Four days in a Volcanic Wilderness: Trekking the Laugavegur Trail, Iceland

November 10, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

‘In loving memory of Ido Keinan, who passed away in a blizzard, so close to the safe hut nearby, yet so far.’ These sobering words, etched onto a small stone plaque embedded in a cairn, mark the place where, in 2004, a 25-year old man perished. The memorial is situated on a bleak, wind-blasted mountainside devoid of vegetation, where glaring white layers of ice lie encrusted across stretches of volcanic ash and jet-black basalt rocks for as far as the eye can see. This is part of a volcanic highland wilderness just 160 km east of Reykjavík which is so unusual and otherworldly, it could almost be extra-terrestrial. We’re crossing this region of Iceland on a multi-day 55km trail that regularly features on lists of the finest walking routes in the world, and one that increasingly seems to be on every adventure seeker’s bucket list. But this poignant memorial is a reminder that it’s no walk in the park…

 

Martin and I have left our Land Rover in the public car park in Hella, the last town before heading north into the highlands, where we caught the 9.35 am bus operated by the Trex bus company (50 euro one way per adult, for a journey lasting just over two hours). Leaving the Hringvegur (Route 1, the Ring Road) is like passing into another world: one of snow-streaked rainbow-coloured hills; vast plains of black volcanic ash; valleys choked with frigid black lava streams mottled with neon-green moss; and glacier-topped volcanoes including the mighty Hekla, dubbed the ‘Gateway to Hell’. The asphalt eventually gives way to gravel ‘wash-board’ ‘F’ roads, open only to 4X4 vehicles from mid-June to mid-September. A deep river crossing heralds the entrance to the Landmannalaugar campsite.

Landmannalaugar is the northern, and more popular, starting point of the famous 4-day Laugavegur (Hot Spring Way) which runs to Þórsmörk (Thor’s Forest) in the south. Starting at the Landmannalaugar end which is at 600m above sea level, means that you experience around 500m elevation gain to the highest point (1,110m) in contrast to the 900m experienced when trekking from Þórsmörk, and the only persistent uphill section is encountered on day one. We’ve decided to camp because the mountain huts are usually booked out months in advance and to overnight in them is extremely costly (around 70-90 euro per person at summer 2018 currency conversion rates). No advance booking is required for the cheaper camping option which also provides more flexibility. The downside to camping isn’t just the extra weight we have to carry, but also the weather. We’re well aware that no one travels to the 64th parallel north in summer to get a suntan, but the weather has been truly atrocious since our arrival, even by Icelandic standards. Unfortunately for us, our five-week visit has coincided with the worst summer in living memory. It’s now the second week of August and the day before our arrival at Landmannalaugar the wind was so ferocious it shredded tents, causing Ferðafélag Íslands, the organisation that operates the huts on the Laugavegur, to close the trial. We’re hoping that the 4-day good weather window which has been forecast will prove to be accurate.

Day One: A Vision of Hades

Landmannalaugar, part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, is located on a spit of land between the Jokulgilskvisl and Namskvisl rivers, and is hemmed in by multi-coloured rhyolite mountains streaked with snow and electric-green moss. They look as if they have been daubed with the contents of an artist’s paint pox. The campsite is situated on the very edge of the Laugahraun lava field, which was formed in an eruption in about 1477. Landmannalaugar, ‘The People’s Pools’, also hints at its volcanic derivation, for hydrothermal natural springs well up at the edge of the lava field, and the area near the campsite is wreathed in ghostly exhalations.

The place is very busy with campers and day trippers visiting a hot spring invitingly located across an expanse of swaying bog cotton. However, I note that the rocky, hard camping ground looks far less inviting, with pitches free of stones being at a premium. It’s almost midday when we arrive, and as we have a 12km hike to the next campsite at Hrafntinnusker, we forego the chance to take a dip in the hot spring. Before setting out, I make the mistake of visiting the toilet, for which I am charged an eye-watering 500kr (4 euro) which makes something of a mockery of the phrase ‘going to spend a penny’!

The trial climbs steeply through the Laugahraun lava field, a chaotic jumble of raven-black rock contorted into spikes, spires and shards, a surreal landscape that looks as if the Norse God, Thor, has laid waste to it with Mjölnir, his thunderous hammer. Sulphur-encrusted fumaroles belch forth clouds of acrid steam or hiss malevolently at the trail-side, and tiny mud pools splatter vile smelling grey sludge from the angry hot earth beneath our feet. The ghostly figures of other trekkers pass in and out of the warm white vapours which permeate the air with an odour of boiled eggs. It feels like we have entered the very realm of Hades.

