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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.

Red House Valley

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.

Flower hike Iceland

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)

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?

Death Hike Iceland
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.

Amazing Hike Iceland

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.

Hiking Buddies

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

Here’s a tip! Save money and buy hiking gear BEFORE arriving in Iceland! And don’t go hiking without some sort of GPS device

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August 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm Comments (11)
A Day in the Hornstrandir 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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