Herðubreið (pronounced like HAIR-the-breth with the th's being a hard sound as in "father") is the sixth tallest peak in Iceland at 5518 feet. It is also known as the "Queen of Icelandic Mountains" and it looks crownlike in formation. A circular table-mountain, or tuya, it rises over 3500 feet above the surrounding area with steep sides of scree topped with vertical cliffs near the edge of the "table". Up top is a fairly flat lava flow with a small 600 foot high cone around its crater. Table-mountains are formed by a sub-glacial eruption in the ice cap.
This unique formation dominates the landscape which is comprised mostly of lava flows and high desert (yes, there is desert in Iceland!). Located just north of Vatnajökull in the interior of Iceland, Herðubreið lies in that glacier's rain shadow yet there is a small oasis of vegetation and hot springs on the banks of two nearby rivers. This area, called Herðubreiðarlindir, along with this magnificent peak were the reason this area was declared protected in 1974. There is a hut and camping in this area with a few trails.
Herðubreið is bounded on the west by the Odaðahraun, the Desert of Misdeeds, where outlaws were once banished. This is the largest lava flow in the world at over 5000 square kilometers. On the east lies the Jökulsa a Fjöllum, one of the major rivers in Iceland which flows north through this area in a torrent that looks like chocolate milk. To the south is Askja (see the section below on Other Area Attractions) and to the north is a lot of barren lava-filled sandy nothingness that you must drive through in order to get to this place. You must have a four-wheel drive vehicle with decent clearance to access this area as you ford several rivers and traverse craggy lava fields to get here.
For centuries, Herðubreið was believed to be impossible to climb. The first attempt was in 1872 by an Englishman named Richard F. Burton. It was not until 1908 that is was successfully scaled by German geologist Hans Reck and Icelander Sigurður Sumarliðason. There is only one route to the summit, through the one break in the cliffs on the west side of the mountain. You can get to the base of the climb either by a rugged four wheel drive road or by a long trail from the campground in Herðubreiðarlindir. The climb itself is not technical but it is very steep and loose scree for the first half followed by a thin layer of scree over hard rock followed by a trek through lava to a short third class scramble to the summit. The uniqueness of this peak make it worth the "two steps up-one slide back" character of the climb though and views up top are excellent.
Getting ThereGetting to Iceland is up to you individually although I can tell you that Icelandair flies to Reykjavik from 5 US cities: Minneapolis, New York, Boston, Baltimore and Orlando as well as most major European cities. All international flights fly into Keflavik Airport about 40 kms. west of Reykjavik. From there you can rent a car from Budget, Avis, and the largest car rental place there is Hertz. I would advise booking a car/truck early and don't be surprised by the ridiculous price you are charged. I found car rental in Iceland to be about 4 to 5 times what it would be in the US.
From Keflavik, you probably will need to head to Reykjavik for supplies. Take Road 41 from the airport about 40 km east into Reykjavik until the road turns into Reykjanesbraut. You will trend north now and the road will become Fyarðarhraun. Take a right onto Rafnarfjarðarvegur and follow north until the road changes names again to Kringlumyrarbruat. Go north still approximately 6 streets and turn right onto Listabraut. Take your first left and then pull in right into the parking deck. This is the Kringlan Mall and go in and go to the Utivist store located on the bottom floor. It's a general sports store but it has the best selection I found with fuel, dehydrated food, etc.
Once you get your supplies, head out the parking deck and turn right (north) and exit out onto the large east/west road on the north side of the mall called Miklabraut. Take the road east and follow signs for Highway 1 (also known as the Ring Road). You will take Highway 1 north and east for a loooooooooong time so get comfortable. Hope you bought some CD's back at the mall because Icelandic radio sucks, .......... even when you are able to pick up a station.
Just north of Reykjavik, you will go under the ocean in a tunnel under a fjord. This will cost you 1000 kronur so be prepared. You will continue on Highway 1 for 484 kilometers to Raykjahlið on the shores of Myvatn. From here you have two options:
It appears most vehicles in to this area take Road F88 south directly to Herðubreið. I was advised against this in my rental Toyota RAV4 as the fords are supposed to be deeper than Option 2. But, and I can not confirm this, it appears small SUV's similar to the one I had were able to make it through. Again, I make no confirmation of this. If you want to take this way in as it appears to be a bit shorter and more direct, from Reykjahlið take Highway 1 for 33 kilometers east to F88. Take F88 for 59 kilometers south to Herðubreiðarlindir. This route crosses two lava fields and fords three rivers so be prepared.
This route was recommended to me as I had a small SUV and supposedly the fords and lava fields are not as rough. I can say that I made it successfully in and out of this area although it's slow going and one river I forded was deep enough for the water to completely submerge the tires on the RAV4.