As we gain height, we are rewarded with a magnificent view down into the Landmannalaugar Valley which is partially choked with a frigid river of lava around which flow the serpentine coils of a real river - the Jokulgilskvisl. The trail is initially very busy with people hiking up to Mount Brennisteinsalda and the Bláhnjúkur volcano, but the crowds soon thin as we head off in the direction of the Storihver hot springs across a barren undulating plateau the colours of umber, ochre and burnt sienna, which is covered with thick patches of dirty snow.

Great columns of steam announce our arrival at Storihver, its fumaroles at first hidden from view in the bottom of a small valley lined with moss so green it appears to be almost luminous. Hot water snarls and splutters from a deep fissure close to the trail, discharging into a river which is enveloped in dense, unpleasant-smelling sulphurous vapour. The earth groans and sighs as if in perpetual pain, and is encrusted with white and yellow mineral deposits.

A steep climb out of the valley brings us onto yet another plateau extensively covered in slushy snow. It’s on the slope of Söðull that we encounter the memorial to Ido Keinan. A pall of sadness hangs over the rocky cairn marking the place where this young man was felled in his prime by Iceland’s brutal weather. He was only 20 minutes or so from the hut at Hrafntinnusker, just down over the other side of a nearby ridge.

Hrafntinnusker, the highest point on the trial at 1,110 metres, means in Icelandic something like ‘small rocky obsidian island’, and it’s not hard to see why. The red roof of the hut contrasts vividly with the surrounding lunar-like landscape, across which tendrils of white vapour from a nearby fumarole are languidly drifting. Away in the distance, across a vast plain choked with snow, are a line of forbidding brown mountains streaked white with ice. Shards of jet-black obsidian glaring angrily in the late afternoon sunlight litter the ground, and the camping pitches are mere scrapes in the black volcanic sand. These are surrounded by horseshoe-shaped walls of obsidian rocks built to provide some shelter from the wind that constantly torments the bare mountainside. A bleaker, more surreal campsite would be hard to imagine.

We find the warden and pay the 2,000 Kr (about 15-16 euro) per person camping fee. This permits access only to the long drop toilet facilities and a tap for water, but not the kitchen inside the hut. No covered shelter is provided for campers, an unpleasant situation given the notorious weather here. No wild camping is permitted so you have to use the designated camping areas, and for the tariffs charged, the facilities along this trail fall far short of the standard we are accustomed to elsewhere in the world. We set up our tent in the most level and sheltered pitch we can find. The innocuous-looking clouds of earlier in the day have gradually massed together, filling the sky like a slowly swirling giant bruise. Just before twilight the cloud explodes, and great curtains of sleety rain sweep across the campsite. By now we are already snuggled up in our 4 season down sleeping bags and I drift off to sleep listening to the percussive pinging of icy rain on our tent, hoping for better weather tomorrow.

 

Day Two: Journey to Middle Earth

By the time we break camp the following morning the rain has passed over, leaving in its wake a sunny, fresh and breezy day. The baby-blue sky is billowing with fluffy white cumulus clouds and the sunlight reflecting back off the snowfield below the camp is blinding. I squint to see a group of matchstick figures moving slowly along a faint line leading towards the brown mountains in the distance.

We set out after them, heading towards the next campsite at Álftavatn which is about 12 kilometres away and at an altitude of 530m, which entails a difference in elevation of over 500m. After safely negotiating the snow field, the trail meanders over the rolling hills and snow-choked ravines below Reykjafjoll Mountain. Many of these have small rivers flowing through them. Deep deposits of snow line the chocolate-brown river banks like enormous layers of meringue, and we exercise great care when picking our way over numerous snow bridges.

A short, steep climb brings us to a plateau with extensive views over the terrain we have just traversed. The Icelandic Highlands almost defy description, and I’m drawn to the mottled, mazy patterns created by the partially melted snow on the deeply eroded interlocking spurs of the rhyolite mountains which range in colour from chalk-white and crème caramel, through umber to vermillion: a spectacular visual leitmotif framed by the blue sky dotted with flour-white clouds.

The route now undulates over numerous hills traversing geothermally altered terrain, and care has to be taken not to lose one’s footing on the steeper sections of the friable, gravelly ground. Yet more fumaroles are encountered, and a small amber-coloured stream which plunges down over a series of eye-catching waterfalls.

