Adventures in Iceland

Chapter 3 - Ice

Lonely planet writes "Iceland's southern and western coasts experience relatively mild winter temperatures thanks to the worm waters of the Gulf Stream, though it still tends to rain a lot. In January, for instance, Reykjavik enjoys an average of only three sunny days (in July, one fine day is the norm). While they're more prone to clear weather than the coastal areas, the interior deserts can experience other problems such as blizzards, and high winds which whip up dust and sand into swirling, gritty maelstroms."

No doubt we've made a mistake choosing to arrive on 7/8/99 and leave at 18/9/99. In this way we weren't a full month in Iceland, and missed both the only fine day of August (which apparently was before the 7th) and the only fine day of September which probably happened after we left. The weather in August is not so cold - it is measured always by one digit in degrees Celsius (Maximum 9C, minimum 0C) but apparently is suffocating hot for the natives. They walk in the streets in shorts and sandals (yes, you guessed right - no socks !) while we freeze with our long trousers and fleeces... What disturbs us is not the cold, but the rain. Trekking in the rain is not fun at all, and when it rains we prefer to wait, or skip on it. Unfortunately it looks that we won't be lucky. We plan to walk 5 treks:

  1. Climb Hvannadalshnukur, the highest summit in Iceland, 2,119m' above sea level, with the help of an experienced guide. Obviously it's ever-snowcapped and one needs to use crampons and ice axes.
  2. Trek in Lonsorafi reserve. This reserve is known for its pink granite rocks, and proximity to Snaefell mountain.
  3. Trek near Akureyri, including sleeping in a hut located on a big glacier.
  4. Climb Snaefellsjokull, the volcano through which Joules Vern crossed the earth in "A journey underneath the earth".
  5. Walk the famous Landmannalaugar to Skogar trek.

We are very patient to tackle target #1. We contact a guide already a day before we reach the area. He says that he would be happy to be our guide, but since the weather conditions aren't good, he prefers that we call him in the next evening. So next day we day trek in Skaftafell national park, just amongst the glaciers (jokull in Icelandic). The views are breath-taking. Not only you are so close to the glaciers, but you can see their way from the mountains via the Sandur (a desert formed by a young glacier valley) to the sea. The hike is extremely beautiful, what we can't say about the weather, which is deteriorating slowly, but steadily. In the evening we don't even bother to call the guide, and pitch our tent next to a small glacier.

...Not only you are so close to the glaciers, but you can see their way from the mountains via the Sandur to the sea...

The "Black waterfall" (Svertifoss) in Skaftafell national park.

The visibility in the following day is very poor. As we want to give Hvannadalshnukur a chance, we decide not to move on, but spend a lazy day around. We walk to a glacier and walk on it a bit. In the afternoon we go to take a shower in a swimming pool, not before soaking for hours in the hot pot, looking at the sunset. We call our guide in the evening, and he says that the weather forecast isn't good yet. We give up, and next day drive to Jokulsarlon (remember? it's the best camping we've ever had, see chapter 2 ) passing in the middle of the way the guides' house.

Tali on the glacier...

Nir on the glacier...

In Jokulsarlon we at last "gain" something from the bad weather - the icebergs which under the sunshine look usually white, are now very blue. Beautiful. Just the buzzing tourist industry is disturbing a bit. Buses with full loads of tourists are coming all the time. The tourists get out, take pictures and hurry to the amphibian boats, for a short cruise amongst the icebergs. Then they have a 15 minutes coffee/toilet break in a cafeteria nearby - and rush to their next destination. I pity the tourists. Spending an hour in this exhilarating place, is really not enough. We decide to spend the night (wild) camping here. We want to call our guide and ask in the nearby cafeteria where is the nearest public phone. The reply is "in Skaftafell" which means 100Km away, where we started our journey today... The house of our guide is only half this distance away... Only in Iceland a place you want to call is 50Km nearer than the nearest public phone... In the late afternoon the last tourists are gone and the cafeteria is closing down. We have now the place for ourselves and a couple of Germans cyclers who decide to pass the night here as well. We eat dinner together. Laying in our tent, the silence is broken sometimes by the noise of far-away avalanches.

Spending an hour in this exhilarating place, is really not enough...

