First published by The Expeditioner, March 2016
It was a bleak afternoon in July as we sped out of Reykjavik, our destination a wilderness area in South Iceland called Thorsmörk, or “Thunder God’s Forest.” Rain pelted the bus’s windows, further obscuring our view of the fog-shrouded countryside. The yellow headlights of oncoming traffic whizzed by in a blur.
Sweating under too many layers of clothing, I struggled out of my jacket and loosened my boots. We had planned to hike to Thorsmörk on the popular 16-mile trail from Skógar, a sleepy hamlet known for its 200-foot-high waterfall. But weather conditions were too dangerous to risk the two-day trek through the mountains, and we’d rerouted directly to Thorsmörk by bus. I was disappointed and overdressed, but determined to salvage our trip.
I wanted to climb to Fimmvörðuháls, a desolate mountain pass wedged between two glaciers at the highest point on the Skógar-Thorsmörk route. One of these glaciers, the notorious Eyjafjallajökull, was the site of the 2010 volcanic eruption that disrupted European air travel for over a week with its six-mile-high ash cloud. Now, in addition to glaciers, snowfields and expansive views, Fimmvörðuháls boasts fresh craters and lava flows formed by the volcano’s blast.
While its geological features intrigued me, I came to hike the “five cairns pass” mainly for personal reasons. I wanted to make good on a failed solo attempt at this peak some 13 years earlier when my backpack rolled off a cliff and into a river gorge in a self-timed photography-related accident. Conquering this unattained goal from my past was a matter of both closure and pride.
This time, I had recruited a hiking buddy. I turned to look at the man sitting next to me, who was carefully studying a map: an athletic retiree with a bald, sun-burnt head, closely clipped beard and bright blue eyes behind smudged glasses. He was my father and the person from whom I inherited my love of the outdoors.
“Once the weather clears we can still hike to Fimmvörðuháls,” I said, tracing the route on his map. “Just in the opposite direction.”
“I don’t know,” he said, glancing at the eerie gray void outside. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
As we would experience on more than one occasion, travel in Iceland — a land where Mother Nature reigns supreme — requires flexibility, a sense of humor and the patience at times to simply wait and see.
The bus forged ahead on Iceland’s main highway, the “Ring Road,” then headed inland on a rough mountain track. At last the rain slowed to a drizzle and the atmosphere cleared enough to reveal the volcanic terrain through which we were traveling. Rising steeply into the clouds were mountainsides blackened with ash and blanketed in chartreuse green moss that nearly glowed. Monstrous faces leered from contorted rock formations while waterfalls spilled earthward, frothing and misting through the air.
We entered a rocky flood plain traversed by tributaries of the Krossá River, and it was soon time to put the specially equipped four-wheel-drive bus to the test. Shifting gears, our driver plunged into the churning, glacier-fed water and the bus began to rock and lurch. Stones and gravel kicked up by its huge tires cracked sharply against the bus’s undercarriage as we ground through the riverbed.
Several crossings later, we arrived at a grassy field framed by rows of rustic, wooden cabins and dotted with colorful tents. Another river, the Markarfljót, ran alongside the encampment and mountains loomed above it. These were the Volcano Huts, the swankiest accommodations available in Thorsmörk, and our home for the next three nights.
After checking in, we chose our bunks in a dormitory-style cabin hidden in a thicket of birch trees. It was basic but cozy, all honey-hued pine wood inside. Mud-encrusted boots and packs lay in a pile by the door and damp socks and undergarments hung from a clothesline strung across one of the lower bunks. We retreated to the lodge for a beer before calling it a night.
We awoke the next morning to more rain, so Fimmvörðuháls had to wait another day. Anna, the helpful young woman at the front desk, recommended an easy, 10-mile loop through some of the prettiest parts of Thorsmörk. It would be a good warm-up for the more technically challenging and physically grueling Fimmvörðuháls hike.
The first half of the hike was as lovely as described. From the Volcano Huts, the trail meandered through the lush meadows and woodlands of the Húsadalur and Langidalur valleys where tiny brooks burbled in and out of moss-spongy ground and wildflowers added splashes of pink and yellow to an otherwise green landscape.
After a short stretch along the banks of the Krossá, we ascended gradually above the tree-line into the northern slopes of the Tindfjöll mountains, hiking through an area of steep canyons and towering rock formations. Here we stopped for lunch in a cave known as the “Tröllakirkja” or “Troll’s Church,” a perfect place to shelter from the rain.
The second half of the hike, however, was a different story. Soon after lunch we came to Tindfjallaslétta, a barren plateau from which the trail descended into a forested ravine sloping steeply into the river. Chatting and admiring the scenery along the way, we didn’t realize we had lost the path until we found ourselves suddenly imprisoned in a dense birch forest.
“Dad, where are you?” I yelled, searching for my father through the trees.
We’d been bushwhacking aimlessly for a good half-hour, and I was getting a bit worried. I could hear my father crunching around in the undergrowth somewhere below me. His rain parka flashed red in the distance and I hurried toward it.