From the junction of Highway 1 and F88, continue east on Highway 1 for 30 kilometers to Road 901. Turn right onto 901 and go south 11 kilometers to F905. Turn right onto F905 and go 21 kilometers to a junction where F905 ends at Road F910. Take the right fork of F910 east about 30 kilometers. Along this stretch you will cross a bridge (don't freak out because it's gated, just undo the latch and make sure you gate it shut behind you), ford the two rivers and cross two lava fields. After about 30 kms., you will take the right fork staying on F910. This stretch will get you across another lava field and another bridge (this one is ungated). Continue on about 12 kilometers to a "T" intersection where you will turn right, thus getting on to F88. Go north 20 kms. to Herðubreiðarlindir. (Note-if you are going to take the 4WD road to the base of the climb, you would only go on F88 about 7 kilometers and take a left at the sign for Herðubreið. See the route page for more details.)
Note-It is possible to access this area from the south via some heavy duty 4WD roads that only your typical monster truck can get you through. In Iceland, there are tons of huge SUV's that they jack up about a foot and put 35 inch tires on to get through areas like this. Assuming no one using this page for information is going to attempt those routes, I will not include any information about them. If you want to try this way, my only advise would be to get a map from the Hints section below and take your chances.
Red TapeNo fees or permits are required but you are supposed to check in with the rangers (called "wardens") at Herðubreiðarlindir. They will give route info and want to keep an eye out for climbers to make sure you return safely so please do so. Also, let them know when you safely return.
When To ClimbJuly and August
Outside of this time, rivers in to the area may be impassable and the climbing route may be icy.
Camping is available only at Herðubreiðarlindir. There is no need to make reservations. Facilities include restrooms and water/sinks with showers (donation required to use). There is also a lodge with limited beds.
Mountain ConditionsRealistically, the only people who can give information on weather and roads are the wardens at Herðubreiðarlindir but there is no phone to them. You take your chances on this one.
Some information may be gathered though from the following:
Iceland's Nature Conservation Agency, the governing body over this area.
The Akureyri Touring Club, which does tours into this area.
Another organized tour company
Link for weather in Iceland
Please note this area is plagued by high winds and sandstorms. If it gets really bad, be prepared to hunker down for a while. I can attest to what was probably a lighter sandstorm but it made camping and climbing very "interesting" and on the drive out, visibility was reduced to zero a few times. Extra water and/or gasoline might be advisable.
SafetyNot considering myself to be too timid or cautious, I would definitely like to advise taking a helmet on this climb. I did not and was kicking myself most of the climb. Three-fourths of this climb is on loose volcanic scree and small rocks up one narrow break in the steep cliffs of the mountain. There are signs at the base of the climb warning of falling rock and the wardens at Herðubreiðarlindir caution you about it as well. At one point, it comes together in an hourglass section and above this the route is loose fist-sized rocks maybe a few inches deep over a hard layer formulating it into the right conditions for TONS of rockfall. I was lucky that I was alone on the mountain when I was there. On my descent, I would estimate that I dislodged at least 100 fist-sized rocks onto the route below. It is just unavoidable. Most of them funnel onto a snowfield just south of the main route but lots went right down the climbing route. Luckily no one was below me but as I said, it's just unavoidable on this climb. Keep in mind that during July and August, there is NO night in this part of the world so climbers can go up 24 hours a day and there is no safe time on this one.
Just my 2 cents, but be safe. If I were to do this one again, I would definitely wear a brain bucket.
Other Area AttractionsAskja is an amazing place just southwest of Herðubreið about 30 kilometers or so. It is a caldera formed in the same manner as Crater Lake. On the side of Askja is a smaller crater named Viti (meaning "Hell") created by an eruption in 1875 with sulphur vents heating it which some use to bathe in. There is a campsite with facilities just east of there at Dreki and there is a trail across some mountains between Dreki and Askja. The lake inside the caldera is called Öskjuvatn.
So, you wanna SKI Herðubreið?
Helpful Hints About IcelandIf you are considering going to Iceland, here are some suggestions:
Obtain maps online at this website. These maps show every gas station, campsite, mileage, topo lines, grocery store, etc. and were my lifeline while in Iceland.
The Icelandic language has a few extra letters in their alphabet that we don't have in English.
Þ represents "th" as in "thought"
Ð and its lower case ð represent "th" as in "that"
Ö represents "i" like in "first"
Æ represents "i" like in "fight"
There are also many rules about what sounds like what after or before other letters but the above will be enough to get you through this little mountain page.
Rent a car that is at least like a Toyota RAV 4 to get you around. If you are climbing in Iceland to get to many places, you will have to ford rivers and anything less than a RAV 4 will be useless. FYI, these currently are running about $1200 per week.