We are walking along the margin of the snow-covered glacier below Háskerðingur on Jökultungur Mountain when we first catch sight of the vast Álftavatn Valley below. A Tolkienesque scene now unfolds before us, a veritable vision of Middle Earth. The livid Mýrdalsjökull glacier gleaming in the glassy sunlight completely fills the horizon to the southeast. It hides an explosive secret: the fearsome active volcano, Katla. Almost straight ahead in the distance loom the smoky-blue slopes of Eyjafjallajökull, its lofty ice-crowned summit merging into pillow-soft cloud. This is one of the smaller Icelandic ice caps but one of the best-known, as it covers the caldera of the volcano which erupted violently in 2010, wreaking havoc on European air traffic. To the southwest is yet another glacial giant – Tindfjallajökull - a dormant stratovolcano. Eyjafjallajökull glowers over Lake Álftavatn, gleaming like a pewter bowl, with the much smaller Torfvatn Lake just visible behind. These are encircled by a horseshoe of pyramid-shaped volcanic formations - Stórasula, Hattafel, Illasula and Stóra-Grænafjall - which seem to be guarding them. Two rivers conveying glacial meltwater, the Grashagakvisl and the Bratthálskvisl, meander through the broad valley floor where everything is a thousand shades of glorious green and just screams life. A more unexpected contrast to the almost barren rhyolite landscape we have just traversed is hard to imagine.

The shadows of clouds trace kaleidoscopic patterns across this emerald paradise as we begin to descend a steep gravelly track that zig-zags its way down to the valley floor which is murder on the knees! The rapid descent catapults us into an entirely different environment, one where everything is carpeted with velvet moss and lush grasses on less demanding flat terrain. The route follows the riverbank of the Grashagakvisl, which we eventually have to cross. Luckily for us the water levels are low enough for us to hop across the tops of protruding boulders without getting our feet wet! Leaving the river we strike out across a flat gravelly plain towards the hut which is now visible near the lake. The camping ground is brutally exposed to any wind, and fifty campers had to be rescued here during a savage storm in July 2014.

As we approach the campsite I am elated to see the words ‘BAR’ painted onto the side of one of the wooden buildings. After checking in and paying the camping fee to the warden, we pitch our tent in a quiet grassy spot well away from other campers, then head to the bar to slake our thirst. Here we treat ourselves to a chilled Viking Classic each, but at an eyebrow-raising 1,200kr (about 10 euro) per can, we didn’t opt for a second round!! The bar serves food too, but with a bowl of soup costing 2,500kr and mains 3,500kr, we stick to our Expedition Foods freeze-dried macaroni cheese!

Álftavatn means ‘Whooper swan lake’, and although we do not spot any birds, there are other flying things here: thousands of midges. Although they are annoying, they do not bite. As sunset approaches, a wander towards the shore of the lake is rewarded by the sight of Illasula silhouetted like an ancient pyramid against the snows of Tindfjallajökull blushing rose-pink in the setting sun. The cloud stealthily encroaching across the sky from the west is set ablaze in shades of marigold-yellow, tangerine and vermillion before fading to chalky-mauve and slate-grey as we retire to the warmth of our tent.

Day Three: Sojourn in the Black Sand Desert

We open our tent flaps to be welcomed by an overcast morning with cloud rolling across the tops of the nearby mountains like a slow tsunami. Today’s route takes us to the next camping site at Emstrur some 15km away, but we must first cross the Bratthálskvisl River which is encountered about 20 minutes from the hut. When in spate this can be very fast flowing and deep, but today the bitterly cold water only reaches my mid-shins as I wade it in my plastic Crocs. My ice cold feet warm up quickly as the sun finally breaks through the cloud as we traverse the Brattháls Ridge on the way to the Hvanngil Ravine.

A steep descent brings us into this verdant valley which has a number of small wooden cabins built by shepherds who come here to gather their sheep each autumn, along with another trekkers’ hut. When it is too stormy to camp at Álftavatn, Hvanngil offers an alternative, more sheltered place to camp. We sit in a grassy alpine meadow near the hut admiring the surprising variety of flowers hereabouts, including electric-mauve patches of wild thyme. The hut abuts an old lava field and the trail passes by huge near-vertical slabs of cracked and buckled charred rock, frozen in their death throes.

