The night before starting our multi-day, thirty-six-mile hike from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk on the famed Laugavegur Trail, Lisa was monitoring the latest trail reports and hearing of bad conditions and troublesome snow. The winter’s heavier than usual snowpack was still deep in some areas, and the roads had just opened up a few days prior. All of this had us worried – Laugavegur was our most anticipated hike on the island. We were committed to the hike, and so we found ourselves tucked in our sleeping bags in the luxurious Reykjavik Campgrounds, where we should have been quite comfortable. Only we weren’t. We needed sleep, but we (and our stress) were wedged in our tiny tent, curled in the fetal position, along with every single thing we had brought to Iceland: two large backpacks, three weeks of luggage, and four days of food for the trail. It was cramped. Eventually, tempers flared.
We argued about anything, and seemingly everything. The argument was really about stress and apprehension, and the longer it lasted, the more ridiculous we became. Having explored every slight committed since the day we returned from our honeymoon, we devolved into a litany of absurd name-calling. And once you start throwing around Hitler and Pol Pot, there’s really nowhere else to go. So we lay in angry silence, staring bleary-eyed at the nylon ceiling of the tent. It was 2:00am, and the sun, which hadn’t really gone down, was on its way back up. Even the slumber-inducing comfort of darkness was beyond our reach. Sleep came way too late, the alarm way too early. Fortunately, a heady mix of excitement and trepidation conspired to adjust our attitudes during the few hours we did sleep. We awoke groggy, but in better spirits. Maybe we were just happy to be getting out of the tent.
After stashing all of our excess gear and clothing in camp lockers, we boarded the 7:30am shuttle to BSI terminal. Here, we transferred to a Reykjavik Excursions Bus that would take us to Landmannalauger, three hours away. The bus, a sort-of motor-coach/monster-truck hybrid, whizzed down rocky, dirt roads and forded rivers, easily navigating every obstacle. More than once I cracked my head against the window as we bounced down the rutted roads. The farther we traveled inland, the the terrain began to resemble a lunar landscape more than a terrestrial island. We passed close to Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Almost before expected, we arrived.
Landmannalauger is a small encampment located in the Fjallabak Nature Preserve and is the northern terminus of the Laugavegur trail. There is a small shop, accommodations for about 75 people and natural hot springs. Also, midges. Lots and lots of midges.
Once off the bus, we took some time to re-organize our packs. Not wanting to miss a shot on this once-in-a-lifetime trek, I was carrying my phone (iPhone 5s), a 2½ lb digital SLR, and a GoPro Hero 4 with accessories and four batteries. I wanted this all to be readily accessible, but also neatly stowed. It took some doing. Satisfied, we struck out for Hrafntinnusker, our day-one destination. Between us and a good night’s sleep lay the Kaldaklofsfjöll mountain range and the Laugahraun lava field. We began to climb through the lava and into a rhyolite wonderland.
Rhyolite is a silica-rich volcanic rock, usually composed of quartz, sanidine, and blah, blah, blah … unless you’re a geologist, rhyolite’s most interesting quality is that it comes in a variety of colors that one might not expect to see on the average mountainside. Like orange. Or mauve. The terrain of Kaldaklofsfjöll looked as though a fifth-grader mashed several colors of Play-Doh together to make a last-minute diorama for science class. If the average American student were to turn in a perfect replica of Iceland’s rhyolite mountains, I’m guessing it would fail. Mountains simply don’t look like this. We spent the first couple of hours with our mouths open like Icelandic codfish.
The colors were spectacular. Purple, pink, and yellow swirled with the green of grass, and the usual brown, black, and tan of earth and rock. One less vibrant color that was also abundantly present was white. I am, of course, talking about snow, or “snjór” in Icelandic. It could also be “mjöll”. Or “hjarn”. Or any one of the 43 other words Icelanders have for the white stuff. Our favorite was a toss-up between “krap” (a slushy snow) and “fukt,” which is the way we felt while struggling upward through knee-deep krap halfway up the side of an Icelandic mountain. We only had 7.4 miles to do that day, but those miles came with 1600 feet of elevation, a lot of snow, and mountain temperatures near freezing. We had unwittingly come to the land of fire and ice to help celebrate their coldest summer in 35 years.
