So, for about 12 years or so, I've had this crazy idea to go to Iceland. At first, it was just so I could ski there and tell people I had done that. Then, I got into climbing and it evolved into that. I finally had the money and vacation time to take it in 2004 so the first thing I did was buy a plane ticket so I couldn't back out of it.
I spent a few months studying maps, reading books on Iceland (few and far between), surfing the net and even getting some info from a fellow SP member. From that info, I developed my plan and itinerary. I finally got on a plane from Portland July 17 with one stop in Minneapolis. Had a long layover there, so I had lunch with a friend from the area but then it was off (or rather up and over) to Iceland.
Unfortunately, the flight was filled with 3 different student groups who were not interested in any sleep so I arrived at 6 am the next morning at Keflavik very tired. The Keflavik Airport is pretty small compared to most but is very nice. Got my rental car and went to the parking lot and discovered the 4WD I rented was a small low-clearance Octavia station wagon with AWD. I went back into the airport and asked if that would get me through the 20 or so rivers I knew I needed to ford and the guy told me I was not even covered insurance-wise for the bottom of that vehicle. So, he located a Toyota RAV4 in Reykjavik for me and since I had to go there for supplies anyway, I figured it was no big deal.
I drove through the foggy, flat grassy countryside until I rolled into Reykjavik. The map makes it look pretty big but it is not and it's fairly easy to navigate around. Got my new vehicle from an incredibly beautiful girl behind the counter (oh yeah, the rumours are true about the beautiful women there) and I went into town to get fuel and food.
...............Unfortunately, it was Sunday and everything was closed until noon. Spent some time driving around the city and checking out the sights. When things finally did open, I found the mall with the outdoor store inside and got what I needed. And my first meal in Iceland was .......................McDonalds! :- )
My first destination was Hekla, Iceland's most active volcano. It's a bit southeast from Reykjavik and was a few hours along my counter clockwise route of the country I had planned. On the way there, I stopped at Gullfoss, an incredibly beautiful (and touristy) waterfall.
From there, it was small roads that were alternating pavement and dirt until I found my way to the real "road" to the trailhead. This road was basically soft lava but I had no problems and was surprised to find I could drive all the way to the trailhead as the map indicated I could not.
I had some food and waited for it to get dark to go to sleep.
Oh yeah, it DOESN'T get dark here this time of year. That photo above was about 9 pm. Which made it hard to sleep (or was it the fact I was sleeping on top of luggage in the back of a tiny SUV?).
But, morning came and I was off. The trail is easy to follow for the first half, being lined with matchstick-looking posts. When they end, the trailless scree climb begins. Higher up, I came to snow which was nice but it was a pretty easy hike to the triple summit. I hit all 3 just in case. There was an interesting red line of rocks along the summit ridge with sulphur gas rising from it. Keeping in mind that this mountain erupts every few years, I headed down. Icelandic peak #1 was bagged.
From there it was a wild drive to Landmannalaugur, a park more towards the interior. Many rivers were forded and I was happy the RAV4 made it through. The deepest one was about 2 to 3 feet deep coming right before I hit the campground. This area of Iceland is beautiful as it's a valley that gets enough moisture to support vegetation (most of the interior of Iceland is a High Desert) but it also has a lot of geothermal activity which colors the rocks various hues. Needless to say, it makes for an incredible palate of scenes.
I camped out there that night and woke up to drizzle the morning of my hike of Háalda. From the campsite, you climb up through a wall of lava to a plateau between lines of mountains. Hiking through the valley, you go through a beautiful meadow filled with flowers and streams as well as small bubbling hot springs.
The route traverses the meadow and up past a waterfall before beginning the climb up the slopes of Háalda. It was windy and very cold but a small bird kept me company by cheeping at me. I'd cheep back and he followed me. I'd find out later he was leading me away from his mate and young chick who could not yet fly. I totally fell for it. Good bird! Anyway, the views from the top were incredible.
On the hike back, I investigated some bubbling mud pots and steaming and spewing sulphur vents and hot springs. Icelandic peak #2 bagged. (see the Háalda page for more pics)
The drive out was uneventful and I found my way to the town of Vik on the south coast where I camped. The next day I spent sightseeing along the drive to Skaftafell Park which was situated next to the Vatnajokull, the largest glacial ice cap in Europe. It was also the home of Hvannadalshnukur, the highest peak in Iceland. I spent that day lining up my climb the next day with a guide. There is only one guide service in the park and I figured this was a heavily crevassed mountain and it was not a good idea to go solo here.
