Hiking in South Iceland
Laugavegur, Þórsmörk, and Fimmvörðuháls

Warning: Very long and edited even less than usual. Skip this one if you’re not interested in hiking; there’s nothing else going on here.

After travelling to Reykjavík for work and a little bit of tourism this June, I spent the better part of a week hiking in Iceland’s southern highlands. I have some mountain walking experience (solo and in small groups), but this was the first big trip I’ve done on my own. The short version of this post is: it went really well, I had a great time. The trails I walked—the Laugavegur, a day walk around Þórsmörk, and the route over Fimmvörðuháls to Skógar—are all absurdly scenic. If you’re into hiking, and you have the time and resources, I really recommend taking this trip. Ferðafélag Íslands, the Icelandic Hiking Association, maintains a series of huts and campsites along the route. They also have a lot of useful information for walkers on their website. In good weather the walks are not very challenging and could be completed by anybody reasonably fit and healthy.

That said, the weather in the interior of Iceland is generally not very good, and can change quickly. The trails come with a lot of warnings. I was lucky and had mostly good weather, but it is important to take the advice of the wardens. In the weeks before my trip, when I started to think seriously about my kit and provisions, I made myself pretty anxious reading the very stern safety notices and the horror stories of calamities that have befallen other walkers on these routes. Somebody dies here every other year1 and many more are evacuated with hypothermia. The wind and rain can be brutal, and on the high passes it can become very hard to navigate in the fog. Blizzard white-outs are not uncommon and people routinely get lost, get caught out in dangerous weather, and have to be rescued.

Before I went I feared I had taken on too much. Perhaps I should have done a similar multi-day solo trip somewhere less remote and safer, or done this trip with a friend instead? By the time I really thought about it though, I’d already spent a lot of money and told a lot of people I was going. And anyway, what was I, a man or a mouse? So I went down to the outdoors shop and spent more money than I could afford on equipment: new waterproof over-trousers, merino base layers for top and bottom, thick scarf, bio-vac emergency bag, extendable walking pole for safely crossing rivers, and a hand-held GPS device. I also rented an emergency radio locator beacon in Reykjavík to take with me, so if the absolute worst happened and I got completely lost and hypothermic, I could put all my clothes on, climb into my bio-vac bag, set off the beacon and wait to be rescued.2

Reassured at least that I wasn’t going to die, I got up early one typically drizzly morning in Reykjavík, shouldered my bag full of equipment and food (mainly oats, pasta, and tinned fish), and caught the bus to Landmannalaugar.

Landmannalaugar

The journey was not encouraging. The landscape of Iceland outside Reykjavík is mostly forbidding. The drizzle changed swiftly to pelting rain. After a couple of hours on the ring road around the south of the island we turned off of regular highways altogether and headed onto rough, jarring mountain roads. The driver stopped once beside a glacial river so we could take a look and stretch our legs. I went out without my coat (stored in the bus’s luggage compartment) and got wet through. Everybody else seemed comfortable and excited; I was shivering and afraid. The river was the bright eerie blue of seriously cold meltwater. It looked like a grave.

We drove another hour along decreasingly road-like roads to Landmannalaugar. When we arrived I was glad to see that the snow and ice that had been stubbornly clinging to the valley (I’d been regularly checking the F.I. Facebook page and the Landmannalaugar webcam) had finally mostly melted.Everything was soggy, but at least green again.

Landmannalaugar

The first trail I’d planned to walk was the Laugavegur, which runs 55km from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk across extremely varied terrain. Since the morning bus arrives in Landmannalaugar at 1pm, I’d intended to walk just a short section of the trail on the first afternoon, 4.5 hours uphill to the F.I. Hut at the pass at Hrafntinnusker. When we got there though it was clear that it wasn’t a good day for walking. The rain was like bullets and my coat was no match, I was cold and damp within a few minutes of being outside. At the information hut I was told that the weather reports from Hrafntinnusker (500 metres higher up and still covered in snow) were bad: a good chance of a blizzard. The wardens were strongly advising walkers to switch hut reservations and stay the night at Landmannalaugar. That meant I’d have to walk a double stage the next day, but I had no desire at all to walk alone in a blizzard, so I dropped off my bag in the hut’s dorm room and settled in for the afternoon.

Besides being a popular area for hiking, Landmannalaugar is famous for its hot springs—“Landmannalaugar” translates loosely to “the people’s pools”. I had planned to just take a look at the pools before starting out, but since I was delayed for the day there was plenty of time for a dip. That meant walking the 100 metres to the springs outside in the driving rain in my trunks, but I figured the water would make up for it. I suppose when most people think of hot springs in Iceland, they think of the Blue Lagoon or similar: essentially an outdoor spa. It wasn’t like that.