Next morning we think we're lucky at last. The sky is all clear. Breathtaking ! We decide at once to drive 50KM to our guide house. We wake him up, but he says he cannot do it today. Only tomorrow. As we don't have anything more to do in the area, we decide not to wait anymore (who promises us that the weather tomorrow will be nice?) and go north to Lonsorafi reserve. This privately owned nature reserve is known for its pink granite rock and numerous steep scree slopes. We spend here 5 nice trekking days full of adventures. Generally the weather is Ok, but constantly very windy. We discover that the Icelandic trail system is very rough and paths are difficult to follow, if existent at all. That's why our GPS is working overtime, and still because of the difficult terrain, we have difficulties to estimate the time needed to walk between huts. Like this we arrive to Snaefell hut at eleven o'clock at night, under the star light, with both torchlight and GPS turned on. We want so much to arrive to the hut not because we don't have a tent with us. On the contrary, we do carry a tent. It's because we're fed up sleeping in our tent (it's nice to do it from time to time, but here we do it only because of money) and here, during the trek, we can sleep indoors in these mountain huts for free.

Lonsorafi nature reserve is known for its steep scree slopes..

After having a long sleep in "our" hut (as usual in remote areas, we're the only ones in the hut) we go to climb the nearby summit. 3 hours later, while eating lunch back in the hut, we hear a distant sound of a motor outside. We get out of the hut and have a look around. First we look up, expecting to see a helicopter. As the sound gets nearer we see 2 mini-tractors approaching. Surprise ! The driver in the first vehicle is "our" guide from Hvannadalshnukur! After warm greetings he tells us that in the following day he climbed the mountain with a tourist and had an exceptionally good weather... at least also here we had good weather...

Snafel hut.

Also till the end of the trek the weather continues to be nice, but always very windy and partly cloudy. In the last day in the reserve we have several hours left till the van will take us. We decide to try and walk the narrow circular path, originally made by the sheep and currently used also by the trekkers. This 5 Km path climbs steeply a hill, passes a nice waterfall and then gets down to the hut. We walk it almost till the very end, but then it deteriorates rapidly. It becomes very narrow and passes on a very steep slope. If we slide, nothing will stop us from falling down to the river, 200 meters below. Too risky. We decide to backtrack it all. When back in the hut we want to walk as fast as possible to the van, waiting for us 2 Km away, on a steep rock. Alas, walking fast is not possible as the wind is violent so much that it makes the climb on the rock very dangerous. When up on the rock, an hour and a half late for the van, still with adrenaline in our blood, we're relived to see that the van is waiting for us..

"Our" guide

Several days latter the good weather stops. In Akureyri, after not succeeding to buy a map containing a nice 2-days trek from Baugasel hut up to Geldingafell hut which is located on top of a glacial, we try to get some information in the local branch of the Icelandic Touring Club. They are very nice. Not only have they the map, they also take us with a car to a nearby place where they photocopy the map for us. We leave them our details and our itinerary, so if we're not back on time, they will call for help. We drive to Baugasel hut. The hut is an original Icelandic hut, with grass growing on the roof. As the weather deteriorates we decide to wait in the hut and cook lunch. After lunch we decide to give up, and go to Osar (see chapter 1 ) in order to see the seals and enjoy the isolation.

Outside Baugasel hut.

Inside Baugasel hut.

On the way to Osar we pass by a tourist office in a small town. The office is locked and the following note is hung on its window:

We definitely agree with Lonely Planet who writes: "Every year on August 15, someone puts on the breaks and Icelandic tourism grinds slowly to a halt. Hotel close, youth hostels and campgrounds shut down and buses stop running. Many late-summer travellers are disappointed to find that all the most popular attractions are practically inaccessible by September 15, and by September 30 it seems the country has gone into hibernation."

The bad weather has some nice aspects. It's amazing that from anywhere and at anytime in Iceland one can see snow. In winter it's obvious. In summer, in the mountains, it makes sense. But even in the summer at sea level it's true, thanks to glaciers which are doing their way from the high mountains to the sea. Even in Reykjavik, in south Iceland, you can see some patches of snow on nearby hills. We like very much is to soak in the 42C Jacuzzis in the open air swimming pools and look at the snow capped mountains... Another aspect of bad weather is the amazingly huge number of arcs we see while in Iceland.

Back to our trekking plans - Due to the weather conditions we are forced to give up also on climbing Snaefellsjokull, the volcano through which Joules Vern crossed the earth in "A journey underneath the earth". Till now we successfully walked one trek out of 4, and have only one more trek that we will try to attempt the famous Landmannalaugar to Skogar trek, about which we write in chapter 5 .

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Last modified: Wed May 30th 17:05:00 IST 2001