The "climb" ended up being me, the guide and 7 others on one 60 meter rope. It was a cramped drive in some old Volvo military 4WD vehicle to the trailhead and then we launched up onto a steep arm of land that jutted out between icefalls. The guide pushed us pretty hard as this was an all-day climb and we stopped to fill up with water in a stream at the base of a morraine. From there, we made our way in driving rain to the edge of the glacier and donned crampons. I think I was the only one in the group who had ever done so besides the guide, Einar.
Once on the ice, we followed Einar as we weaved all over around the crevasses. Most were small but some were huge. He was great at spotting them but as we climbed it grew colder, windier and clouds moved in lower. Somewhere near the top of the crater rim, where we would traverse left along it to the summit, he said he was worried about some of the others and hypothermia so we had to turn back. Almost immediately the sun came out but it never really cleared on the summit. Icelandic peak #3 not bagged.
On the way back down, I started talking to a young Swedish couple who I then spent the afternoon with at the campground. They made filafels and I provided some Snack Pack Pudding-in-a-tube! (Ah, how very American of me.)
Slept in the park that night again and the next day in rain, I drove to Jokulsarlon, an amazing iceberg-filled lake on the other side of the Vatnajokull.
I settled on Klifatindur and did some recon driving around. Parked the car at the pass and headed up in fog while a few tourists watched me disappear into the muck above them. I had intended on going up the great looking ridgline but soon discovered that would have been a technical climb. Since I was solo, I headed for a notch in the ridge to the right and across a nightmare of a steep, loose screefield. Up on the ridge, I tried to go along the left side but soon got myself cornered and scared. Doing some light-stepping and retreating, I got back onto the notch and discovered a nice third class option on the ocean side. I was soon on the summit with Icelandic peak #4 bagged. Drove in the morning along the road suggested to me by the local. Forded two rivers (on one I ran into a Czech bicyclist who walked it ahead of me to show me how deep it was--thanks, Dude) and crossed two gated bridges until I was flagged down by another cyclist. It was a French guy who was out of water. Definitely NOT the place to be without water. I filled up his bottle with some water I had and we chatted for a while. It's not that exciting a chat when he barely spoke English and I barely spoke French. Anyway, I made Herdubreidalindur, the campsite by about 3 pm that day. Made the summit and decended down by about 10 pm. Icelandic peak #5 bagged. Now, I had to hike all the way back. After this, I wanted to play tourist for a while so I drove north to the northern coast and went to Asbyrgi, a unique horseshoe-shaped cliff area with one of the few true forests left in Iceland within in. I hiked in there to a small lake within and then headed around the northern coast to the town of Husavik, one of Europe's best whale-watching centers. I enjoyed great food in Akureyri but all the hot spots eluded me. And while the people there are some of the most attractive I've seen, and very polite, they are somewhat closed off to outsiders which makes one feel like you are not "in the club" there. You are very welcome there but it definitely does not feel like home. (just an observance, not a generalization)
The next morning, in fog, I planned on scaling one of the cliffy, pointed peaks on the nearby coast that looked so amazing in the guide book.
The next day was spent driving around the east fjords of Iceland. I abandoned the idea of climbing Snaefell in hopes I could make my way back for another attempt at Hvannadalshnukur at the end of my two weeks there. I drove through the night over stormy high hills back into the interior from the northeast listening to the one good radio station I ever found in Iceland. Most of it is one song followed by 20 minutes of Icelandic talk. Ve-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ry draining. Camped that night on Lake Myvatn and got recon from a local on my next desired peak, Herðubreið.
The gorgeous female ranger who I talked to suggested I start climbing immediately as the weather had just cleared and it would be light all night. (Hey, maybe this midnight sun stuff wasn't so bad?) Her being so attractive probably made me say "sure" to her idea to go but in retrospect, I should have camped and gone the next day.
Anyway, I geared up and headed out. She told me the hike around to the other side, the only breach in the vertical cliffs to the summit, was two hours through the lava bed. Turned out to be 3 with no rests. Damn, I must be a wimp or something. Then again, she also told me the climb was like 3 hours and it turned out to be maybe an hour. (OK, feeling good about myself again) What I hadn't noticed was that a sandstorm was blowing in below me. I thought it was fog until it finally hit me.
About midnight, with the sandstorm lowering visibility and clouds also having rolled in, it was now too dark to see the trail. I was back in the lava bed and could not get up high enough either to see anything. So, I put on all the clothes and jackets I had and curled up on a rock to sleep until dawn. A few hours later (and after actually getting a bit of sleep), I was able to see the trail again and got back to camp at 5 am.
I went to the ranger hut to check back in and make sure they weren't worried or anything. Um, they weren't. They were asleep with a note on their door that said, "Dear American, Let us know when you get back. -Ranger" Swell. Needless to say, hot girl or not, I banged on the door, woke their asses up and then went to my tent and slept.