Landmannalaugar hot springs

I later found out that the Blue Lagoon’s accidental idyll actually is too good to be true: the whole thing was purpose-built as a tourist attraction. It turns out that most real hot springs aren’t lovely perfect-temperature bathwater rising gently from the ground. At Landmannalaugar there is a freezing cold river and a few springs of literally boiling water spewing out into it. Bathers sit on the gravelly riverbed and try to find a position where the hot and cold mix to a bearable medium, getting periodically burned or too cold as the wind and currents change. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t the luxury I had anticipated. Once I was in though, I didn’t want get out; uncertain warmth being preferable to definite cold. I stayed in for about an hour, huddled around the springs with the other bathers, coerced into unnatural closeness. It was an experience anyway. When I got out I realised somebody had mistakenly taken my towel and I had to make my way back to the hut shivering violently in the wind and rain. It seems a bit ridiculous to say now, but at the time I felt like I understood, physically for the first time, how easy it would be to die of cold.

I spent the rest of the afternoon reading (Silas Marner – George Eliot) and exchanging nervous pleasantries with other hikers. Some were clearly old hands, but others seemed no more serious about it than me. A large guided tour group of twenty or so (mostly) Americans were in high spirits, presumably because they were paying other people to be responsible for their safety (and to cook their meals; I felt very uncharitable to these people all week). I only met one other solo hiker staying in the hut, a Canadian woman called Amy. She told me she had also been forced to delay her start, but wasn’t planning to do a double stage the next day. Most of the others were small groups of 2–4 people who seemed about as prepared as me, though less nervous (perhaps from experience). Outside the hut a hardier breed of hikers were pitching their tents on the gravelly campsite and cooking their meals on gas stoves underneath damp wooden shelters. There was no question that these people were much more serious hikers than me, and I was very pleased I’d chosen to fork out £50 a night for the huts instead of camping for £20. The accommodation in the hut was pretty basic—your £50 buys a mattress in a dorm room that sleeps 20 and access to a shared kitchen and bathroom—but the campsite looked grim as hell.

Landmannalaugar campsite

After dinner3 I shared a pot of tea with a pair of Germans, Anna from Freiburg and her friend Laura from Berlin. They were good leftists—we had a rare non-frustrating conversation about Brexit and the EU—and recommended some good books to me (Anna is doing a PhD in critiques of capitalism). We got on well and I was sorry not to be walking with them—they were planning to set out on the Laugavegur the next day as well, but would only go so far as Hrafntinnusker and so would be a day behind me for the rest. They went for a late evening walk at around 10 p.m. When the rain finally stopped (there being plenty of light at this time of year, no real night in fact, just twilight). I settled into bed, read a bit more of Silas Marner, and tried to go to sleep early.

Day 1: Landmannalaugar – Álftavatn

The first section of the Laugavegur is a 12km long climb, up 530 metres from Landmannalaugar to the F.I. hut at the Hrafntinnusker pass. The height is gained through a pleasant mix of gentle slopes and short steep climbs, an invigorating morning’s walk.

In the morning I had porridge for breakfast (made with dehydrated milk; passable), spent some time spent anxiously re-checking my equipment,4 and set off shortly before 8am. After layering up against the cold and damp, the exercise made me almost immediately too warm and I had to keep stopping to remove layers. I stopped a lot for pictures to begin with as well. For the first couple of km the path passes through a field of lava boulders, in a valley surrounded by multicoloured rhyolite hills. I’d expected to take a lot of photos, but I realised pretty early on that I’d have to start rationing them out if I wanted to get anywhere. An American couple, James and Julie, started out at the same time as me and their progress was similarly halting as they stopped to adjust their layers and take photos. We passed each other back and forth all through the boulder field, until we reached the first steep hill and I left them behind. I’m good at hills.

That first climb was accompanied by a persistent sulphur smell. Gasses hissed from the flanks of the hills on either side and dispersed at the whim of the wind. Although there were banks of unmelted ice around the path, some patches of ground were also hot to the touch. It was like Winter in Mordor. Near the top of the climb, as I passed a family with two children who couldn’t have been older than 12, I realised that I wasn’t nervous any more and was beginning to enjoy myself. The exercise had loosened my body and released some anxiety; the presence of literal children on the walk made my earlier worries seem foolish.5 I gave them a cheerfully mispronounced “Góðan daginn” as I went by and sped on to the top of the hill.

