to do it again, we’d rent bikes.

Locations on our Map: Herjólfsdalur | Stórhofdi | Ræningjatangi

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September 20, 2013 at 6:07 pm Comments (4)

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)

Fimmvörðuháls – Skógar to Fimmvörðuskáli

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Second Part Of The Hike

The 25-kilometer Fimmvörðuháls, or Five-Cairn Trail, leads from the Skógafoss waterfall, up and between two glaciers, and into the valley of Þórsmörk. One of Iceland’s most popular hikes, it’s often done over two days, with a night in the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, but we pushed ourselves to complete the whole thing at once. Ten amazing hours.

Iceland Fog Waterfall

The Fimmvörðuháls is considered to be among the world’s best “waterfall” hikes, and begins defending this reputation immediately, with a steep climb up the side of the amazing Skógafoss Falls. This was the roughest ascent of the day, and we were happy to have it done with right away. From here the path levelled out, following the Skógá river uphill into the interior.

Skógafoss was just the first of many waterfalls we’d encounter. During the slow ascent along the river, we saw at least twenty, each of them magnificent. Usually, they would appear very suddenly. You’d be hiking along, lost in your thoughts, when BAM another waterfall. The Skóga River seemed to be showing off, daring us to tire of the spectacle.

After our third hour of hiking, our path departed from the river and we entered into more desolate territory, approaching the pass between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. The weather wasn’t optimal during this stretch, and we trudged through the fog and an increasingly-snowy landscape without wasting a lot of time.

Moonscape Iceland

At the midway point of our hike, the huts of Baldvinsskáli and Fimmvörðuskáli appeared on the horizon. These cabins are available for rent through the hiking organization Utivist, but you have to book them way in advance. Up to a year. Most of the beds are reserved for tours and groups, and camping isn’t allowed. So stopping here unfortunately isn’t an option for those of us who have the tendency to plan everything at the last minute.

The waterfalls were great, but the second half of our hike, north from Fimmvörðuskáli to Þórsmörk, would prove to be even better. Craters, glaciers, lava fields, dangerous descents, unforgettable views and hot red soil, still steaming after the 2010 explosion of Eyjfjallajökull.

Practicalities: We took the Stræto Bus #51 from Reykjavík to Skógar, which pulled up directly to the waterfall at 11:20. At a moderate pace, the entire hike took us just over ten hours. We had our tent and sleeping bags delivered to the Básar campground by Reykjavík Excursions (having dropped them off at BSÍ the day before), greatly reducing our load while hiking. The bus back to Reykjavík left Básar the next day at 15:00.

This trail is not for beginning hikers, nor anyone who’s not reasonably fit. You need to be well-equipped and prepared for everything; unpredictable weather can make this hike dangerous, and even deadly. Should you want to do this trail, but are unsure about tackling it yourself, the guys at Arctic Adventures run a two-day guided tour. Regardless of your skill level, it’s worth talking over your plans with an expert. And always make sure that someone knows your schedule. The free 112 Iceland smartphone application, which allows you to check-in and contact emergency services with your location, is also highly recommended.

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September 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm Comments (4)

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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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