“I think we should go back to Tindfjallaslétta,” I said as I caught up to him.
“We’ve gone too far,” he replied. “Look, the trail’s supposed to follow along the river, so let’s go down and find it.” He showed me the map, now soggy from the heavy mist that had been falling all day.
We continued slowly down the hill, struggling through the leafy, wet birches. These were miniature trees, dwarfed by the harsh environment in which they grew, but cute and sweet they were not. The little devils possessed a feistiness that made up for their short stature, grabbing and smacking me with their gnarled and twisted branches. Yet I admired their spirit. Like the people of this country, they had learned to adapt and thrive under less than hospitable conditions.
At last we made it to the river, but the forest was even thicker here, growing right up to the water’s edge, and with no trail in sight. As there are few trees in Iceland and the majority of those that do exist are small, Icelanders joke that if you get lost in an Icelandic forest, you should just stand up. This advice proving useless, we had to find another way out.
Thinking we might be able to scope out the trail from a higher vantage point, we slogged back up the ravine. At the top, the trees thinned out and the slope steepened considerably, giving rise to a bizarre troll-kingdom of craggy rock pillars and gaping caves. The Krossá snaked silvery-gray through the floodplain below, and the glacier tongues of the Mýrdalsjökull lapped down from the mountains opposite us.
The view was spectacular, but did not shed any light on our predicament. My father remained certain we would eventually find a path along the river. With the map disintegrating in his hands and raindrops sliding off his nose, he suggested we hike down once again toward a section of the river that looked promising.
I was cold, wet and tired, but had to laugh at the ridiculousness of our situation. Of all the perils I had imagined we might encounter on this trip, birch trees had not been one of them. But that was Iceland: a place where unpredictability seemed to be the only constant.
Eventually we found our way back, stumbling, exhausted, into our cabin around dinnertime. There we met four young Icelandic women who were preparing to grill a huge leg of lamb. The “Valkyrie,” as we called them, were sturdily-built in their thick wool sweaters and leggings, and exuded the good health and vitality of Iceland itself. They had just completed the popular 34-mile Laugavegur trail, which connects Thorsmörk with the Landmannalaugar nature reserve to the north. But unlike most people who take four or five days to hike the trail, they had done it in just twenty-four hours. We sheepishly told them about our day and slunk off to make freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini in the cabin’s small kitchen.
The skies cleared and the sun emerged on the morning of our last day in Thorsmörk; the time for Fimmvörðuháls had come. Before setting off, we checked in at the front desk with Anna who gave us a new map and some unfortunate news. The pedestrian bridge we needed to cross to get to Básar, the starting point for the hike, had washed away overnight. We had to wait for the next bus, which would get us there around 1:30. Not the early start we had planned, but with Iceland’s long summer days I figured we still had plenty of time.
“We’ll see,” my father said.
It was overcast by the time we began hiking later that afternoon. After a short but steep climb through the woods, we were soon surrounded by the volcanic peaks and folds of the mountains, a fairy world of green and black. As we gained elevation, verdant meadows gave way to gravel and stones. Trees, bushes and all but the hardiest wildflowers vanished, and patches of slowly melting snow appeared on the landscape.
It was a difficult climb due to the steep terrain and vertigo-inducing traverses, including a precipitous ridge known as the “Cat’s Spine.” I was glad to reach flat ground at the wide and windswept Morinsheiði plateau, which led us to the final phase of the hike and its gateway, Heljarkambur.
“Hell’s Crest” was a narrow, 160-foot-long, knife-edge ridge straddling the deep, black chasm between the Morinsheiði plateau and the next set of mountains. I watched as hikers slowly made their way across the ridge, careful not to slip on the loose, black gravel. Others huddled together on either side of the gaping crevasse, contemplating the journey across.
There was now a sharp chill in the air, and I shivered as I stood staring up at the mountains. In their craggy cliffs, I spotted an exposed portion of the trail where a metal chain helped hikers around a frighteningly steep and narrow ledge, while steam rose from vents in the rock face, dark and menacing. A thick layer of clouds hung low over the mountains, concealing their true height. Somewhere up there, on the other side of Hell, Fimmvörðuháls awaited.
Suddenly, it no longer mattered whether or not we made it there. Fear, fatigue, prudence and the superstitious feeling that some higher power, maybe Thor himself, was trying to stop me, all weighed in. But beyond that, I realized that this moment and the others my father and I had shared in this strangely beautiful and awe-inspiring place, were simply enough. Spending time here with my dad, rather than ticking off an item on my bucket list, was the real point of this trip. We did not need to go any further.
Slurping ramen noodles from a thermos amid the cold, lichen-crusted rocks overlooking Heljarkambur, we reflected on the past few days. Between the weather, birch trees and a suspected troll curse, almost nothing had gone as planned. Yet neither of us cared. It was the unexpected, in fact, that made our Iceland experience so unforgettable.