Snowy hills

From there I followed a sweeping curve overlooking a valley with more hot spots and pools of bright acid-green water (more sulphur on the air). The surrounding hills started getting properly snowy, and path crossed its first patch of unmelted packed ice. Then another steep climb, and when it levelled off again the path was more under ice than not. Forced to slow down a bit, I noticed I was starting to get cold, more from the wind coming across the open snowfield than the air temperature. I put on my hat and new mittens and trudged on.

After a couple of kilometres the path took me right through a hot spot, crossing a gully full of steam. I’d seen the steam pouring from the ground at a distance, but it was another thing to get up close and stand in the middle of an eggy cloud, with boiling water erupting right under my boots. My favourite thing of all was the way that the heat seemed to carve the snow, leaving unnatural-looking vertical faces of ice, as if a giant had been along with a butter knife.

Hot spot

After the hot spot the path dipped down into a small valley, then climbed steeply one more time before settling out into a broad rise covered in fresh snow; apparently there had been a blizzard the night before. The walking here was pretty hard going and the wind was biting. I put my coat on and got out my new walking pole for the first time. I stumbled about in the powder a lot, but the pole caught me and I made my way slowly forwards. Despite the fresh snow, it was still very easy to tell where to go. I just had to follow the way-markers and footprints into the right pass. But it was clear how hard it would be if snow or fog kept you from seeing the next pole. At a distance all the passes looked the same to me, and I wouldn’t be confident of finding the right one by the map alone.

The view on the approach through the pass to the F.I. hut at Hrafntinnusker (“obsidian skerry”) is very romantic. A tiny hut sits in the snow, tucked away under the crest of the hill to shelter it from the wind. A nearby hot spot supplies warm water. The last slope down to the hut is shingled with shards of obsidian. I was very pleased not to have been here in the blizzard, but I was a bit disappointed at missing out on a night up in the snow, and having time to go to the nearby ice caves either. I also can’t believe that I forgot to take a piece of obsidian for a souvenir.

Hrafntinnusker

I arrived at the hut just before 11am, closely followed by James and Julie, who had caught up on the snow thanks to the micro spikes they’d attached to their boots. It had taken me 3 hours to walk here from Landmannalaugar, contrary to my guidebook’s6 estimate of 4.5 hours. (See? Good at hills). Since we weren’t guests at the hut we only had access to the porch area. Sitting still I started to notice the cold, so I crammed down some lunch (malt loaf, raisins and nuts—agian, for ease I repeated this lunch every day) and pressed on towards Álftavatn, another 12km away.

After another hour’s slow progress across the snowfield, the path crossed a series of gullies. Apparently this section is harder work later in the season when all the snow has melted; I was able to skip a couple of gullies by walking over ice bridges. This bit of the walk was still the most work physically, even with the help of the packed ice. It was a lot of fun, especially the last gully which was full of sticky volcanic mud and more unnatural smells. Dipping into each empty valley, with nobody else in sight, it was easy to believe that I was utterly alone in the world.7

The gullies and the snow came to an end at the peak of Jökultungur, where the view ahead opened up all way to the lake Álftavatn in the distance. This part of the walk was a very long downhill, about 600m, which was quite tough on my knees. Halfway down I was overtaken by a group of people running, who I assumed must be training for the Laugavegur ultramarathon.

Álftavatn valley view

At the bottom of the hill I came to the first river crossing. Unfortunately there is no avoiding getting you feet wet a few times on the Laugavegur, some bridgeless rivers have to be forded. The recommended crossing method is to switch your boots for a pair of quick-drying shoes, roll up your trousers and go slowly across diagonally downsteam, using your pole for stability (you don’t want to fall over in the river because that’s a really good shortcut to hypothermia). The recommended method is exactly what I did, except the bit about going slowly because the water is unbelievably cold. Physical pain in the feet is instant and bone deep. Luckily this first river was a narrow one and it was over in about ten seconds, but it made me wary for the crossings to come.

From the river it was just a couple more easy kilometres down to the hut at Álftavatn. I got there at about 3:30pm, pushed along by howling winds coming down the valley. The warden let me into the hut and showed me which room I was in, where I went straight to sleep for a couple of hours (having slept badly the night before). When awoke up there were three military-grade German men sharing my room, all roughly the size and shape of Daniel Craig (and one who had the same face). They told me that they’d stayed the night at Hrafntinnusker, but had been lost in the blizzard for two hours before they found the hut. They all looking a bit harrowed when they spoke about it. Still, they seemed quite impressed that I was on my own and that I’d walked from Landmannalaugar in 7.5 hours.