We soon hear the roar of the Kaldaklofskvísl River, a seething, angry body of glacial meltwater which is crossed via a wooden bridge. Once across the bridge and near a board announcing our entry into the Katla Geopark, the trail splits in two. We follow the route marked Emstrur and Þórsmörk which runs almost parallel to the F261 highland road. Not long after, we encounter yet another river, the Blafjallakvisl, and this we have to wade. It’s at least 10 metres wide, deep, fast flowing, and ice-cold on account of it being meltwater from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. I roll my trousers up as far above my knees as possible and wade into the inky-blue water. A group of Americans are making a right meal of things, shrieking loudly and panicking as the water rises higher up their shins. The cold immediately hits me like a sledgehammer and bites into the very marrow of my bones, causing me to move as quickly as possible. Using my walking poles to maintain balance, within minutes I'm relieved to splosh out onto the opposite bank with slightly damp trousers where the water has risen above my knees.

They soon dry in the hot sunshine as we begin to walk across one of the most bizarre landscapes on Earth. The Blafjallakvisl River marks a sharp demarcation in the landscape. Gone are the verdure-covered hills; in their place, an enormous flat desert of pumice and black sand known as Mælifellssandur. Huge tongues of gleaming white ice spill down to the desert's edge from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap dominating the south-eastern horizon, and the faint scar of the trail snakes its way across the vast landscape towards a line of distant hills, where it is lost to sight in a shimmering heat haze.

Iceland has over 20,000 km2 of sandy deserts which are mostly situated 400–500 metres above sea level in the highland interior of the country. These have formed because the water precipitating as rain or snow infiltrates so quickly into the ground that most of it is unavailable for plant growth. I’m therefore surprised to see plants more readily associated with coastal areas - cushions of candy–pink sea thrift and clumps of shell-pink sea campion - trembling on their delicate stalks in the merest of breezes alongside the trail.

Although the terrain is flat, plodding along in the deep sand proves to be very tiring and rather monotonous, and each footfall throws up a tiny cloud of dust which begins to catch in the back of my throat. I’m mightily glad of the boiled lemon sweets I have packed which are the perfect antidote for a parched mouth! I can only imagine how brutal this exposed section of the trail would be with high winds lifting the abrasive volcanic sand, or in driving rain or sleet.

After several kilometres we arrive at the bridge over the Innri-Emstruá River, a rushing, roaring body of dirty grey-brown water careering down from the Slettjökull glacier, part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. The banks of the river are dotted with patches of cerise-pink fireweed, a welcome splash of colour amid the monochromatic monotony of the desert, and we stop here awhile to eat our lunch. 

The trail continues through yet more desert, passing between the neon-green moss-streaked peaks of Útigönguhöfðar and Storkonufell, after which it continues to undulate endlessly over the featureless landscape. At the top of each rise we hope to see the Emstrur campsite, which maddeningly seems to be getting no closer. Once across a river which requires no wading, large clumps of coarse grass begin to appear, and arriving on the flank of a hill named Botnar we finally spot the red roofs of the Emstrur huts.

Below us, tucked away in a ravine carved by a small stream, is a surreal fluorescent-green oasis overlooked by the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. A steep descent brings us to the door of the warden’s hut. Good, level pitches at this campsite are at a premium, so it is highly recommended that you leave Álftavatn early in order to be assured of a prime spot. We find a perfect site on the stream's bank at the very end of the camp.

As sunset draws near, long, lazy shafts of sunlight fall across the landscape making the impossibly green moss glow as if it is phosphorescing. We climb to a spot above the Markarfljotsgljufur Gorge to watch the setting sun turning the wispy clouds rose-pink above the snowy crests of Tindfjallajökull. Above the campsite we pause to view Mýrdalsjökull, now glowering in the shadows. It’s hard to believe that this seemingly innocuous ice cap harbours such a destructive force of nature. This campsite, according to strategically placed information boards, sits in the very line of fire of Katla, and the volcano’s present dormancy is among the longest in recorded history…

Day Four: Thor's Green and Pleasant Wonderland

Today we break camp early in order to comfortably cover the 16km to Þórsmörk in time to catch the Trex bus back to Hella at 6.00 pm. Above the campsite the trail traverses a gravelly plateau, before winding its way steeply down to the edge of a yawning canyon. This has been cut deeply into the basalt by the roaring Fremri-Emstruá River conveying meltwater from the Entujökull glacier on the westernmost margin of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap.

A footbridge spans this raging torrent at its narrowest point. The trail then traverses a sandy plain before climbing steeply to another plateau where a short detour brings us to a viewpoint over the junction of the Markarfljotsgljufur Gorge and that cut by the Fremri-Emstruá River.