We hiked through colorful mountain passes and valleys covered in thick green moss. Everywhere the ground vented steam like an earthen locomotive. Scalding hot water roiled from crevices, melting the snowpack and tumbling through the landscape in a steaming ribbon. Sweeping vistas of snow-capped mountain ranges were framed by cloud-dappled sky. One minute we were strolling along hard-packed bare earth, only to find ourselves struggling up an incline through 16 inches of wet snow (krap) five minutes later. Next: uneven lava rock. The extra work resulted in leg cramps that relented on the downhill, but ferociously returned as I started up every slope. I hardly noticed though, too distracted by a landscape unlike any I had previously beheld. In Graenagil gorge, the hot spring Stórihver lay nestled in a small hollow. The superheated water gurgled out of the ground with such vigor that we had to maintain a respectful distance to avoid getting poached. Clouds of acrid steam enveloped us; Iceland’s geothermal springs have a high sulfur content, so the whole area smelled like an abandoned egg factory. The steam was warm though. That was something.
From that point on, our journey was more on snow than off. After navigating a large hill by way of six or seven heavily trodden switchbacks, we gained a high mountain plateau that would carry us the rest of the way to Hrafntinnusker, where warmth and rest awaited. It was good to be done with climbing, but the plateau was cold. A storm seemed to be brewing to the east, and a light wind was cutting through our clothing. We were getting tired. If we had known how close we were to the Hrafntinnusker hut, we would have pushed on; instead, we took a break. Hmm … where to sit? Our choices were snow, other snow, different snow, or jagged obsidian. We chose the rock. After ten blissful minutes and a Kind Bar, we heaved ourselves up and pressed on. Our bodies felt better for sitting; our butts were happy to be off the rock. Soon the plateau began to fall away and there, half buried in the mountain drifts, its red roof in vibrant contrast with the snow, was salvation – the Hrafntinnusker hut.
We entered the hut through the “boot room”. All four walls of the tiny area were lined with shelves and hooks, which were full to bursting with gear. There appeared to be fifty or sixty pairs of wet boots; thing is, the hut only held 36 people. All manner of trekking poles, backpacks, gloves and jackets hung, slapdash, from hooks and rods at every conceivable angle. The warmth pulled us inside, where the delightful chaos of the boot room was mirrored everywhere. Pots and pans were piled haphazardly on shelves and a white cabinet held dishes. At any given time, 10 or 15 people might be vying for a burner in the pint-sized kitchen, but everyone was polite and in good spirits.
By the time Lisa and I arrived, the bunk room was almost full. There was an upper level with mattresses on the floor, but we managed to snag the last two downstairs beds – top bunks across the room from each other. We didn’t mind; unlike the handful of tent campers (who foolishly didn’t reserve space in the hut), we were going to sleep warm and dry. Our bunks were six feet off the ground and the window next to mine was all but obscured by snowdrifts. Four inches of afternoon sun slipped between sash and drift. The double-hung window at the back of the room was completely below grade. We pulled out our sleeping bags – there were no bedclothes, only vinyl mattresses – and made up our bunks. Then we set about dinner.
While our freeze-dried meals steeped, we sat on wooden benches at the long communal table, which filled most of the area between the bunks. Everyone laughed and told stories, learning and quickly forgetting each other’s names and nationalities. Although we were the only Americans in the room, most everyone had some English. Tales from the trail were understood by all, but the many side conversations turned the room into a veritable Tower of Babel. There’s an unfortunate downside to being a native Anglophone – everyone could understand everything we said, but we could not eavesdrop on their private conversations. I wonder what they were saying about us? Regardless, we had a good time chatting, and spent much of the evening with a German couple who were on their last day. They were hiking north from Þórsmörk (our final destination) and gave us intel on the river crossing we would face on our last day. One by one, everyone said their goodnights and drifted off to their respective bunks. I climbed into my top bunk while one of the German ladies climbed into the one below. A moment later, I dropped my phone between bed and wall where it clattered down, ricocheting off bed rails before landing in my new friend’s lap. With a good-natured grin, she passed the phone up, and I sheepishly resolved to be more careful with my things.
Note: The huts along the Laugavegur Trail are small cabins containing a kitchen, bathroom facilities, and bunks. They vary widely in their comfort. Where this particular hut fell short was in the privy. Hrafntinnusker is the only hut in which we stayed that had a pit (rather than a flush) toilet. Considering the way it smelled, the fact that it was unheated and separated from the sleeping quarters was the best of all possible situations. If you are planning on hiking the Laugavegur, be sure to make reservations well in advance if you want to stay in a hut. While you may tent camp outside the huts, disbursed camping is not permitted on the Laugavegur Trail.
We slept well. The bunks were comfortable, and we were tired enough that the whispered conversations, intermittent snoring, and restless thrashing of 16 other occupants bothered us exactly none. We woke early and, after a quick, yet appallingly odoriferous trip to the loo, stepped out into the crisp Icelandic morning. I mixed a packet of instant coffee into my water bottle, and we were off. ♦
Next: Swanless Lake …