In the kitchen I met a new batch of people, including an English man, Steve, an emigré to Iceland, who shared his teabags with me. The Canadian lady Amy was there as well, she’d changed her mind and done the double stage after all. Much later the tour group of Americans arrived, their bags (delivered by jeep) and a giant pot of goat stew waiting for them. I was jealous of the stew, but also wallowing in a shameful feeling of superiority borne of doing everything for myself.

In the evening the wind died down and the sun came out. I took a stroll down to the water’s edge to take some pictures, and for once thought better of going for a swim. Back in the hut I chatted with the other walkers some more over a mug of hot chocolate before collapsing back into bed.

Álftavatn evening

Day 2: Álftavatn – Emstrur

The next morning the sun was still shining. My guidebook estimated 6 hours for the 16km walk to Emstrur, but having realised I was faster than the book I didn’t hurry to start out. Afetr my own breakfast I hung around long enough to eat the tour group’s leftovers. They had porridge as well, but theirs was fancy fresh-milk porridge, with apples and pecans and spiced with cinnamon. The porridge softened my feelings about the group a bit—I’d been woken up by one of them whooping and yelling at the breakfast table. I accepted their leftovers as an apology they didn’t know they were giving.

I was still one of the first people to set off though. I guess it’s always easier to get going if there’s just one of you. Álftavatn morning

The second day’s walk on the Laugavegur had much less climbing but came with two proper river crossings. The first river, Brattháls, is just a kilometre along the path from Álftavatn. It was much wider than the river I had crossed the previous day, but it was only shin deep and had quite a flat riverbed so I was able to cross quite quickly. Still very, very cold though. I hopped about a bit on the other side to get some life back into my feet. After I put my boots back on I stopped to watch a young Spanish couple cross. It looked to me like they were making quite a meal of it, but I imagine I didn’t look very graceful crossing either.

For the next hour the path stayed on grassy, peaty ground, making for pleasant unchallenging walking. Not far past the campsite at Hvanngill there is a much more serious river that has to be crossed at a footbridge. I took a short detour downstream to see a waterfall recommended by the guidebook. Back on the path the river Bláfjallakvísl has to be forded. Several small groups of people had caught up and passed me while I was looking at the waterfall. I found them pacing up and down the banks looking for a good place to cross. Nowhere seemed much better than anywhere else to me, so I took off my boots and zipped off my trousers and got on with it again. It was knee-deep and wide and the uneven river bed forced me to go slowly. But perhaps I was getting used to the shock of the cold, or perhaps the others watching me enforced a stiff upper lip, but I crossed quite calmly despite my shin bones feeling like they might fracture as they froze.

From Bláfjallakvísl until the end of the day’s walk at Emstrur the path weaves a long dusty ribbon across an ashy desert. All around there are strange single cone-mountains, placed seemingly at random alone in the dust. The effect is as if a user has placed a few “mountain” features to an empty field in the map builder of an early 2000s video game. I stopped for lunch at a footbridge by another waterfall and climbed on some boulders for a bit, showing off to nobody around. I took another detour over a small fell that the path contours around instead. On the other side I caught up to another American couple just in time for them to photo me at the best posing spot on the trail, a lava outcrop with the North side of Hattafell in the background.

Posing

The day’s walk ends by descending to the F.I. huts in the Botnar valley at Emstrur. On the approach one can see the vast Mýrdalsjökull glacier taking up the horizon, its tongue Entujökull snaking down into the valley on the other side. Botnar I got to the huts at about 2:30 and pottered away the afternoon reading my book and talking about the day’s walk to people as trickled in. After two days walking I was starting to smell, so I bit the bullet and paid the 500kr (£3.50) for a shower.8 I realised that I’d managed to get sunburned. (Who takes sun lotion to Iceland? Not me.)

After dinner I went for a walk with Amy to see the nearby Markafljótsgljúfur canyon. I’d never seen a proper canyon before, something about all that empty space was mesmerising. We got right up to the edge for pictures and peered over some sickening drops. Sunburn Below us white specks swooped through air, the Fulmars (Fýll) that nest in the cliffs. I spent a long time trying to get a good picture of one in flight but never really managed it. I realised on this trip that I’m really into birds? It came as a bit of a shock to be honest. For some reason the map I brought had pictures of all the birds you are likely to see in the area, with their Icelandic and English names. An unusual feature, but a source of much interest among the walkers as we sat around the table in our hut that night.9

Day 3: Emstrur – Þórsmörk

The final day of the Laugavegur is a long shallow descent to the forested river valley of Þórsmörk. The views are less immediately striking than on the previous days, but it’s interesting to see the landscape change slowly, kilometre by kilometre, as the dust gives way to vegetation, first grassland, then shrubs and finally actual trees (which are quite rare in Iceland). The guidebook estimated 6 hours for the 15km to Þórsmörk, so like the day before I didn’t leave in any hurry. The previous evening had been quite sociable in the hut and we all lingered after breakfast to discuss our plans before setting out. I think I probably could have joined up with some of them and walked in a small group, but for some reason it didn’t appeal. I liked talking to these people in the evenings, but now I was confident walking alone I wanted a chance to enjoy the solitude.

