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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)

Seyðisfjörður

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One of the larger towns in the Eastfjords, Seyðisfjörður is best known as the port for ferries arriving once a week from Denmark. We didn’t know much else about it when we decided to spend the night here, but were pleasantly surprised. Seyðisfjörður was one of the more charming villages we visited during our entire journey around the country.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see Seyðisfjörður at its best, because of the inclement weather that plagued so much of our trip around Iceland. Heavy fog, intermittent rain and low-hanging clouds obscured most of the landscape from view, including the mountains which surround the town. But what we did see, we liked. Much of Seyðisfjörður was built in the 19th century by fishermen from Norway and many of the wooden, Norwegian-style houses have survived into the present day.

After taking a short stroll around the harbor, we followed a rough track up into the hills to discover a strange art installation. Here, in a spot that looks out over Seyðisfjörður, German artist Lukas Kühne constructed an echo chamber called Tvísöngur. With domes of various sizes, the piece most resembles a miniature Turkish hamam, and inside you can produce weird echo effects. I imagine this being especially fun for kids.

We stayed the night at the Hótel Aldan, which occupies three historical buildings in the heart of the town. Our room was in the “Old Bank”, built by herring entrepreneurs in 1898 as a hotel before being converted into Seyðisfjörður’s bank. Today it’s a hotel again, and one of the nicest we stayed in during our three months in Iceland.

Seyðisfjörður is tiny, and I can’t imagine spending any more than a couple days here, but we really loved it. When the weather allows, there is apparently great hiking to be had in the hills surrounding the town. It isn’t on the Ring Road, but should you drive by, Seyðisfjörður definitely warrants a detour.

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October 28, 2013 at 10:23 pm Comments (3)

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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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)

Glymur – Iceland’s Highest Waterfall

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For a rewarding day trip out of Reykjavík, it’s hard to do better than Iceland’s highest waterfall, Glymur. Found at the end of Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), Glymur is hidden within a canyon, and an hour’s hike is required before it comes into view. But the walk is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself completely worth the effort.

Glymur Waterfall

We hadn’t heard a lot about Glymur during our time in Iceland, so I was surprised to learn that it was once one of the country’s most popular sights. But that was before 1998, and the construction of the Hvalfjörður Tunnel. By allowing drivers to cut directly underneath and across the fjord rather than having to go around it, the tunnel reduces driving time from an hour to seven minutes. Quite a boon for industrious Iceland, but a disaster for the popularity of poor Glymur. Used to be right off the ring road! Used to be a practical stop halfway around the neverending fjord. Used to be, Glymur got some love.

Aww, we still love you Glymur! We had an excellent time hiking to this amazing waterfall. There’s a lot packed into the three kilometer track, and it was a far more exciting walk than I had been anticipating. You’ll climb a horribly steep hill, edge along a dizzying cliff, and even crawl straight through a cave. But the best part is where the path leads to a thin log balanced over a river. As in: “this is how you’ll be crossing”.

We made it across the log, up the hill, along the cliff and through the cave, and had Glymur as our reward. 196 meters high (643 feet), this is an incredible waterfall. We had ascended quite high, and behind us was a landscape almost as impressive as the waterfall itself. If you’re looking for a fun half-day excursion out of Reykjavík, definitely keep Glymur in mind. It may be past its prime in terms of popularity, but the relative lack of other people only improves the experience.

Location on our Map of the Glymur Trailhead
The Trail We Followed: Wikiloc

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October 8, 2013 at 8:53 pm Comments (7)

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)

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.

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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.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Skógarfoss | Fimmvörðuskáli

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

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)
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.
For 91 Days