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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.

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?

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)

Hiking around the Western Snæfellsness, Part 1

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We set out early from Hellissandur for a big day of hiking around the western end of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This was our first extended hike in Iceland, and we had planned a promising route through lava fields, to the rims of craters, past waterfalls and across glacial rivers. Well, “crossing glacial rivers” wasn’t actually on the itinerary; it was more like a last-minute surprise at the day’s end.

Saxhóll Volcano Vulkan Iceland
Saxhóll Crater

We had stayed the night at the Hotel Hellissandur, which was large and comfortable, with a helpful staff happy to provide tips on our upcoming hike. We gorged ourselves on the hotel’s excellent breakfast buffet before setting out, providing us extra energy that turned out to be vital. Our hike was a lot longer and more difficult than we expected.

But the path started easy, following the coast southwest of Hellissandur past the remains of Viking-era fishing huts and to the Írskrabrunnur (Irish Well), a dried-up underground cistern guarded by a massive whale bone. Very cool. You can descend the stairs into the well, though there isn’t much reason unless you’re an aficionado of puddles and dirt walls.

Next we crossed the Neshraun Lava Field on our way to the Saxhóll Crater. Marked by red-tipped stakes, the trail was easy to follow, though not so easy to traverse. The dried lava was craggy and sharp, keeping our pace slow and clumsy until we reached the foot of the crater. Saxhóll erupted around 3000 years ago, forming the amazing landscape we’d just crossed. The climb to the crater’s rim was surprisingly easy, and the view down into the bowl was spectacular.

Saxhóll was just the first crater we saw on our long day out. As our journey continued, we would come ever nearer the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, and encounter waterfalls, snow, sheep, and absolutely no other people. Oh, and we would run into some rivers. Plenty of rivers.

Locations on our map: Hellissandur | Írskrabrunnur | Saxhóll
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August 8, 2013 at 4:49 pm Comments (2)
Fimmvruhls - Skgar to Fimmvruskli 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.
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