The walking on this day was mostly uneventful. Early on I avoided getting my feet wet again by throwing my bag across a narrow river and taking a running jump. I slipped and fell over on the landing, but at least nobody was around to see it. Much later in the day there was a narrow gorge with a waterfall in it that I was convinced I could jump over. Messing it up though would have meant a 10m fall into a surging river and probable serious injury or death. That seemed like a stupid way to die, even for me, so I took the bridge downstream.

River gorge

Sitting on a sandy bank by the side of some reddish grassland at lunchtime, I heard strange bird-calls. Turning, I saw an unfamiliar bird dart across the sky, chased by another of the same species. Mating, or some kid of play? I’m not sure. The pair disappeared behind a hill, but I could still hear their cries so I sat patiently waiting for them to return. Evetualy one did come back, perhaps having fought off the other, and touched down in the scrub maybe ten metres away from me. I spent a while trying to creep close enough to get a clear photograph,—me quietly advancing, the bird swiftly retreating—still with no real success. I settled for a picture at a distance as it flew off again. I later identified it (with the help of my bird map and YouTube birdcall recordings) as a Whimbrel (Spói).

Bird

A few kilometres before the Laugavegur ends there is one more river to cross, the Þröngá, which is narrow and fast-flowing. A group of 5 men arrived on the opposite bank just as I’d finished switching shoes, in time to watch me cross. There was an unexpected deep patch where water came up to my lower thighs, but I think I managed to continue without too much obvious discomfort. When I emerged on the other side the men asked how cold it was; they were just starting out hiking the Laugavegur in the opposite direction. I told them to get it over with quickly.

The Þröngá marks the boundary of the Þórsmörk valley,10 a popular hiking area. From the river it is only a short walk to the end of the Laugavegur, either at Langidalur or Húsadalur. At the fork in the path I went left to Langidalur and finished the walk at the F.I. hut, which sits in a pretty, grassy spot on the shingle banks of the Krossá.

Þórsmörk hut

Since Þórsmörk is served by a (off-road capable) bus from Reykjavík, the F.I. hut is a lot larger and better-equipped than the others on the Laugavegur. It has a dining room, a small shop for re-stocking food, and proper bins (the other huts require you to carry all your rubbish out with you). The dorm rooms in the hut were all under sloping wooden roofs, which gave everything a pleasant alpine feel.

After I’d dropped my bag I spent the rest of the afternoon on a small circular walk to the more upmarket Volcano Huts at Húsadalur, which were rumoured to have beer and hot baths and a sauna. Along the way I passed an overhanging cliff with a cave, which bears the inscriptions of centuries of visitors to the area, including “Gvðmvðvz Einázsson 1773”. When I talked to a group of Americans about this cliff face later, they all thought the inscriptions were fake, which seemed strange. I not sure why they were all so certain of this, it looked authentic to me. Is it because America is such a young country that anything purporting to be from 1773 is far more likely to be fake than not? It reminded me of Bill Bryson’s remark in Notes from a Small Island that there are more 17th century buildings in his Yorkshire village than in the whole of North America.

There was indeed a bar at the volcano huts. The pint I bought cost £10 and wasn’t anything special, but I enjoyed it all the same (not quite enough to pay another tenner for a second though). I spotted Steve, the English guy who’d emigrated to Iceland. I sat and chatted with him for a bit about how to move to Iceland (step 1: have your own software business that allows you to work remotely easily ☹), then bought a ticket for the hot bath and sauna. The hot bath turned out to be what looked like a concrete fish pond full of tepid water, so I skipped it and went straight for the sauna, a strange converted barrel where I endured twenty minutes of 70°C before escaping back out into the now refreshing wind.

The walk back to the F.I. hut took me over the small peak Valahnukur, which offers spectacular views of the Krossá river valley and down to the Markarfljót floodplains.