The next day I was going to go to Oskuvatn, a lake within a crater that formed like Crater Lake in Oregon. Drove there to that campsite amid the resurgent sandstorm and spent the day in the car avoiding the sand. The tent I brought was a North Face Canyonlands and was not sealed from the outside. It's more like a mesh teepee with a fly. When I woke up the next morning, my eyes had been sealed shut by the sand mixing with the moisture in the corners of my eyes. I had to literally separate my upper and lower eyelids with my fingers.
The hike was cold and windy but mostly flat. I was the only one hiking that day. The lake is amazing and Viti, the small side crater filled with hot sulphur water lets you know this area is still very active.
Toured the local Whale Center, very worthwhile stop. Camped there and the next morning went out whale-watching where we saw several Minke Whales that day. On the way back in, they took us by Puffin Island where approximately 100,000 puffins nested. There were some people hunting them with nets as well.
That afternoon, I made my way to Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland at 15,000, nestled in a bay on the far north side of Iceland. They actually enjoy the best weather in Iceland up there. My objective was Sulur, the backdrop mountain of the city, but in checking the map, it seemed I might be able to bag a few peaks along the ridge Sulur is on.
I enjoyed a great hotel room there and was able to scrub the sand from my body finally. I also had a tv in this hotel room and I settled in for a long gorging of the BBC that night. The next morning I was off to Sulur. It's an easy hike but once you are up on the ridge, it can be windy. The scramble along the ridge is fun but I was the only one who went past Sulur. Seems most of the locals stop there. I made it all the way down the ridge to Priklakkar which made the hike. A fun third class scramble up a fun pinnacle with excellent views. Icelandic peaks #6, 7 and 8 bagged.
From Akureyri, I drove to the west fjords in hopes of bagging JokulÞufur, the volcano that was the entrance to the center of the Earth in Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." Unfortunately for me, the wind was extremely hard and clouds blanketed the peak. The wind was blowing waterfalls back up and when I drove over the pass of this peak, I would put the car in neutral and be pushed along by it. Nope, there would be no climbing this glaciated and crevassed peak today.
I made my way over the pass to the north side of the peninsula and slept in my car at a campground. There were three hitchhikers sleeping in the utility room of the bathroom there who I was sure were going to ask me for a ride so I slept light and was out of there pre-dawn (or, well, pre-normal daylight). I drove to a small town that had a wishing hill called Helgafell. Legend was that if you climb it looking east and not looking back and then make a wish, it would come true. Oh well, it was a way to kill a morning. After this, it was back to Reykjavik a day early. I had decided against trying Hvannadalshnukur again as when I called the guides there, they described the weather as "shit."
Being back in Reykjavik a day early allowed me to check out Þingvellir, a great park bordered by a lake and 3 mountains a short distance from the city. It's a popular tourist destination dotted with Icelanders' weekend homes. It's beautiful though and is where fault lines along the separation of the North American and European continental plates can be seen and hiked in. After that, it was camping in Reykjavik and the airport the next morning. I loved Iceland and want to go back (with a group to bag the glaciated peaks) but two weeks away was long enough.
I settled on Klifatindur and did some recon driving around. Parked the car at the pass and headed up in fog while a few tourists watched me disappear into the muck above them. I had intended on going up the great looking ridgline but soon discovered that would have been a technical climb. Since I was solo, I headed for a notch in the ridge to the right and across a nightmare of a steep, loose screefield. Up on the ridge, I tried to go along the left side but soon got myself cornered and scared. Doing some light-stepping and retreating, I got back onto the notch and discovered a nice third class option on the ocean side. I was soon on the summit with Icelandic peak #4 bagged.
Drove in the morning along the road suggested to me by the local. Forded two rivers (on one I ran into a Czech bicyclist who walked it ahead of me to show me how deep it was--thanks, Dude) and crossed two gated bridges until I was flagged down by another cyclist. It was a French guy who was out of water. Definitely NOT the place to be without water. I filled up his bottle with some water I had and we chatted for a while. It's not that exciting a chat when he barely spoke English and I barely spoke French. Anyway, I made Herdubreidalindur, the campsite by about 3 pm that day.
Made the summit and decended down by about 10 pm. Icelandic peak #5 bagged. Now, I had to hike all the way back.
After this, I wanted to play tourist for a while so I drove north to the northern coast and went to Asbyrgi, a unique horseshoe-shaped cliff area with one of the few true forests left in Iceland within in.
I hiked in there to a small lake within and then headed around the northern coast to the town of Husavik, one of Europe's best whale-watching centers.
I enjoyed great food in Akureyri but all the hot spots eluded me. And while the people there are some of the most attractive I've seen, and very polite, they are somewhat closed off to outsiders which makes one feel like you are not "in the club" there. You are very welcome there but it definitely does not feel like home. (just an observance, not a generalization)