The impressive 200m deep Markarfljótsgljúfur Gorge has been carved out of the basalt by the 100km long Markarfljót River, one of South Iceland’s largest watercourses. This mighty dirty-brown river which roars as loudly as a jet engine, rises in the mountains east of Hekla and is fed by meltwaters flowing off the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers. It has carried millions of tons of sand and sediment towards the coast, creating the Markarfljótsaurar outwash plain which we will see later in the day.

We traipse across more desolate fields of black sand left behind by retreating glaciers, then enter the hilly area of Almenningar, and all the while Eyjafjallajökull hovers menacingly on the horizon. The landscape, heavily scored by the action of flood waters, is spread before us in tsunamis of nickel-grey ash and valleys choked with gunmetal-hued lava spewed out in past volcanic eruptions. In its molten state it oozed like black treacle across the terrain and now lies ruched like silk crepe in all directions. To our west, the strangely shaped Einhyrningur (The Unicorn) rises like a giant, horned dinosaur.

Eventually, the first signs of habitation appear in the shape of the rust-red rooftops of isolated farmsteads, bit by bit the landscape begins to green again, and we’re soon walking past thickets of dwarf willow and sweet-smelling birch. By the time we cross the small bridge over the Ljosa River, a tributary of the Markarfljót, which has carved a narrow canyon through which its waters tumble downward in a froth of white falls, we are surrounded by head high birch trees alive with birdsong.

A steep climb up to the bare crest of Kápa is rewarded with fabulous views down onto the Markarfljót River flowing in a tangle of silver channels which wriggle like serpents through its gunmetal-grey outwash plain. Descending Kápa we catch sight of the Þröngá River, and judging by the number of people dithering in groups on its broad rocky shores, we sense that this river crossing will be the most challenging.

The chalky-grey river lets out a menacing, low, grating roar as invisible cobbles are turned in its bed. It’s the deepest and fastest flowing river we have encountered and is braided into three channels separated by banks of gravel and silt. I watch as a young man with an enormous pack almost topples over in the torrent, and another man lose a sandal which is ripped from his foot by the sheer force of the flow. The water will definitely be above my knees this time, so I remove my trousers and with my heart racing, wade through it in my knickers. The cold is intense, the water swirls alarmingly round my upper thighs and the current tugs strongly at my legs as I battle my way through the deepest middle channel, relying heavily on my walking poles to steady myself.

The Þröngá River marks the beginning of the Þórsmörk Forest, one of the few birch woodlands to have escaped the axes of the first Viking settlers who were responsible for deforesting huge swathes of the Icelandic landscape. A wide pathway gently leads uphill to an intersection with signs giving directions to different huts in Þórsmörk. We are headed for the Langidalur Hut on the bank of the Krossá River which is about 30 minutes away.

As we begin the steep descent over a series of wooden steps down to the hut, the red roofs of which are now visible above the river, it has completely clouded over and is threatening rain as forecasted. The wind has also picked up ahead of the approaching weather front, and I can see spindrift being whipped off the summit of Eyjafjallajökull. Þórsmörk is an unexpected oasis of vegetation siting in the shadow of this icy giant. I can clearly see the splintered noses of blue-white glaciers tumbling down the black cliffs opposite. Indeed, the valley was choked by the ice dislodged from those glaciers during the violent eruption of 2010.

I get a heady feeling as we descend into the green and pleasant bosom of the picturesque Langidalur Valley. Perhaps it’s due to the the sweet-smelling herbage, the majestic scenery, or the fact that we have successfully taken advantage of one of the only periods of settled weather during this truly awful summer to complete the trail. It’s raining slightly as we arrive at the hut in plenty of time to celebrate over a couple of very expensive cans of Gull lager. Very soon we see the Trex bus lumbering up the dirt road on the opposite side of the valley before churning its way slowly through the rushing grey waters of the Krossá River. In two hours’ time and 80 euro poorer, we will be back in Hella.

Had the weather not deteriorated, we’d have undertaken the 25km trail over the Fimmvörðuháls Pass south to Skógar, a natural extension to the Laugavegur. But as it passes between the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers, we decided it was not a sensible plan to sally forth on this high level route with a bad storm closing in. Later that month we learned that a honeymooning couple lost control of their vehicle in the wake of another storm while crossing the badly swollen Steinholtsá River just downstream from the Langidalur Hut. One of them was washed away in the torrent and tragically drowned. As with the untimely death of Ido Keinan on the Laugavegur, it’s another sad and sobering reminder of the savage and highly changeable nature of both the climate and the terrain across this increasingly popular remote volcanic highland wilderness, where absolutely nothing can be left to chance. 

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