On the way back down Langidalur a Redwing (Skógarþröstur) bobbed out onto the path in front of me. I followed it quietly for a while not wanting to disturb it’s progress. Back at the hut most of the regular faces from the previous nights had arrived as well. After I cooked my last pasta, tinned fish and pesto dinner I sat and shared a pot of peppermint tea with these friends and talked for a couple of hours until I took myself off to bed.

Day 4: Daywalk around Þórsmörk, including Rjúpnafell

In the morning I spent a while saying goodbyes. Most of the other hikers I’d got to know over the last few days on the Laugavegur were either heading back to Reykjavík or setting out to do the route to Skógar over two days, staying overnight at the hut at Fimmvörðuháls. I’d originally planned to do that as well, but I changed my mind in the weeks leading up to the trip when I got nervous (the Fimmvörðuháls pass being permanently snow-covered and most susceptible to extreme weather) and cancelled the hut, swapping it for another night in Þórsmörk. Now, more confident in my ability and less worried about the snow, I decided I’d like to do the Skógar route after all. The hut at the pass was fully booked for the night though, so I’d have to do it all in one go. I decided to go for a day walk in the Þórsmörk area and wait and see what the weather forecast for the next day said. If it was good I’d get up early and go for it.

So with the possibility of a long walk the following day, I set out for what I planned to be a short walk. It was a relief to leave my bag behind in the hut and walk with my shoulders unencumbered for the day. I followed the Krossá upstream through the valley for half an hour before turning off onto an uphill path through a birch wood, eventually coming out on a windy plain. I took a small diversion to the top of a cliff to get a good view of the river valley.

After coming down from the cliff and walking along the plain for a while I realised I didn’t know where I was. I wouldn’t say that I was lost, since I could easily have retraced my path back to the hut, but the path ahead of me didn’t correspond to the path I had memorised from a map of local walking routes. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere in the woods. The Laugavegur had been so well marked that I’d grown complacent about needing a map, and I hadn’t brought one with me on this walk. I carried on along the path I was on anyway and eventually came out in sight of of a beautiful mountain in the distance. I later learnt it was Rjúpnafell: literally, in English, Ptarmigan11 mountain12. Even from this distance I could see an attractive zig-zag path leading to the top. It was in completely the wrong direction to return to the hut, but I thought I’d better go for it.

Rjúpnafell

I had to cross a valley with some interesting caves to get to the foot of the mountain. I was naughty and scratched my initials into the stone at the back of one of them. The zig-zag path was quite steep, but it meant the ascent didn’t take too long. After the zig-zags there was an even steeper climb with quite a lot of exposure, but that was mercifully brief and then I was at the first, slightly lower summit. From there I followed a path over a narrow col to the summit proper. When I got there I was surprised when to discover I had 3G on my phone, so I seized the opportunity to show off and posted a video to mastodon. It got a very gratifying number of boosts and faves, and finally got me followed by Eugen. So yeah, I’m big league now.

Rjúpnafell summit

I tried to come down the mountain a different way from the way I went up, but soon realised I was walking slowly off a cliff with no way down, so I backtracked to the summit and went down the zig-zag path. At the bottom I headed back to the spot where I’d decided to climb the mountain, a crossing point of a few different paths. I still didn’t really understand where I was, but I chose the only path that I thought went roughly in the direction of the hut and wasn’t the path I had come up on.

Luckily it turned out to go the right way, and by a very nice route past lots of interesting rock formations. The best was Trollakirkja (Troll’s church), which had a very inviting rock chute up the side that I was pretty sure I could climb. I got a third of the way up before I thought better of it, reasoning that since I hadn’t seen a single person for the last five hours, this would be a really bad place to fall and break my leg on account of angering the local spirits. By coincidence the night before I’d highlighted a line in Silas Marner:

The gods of the hearth exist for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetishism, lest it bruise its own roots.

Trollakirkja

After the troll’s church it was a pleasant but uneventful hour’s walk back to Langidalur. I’d been gone for about twice as long as I’d planned, but I was very pleased with the route I took. When I got to the hut I found that Anna and Laura had arrived, and I spent a while talking to them about their hike while they ate their dinner. I’d run out of my own food that day and had planned to buy more at the little shop, but I was saved from the high prices by other people’s leftovers. The American couple James and Julie gave me some of their special hiking food packs, and I managed to cobble together a meal from that and the little bits that people had left in the communal food cupboard. Reboiled freeze-dried chicken and basmati mixed through with mustard never tasted so good.

After dinner I checked the forecast for the next day with the hut staff. They told me the pass would cloudy but otherwise fine and gave me the O.K. gesture, so I decided to go ahead early in the morning. I spent the rest of the evening settled into the sofas in the communal room finishing off Silas Marner. I was joined by a pair of couples, fiftyish I think, who were having a holiday together. One couple was Finnish and the other Icelandic. They were very kind and inquisitive (especially the Finnish woman), they gave me a beer and some blueberry chocolate and asked me all about my life. The Icelandic woman, Thorslaug, told me how she’d been in this area when the volcano erupted in 2010 and how they’d all had to stay in the hut for a week. They got steadily drunker and more merry, and eventually went outside “to meet the Cuban delegation”, which it turns out meant to smoke huge cigars and drink whisky from the bottle. On reflection I’m not convinced they weren’t swingers.

Day 5: Þórsmörk – Skógar

The trail between Þórsmörk and Skógar is one of the most popular walks in Iceland. It’s 29km long and ascends and descends about 1000m, crossing the Fimmvörðuháls pass between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. You might recall that Eyjafjallajökull is the name of the volcano whose eruption in 2010 downed air traffic over Northern Europe for over a week. The trail was already well-loved by hikers, but it’s even more popular now because the ground you walk on literally wasn’t there 8 years ago: the old path is buried metres below your feet.

The bus back to Reykjavík left Skógar at 3pm, so for safety I planned to leave Þórsmörk at 4:30 in the morning (daylight not really being a problem). The guy in the bed next to me was a terrible snorer though, so I delayed the alarm a bit. Then when I did get up I found the wardens had forgotten to turn the gas off overnight, so I delayed a bit more while I made myself one last porridge breakfast (with added scavenged chocolate drops) and eventually left the hut at 5:30.

First off I had to cross the Krossá. The volume of the river and its course through the valley changes year to year, so the crossings are done on these funny bridges on wheels.

Fimmvörðuháls pole

After walking upstream for half an hour the path rises into an uphill slog, not unlike something in the Lake District, but longer. My guidebook warned about a narrow section at the Kattarhyggir (Cat’s Spine) ridge, where there is a chain to hold to help nervous walkers, but it was pretty tame in my opinion (and I have no great head for heights). After about 600m of steady climbing the elevation changes spread out, with some flat sections across rocky plains and some sharp climbs. At some point at around 700m I walked into the clouds and it began to feel more like a real mountain. A steep sided gap and high winds at Heljarkambur made me actually thankful for the chain there. After that the trail disappeared under snow and ice and I had to use the guide poles to navigate. This bit made me a bit nervous, especially with the low visibility, the temperature below freezing and the winds pretty high, but it was exciting too. Plenty of people had been this way in the last few days (although I was pretty sure I was the first that morning) so there were footprints to follow at least.

Fimmvörðuháls pole

Once the climbing is over the path passes the peaks Móði and Magni. Like the reddish gravel beneath the snow, these two craters named for a pair of Odin’s sons, also did not exist 8 years ago. Apparently they offer fine views, but I didn’t think I had time to climb them so I pressed on to Fimmvörðuháls. After another very slow couple of kilometres across powdery snow, I saw the first faces of the day, a Dutch couple who had just set out towards Þórsmörk from the F.I. hut at Baldvinsskali. Crossing over one more ridge, I had a clear view across the last bit of snow to the A-shaped hut, and beyond it all the way to the sea.13

Fimmvörðuháls snowfield

I got to the hut at about 9:30 a.m. and popped in to see if anybody I knew from the previous nights was still there, but they’d all already left. While I was there I asked if I could I refill my water bottle; “Yes” said the warden, “500kr”. I declined paying £3.50 for water, but asked if I could use the toilet: “Yes, 500kr”. I must have done a bad job of hiding my indignation because warden patiently explained that there is no water supply to the hut and to empty the toilet one has to drive a jeep up and down the mountain—it costs about a million kr each time. I waited until a convenient boulder further down the path.

After the hut it was all downhill. There was no more snow but at first the path was pretty rocky. I was tired and getting careless by now and twisted my ankle mildly a couple of times. I crossed the powerful Skóga river at a footbridge of dubious safety and then followed the path along the river to Skógar. This last section of the walk was stunning. The river tumbles over a series of absurdly gorgeous waterfalls on its way to the coast. The sun came out in full (I got another sunburn) as I tramped down the last 10km or so and I stopped frequently to dunk my head in the river.

In one of those pictures you can see a woman standing out on a jutting rock formation photographing the falls; as I got closer I realised I’d caught up to Amy, who had walked from Þórsmörk to Baldvinsskali the previous day. We walked the last hour of the trail together, discussing our trips as the path got busier and busier with tourists going uphill from Skógar to see the waterfalls. At about 2p.m. we arrived at the end of the trail at the mighty Skógafoss. We took each other’s pictures and watched the hundreds of fulmars swooping through the spray around the falls.

Skógafoss

With an hour to spare in Skógar, I had a hot shower and changed into less smelly clothes, then joined Amy for an abysmal coffee in a shop/restaurant full of junk. I was quite pleased with myself for covering the whole distance from Þórsmörk in 8.5 hours, but my efforts and the sun had left me tired. When the bus arrived I said my goodbyes to Amy and fell asleep as soon as I took my seat.

Coda

This was easily my favourite week’s walking I’ve ever done. The trails were beautiful and I met a lot of interesting people along the way. I gained a lot of confidence at multi-day hiking alone and I’m eagerly planning my future trips: my 30th birthday is next year and I’d like to spend the week around it on a long hike, possibly the Tour de Mont Blanc. I’d definitely like to go back and do these routes again, perhaps with a group of friends. I’d like to have more time to wander off the path a bit more and explore.

I’m aware that what I’ve written above is embarrassingly long and detailed, far too detailed to be of much interest to anyone but me. But I’m afraid that if I don’t put it down somewhere, then I’ll forget it all—I already feel like I’ve missed a lot out. The pictures above are just a selection of the literally hundreds I took; if you’re not completely tired by now, you can see the rest here (film camera), here (phone), and here (videos).

  1. One death every two years doesn’t seem so bad until you consider that no more than 10,000 people walk the Laugavegur every year (by my estimate), probably fewer. So it’s a 20,000:1 chance of death—still not bad odds. But I had no idea how experienced the typical Laugavegur walker is. Perhaps the odds of a rube like myself perishing were much higher? ↩︎

  2. I decided that I’d rather risk dying of embarrassment at having to be rescued over actually dying. Just. ↩︎

  3. To make preparations and packing easier, I ate the same dinner each night for the first four nights—pasta, tinned fish and pesto. I made room for variation by bringing a bunch of different tinned fish and a couple of kinds pesto and made a game of trying out the combinations. For your reference, pasta with green pesto and tuna or sardines is pretty good; pasta with red pepper pesto and anchovies is not good. ↩︎

  4. I’d discovered just after I arrived in Landmannalaugar that the gloves I’d brought with me had a hole in them. In the high tourist season there’s a little shop open at the campsite selling coffees, hot dogs, and extortionately priced hiking gear. Still afraid of being under-equipped in any way, I spent 3500kr (£25!) on the only gloves they had, these natty mittens.Mittens I am very attached to the mittens now. I nearly ran off a cliff chasing them when they blew away in the wind. I love them and I’ll take on every walking trip I go on forever. ↩︎

  5. I didn’t see any other children I saw all week though; perhaps their parents were just very confident (or irresponsible?) ↩︎

  6. Walking and Trekking Iceland from Cicerone. Although I didn’t end up using it to navigate, this book was extremely useful for planning the trip. I recommend it. ↩︎

  7. I was alone for most of the time on the trail, but not really that alone; I’d guess that I was never more than half an hour behind or ahead of another group. ↩︎

  8. Technically the 500kr buys 5 minutes of hot (sulphrous) water; cold showers are free. The cold water is really cold though, too cold for me to put my head under without immediate brainfreeze. ↩︎

  9. I didn’t actually use the map or my compass for navigation either, and I definitely didn’t need to the magnetic declination chart or the GPS device. In good weather the Laugavegur is very clear at all times. ↩︎

  10. Pronounced “Thors-murk” (roughly), by the way. That Þ is a thorn, not a p. The other nonstandard character in Icelandic is eth (ð) which looks a bit like a differential operator. ↩︎

  11. I didn’t manage to spot a ptarmigan (pretty disappointed about that), but I did see a falcon on the approach to the base of the mountain. The F.I. staff told me it was very probably a Merlin (Smyrill), although it might also have been a Gyrfalcon (Fálki). ↩︎

  12. Just like in English, Icelandic uses fell to mean a small mountain. The Icelandic word for proper-sized mountains is Fjall (or Fjöll in the plural). I learnt this trying to translate a framed print of the poem Fjöll by Jóhannes úr Kötlum that hung on the wall in the Þórsmörk F.I. hut. ↩︎

  13. I don’t know very much about photographic composition, but I think this might be the ‘best’ photograph I took on the hike. It’s my favourite anyway, I like the colours. ↩︎


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© Tom Harris 2015–2017.

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