Iceland Trip 2011 Report

There has been quite a lot of interest in our trip from people thinking of visiting Iceland to hike and take photos. In this article I will try and outline what it was like for me to try and produce images while hiking unsupported for 5 or 6 days.

Firstly do not let any media hype of erupting volcanoes put you off. Yes they do play a big part in shaping the country but the risk of being on or near one when it erupts is miniscule. You are much more likely to come to harm on the way to the airport in the car than face any direct danger from an eruption. That said the usual risks associated with the outdoors applies here just as anywhere else in the world and you need to be well prepared, equipped and experienced in mountain travel.

About the Trek
The Laugavegurinn hiking trail (also known as the Laugavegur trail) is approximately 55km long and is Iceland's most popular hiking trail, connecting the nature reserves of Landmannalaugar and Thorsmork. We extended this walk by adding an extra 25-30km to visit the initial eruption site of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano which took place in the Fimmvorouhals Pass. We then continued down the other side towards the coast to the village of Skogar.

We had arrived at Landmannalaugar the previous afternoon after a visually stunning bus ride from Reykjavik. The last few hours of which were on dirt roads only just wide enough for the 4X4 bus which bumped and clattered its way through the mountains, lava flows and scattered boulders. On the way, and in the middle of a black desert, we stopped to pick up a couple of cyclists as well as a pair of backpackers who were clearly knackered so simply waved us down. In the UK there is no way you could flag down a service bus and then pile all your bikes and baggage on and then head off. Here in Iceland though the bus driver simply stopped the bus chucked the bikes and kit on and off we bumped, no hassle, no drama - I loved this country already.

On arriving in Landmannalaugar we set the tents up and had a brew before heading off for a swim in the hot springs. Laying around in the hot water was lovely but getting out into a bitter wind was not so much fun. Later ominous black clouds began to build above the surrounding rhyolite mountains and it was time to get the camera out and capture some images. When the rain came, most people headed for the shelter of vehicles or tents, but we kept on shooting as a double rainbow appeared arcing across the landscape. Seconds later shafts of light began to illuminate the Barmur Rhyolite Mountains to the east. These appeared to glow from within as a slanting curtain of rain doused the mountains on the far horizon. Whatever else happened on this trip this moment would certainly remain etched on my mind.

03D-4739 Storm Clouds over the Barmur Rhyolite Mountains with Icelandic Sheep Next to the River Jokulgilskvisl at Landmannalaugar in the Fjallabak Area of Iceland.

Ominous black clouds began to build over the Barmur Rhyolite Mountains. Image Copyright David Forster

03D-4672 Double Rainbow over the Barmur Rhyolite Mountains and the River Jokulgilskvisl at Landmannalaugar in the Fjallabak Area of Iceland

A double rainbow begins to form over the Barmur Rhyolite Mountains. Image Copyright David Forster

03D-4789a Rainbow over the Barmur Rhyolite Mountains and the River Jokulgilskvisl at Landmannalaugar in the Fjallabak Area of Iceland

The rainbow eventually stretched across the horizon framing the mountains. Image Copyright David Forster

The Start of the Trek.
We were up at 7.00am and away for 9.30am after a very leisurely start in which we enjoyed a couple of brews and waited for the cloud to lift a bit. The aim today was to reach the mountain hut of Hoskuldsskali where it is possible to camp. It's only a distance of 12km or so, but it involves a 1500ft ascent as well as the crossing of a very exposed upland area at around 3,000ft. The weather then, would make or break our day.

Landmannalaugar - Hrafntinnusker Elevation Increase Approx 470m
As we left Landmannalaugar the mountains were still cloaked in cloud so we simply enjoyed the closer views of the Laugahraun lava field where large boulders of Obsidian lava had split to reveal the black glassy cores. With these black heat-contorted rocks it was easy to visualise the noise, heat and smoke as it steadily engulfed the underlying landscape. We were almost across the lava field when the cloud lifted to reveal steam rising from vents on the lower slopes of the Brennisteinsalda volcano. Now in the sun the surrounding rhyolite mountains appeared to smoulder anew. The mineral stained rocks of intense red, yellow, green and blue contrasted sharply with the more pastel shades of greys and browns to form a shimmering backdrop. Approaching the vents the smell of sulphur was very intense and we did not linger in the steam too long. Others though walked into the steam and gas so we photographed their shimmering silhouettes as they appeared and disappeared in the heat.

03D-4848 Hikers Walking through Clouds of Steam and Sulphur Gas from a Geothermal Volcanic Vent on the Laugavegur Hiking Trail Landmannalaugar Fjallabak Iceland.

Clouds of steam and sulphur gas envelop walkers as they explore. Image Copyright David Forster

Eventually we reached the high and exposed upland where snowfields still linger waiting for winter. Lower down we had enjoyed the warm sunshine, up here though the wind had a definite edge to it and we were forced to put on an extra layer. In fact the whole landscape had an edgy feel to it as cloud threatened to descend and cut off visibility. Fortunately as we slowly made our way across ash-blackened snowfields towards the high point it only remained a threat. Nearing the col we came across a cairn with the name of Ido Keinan a 25year old walker who had died here on 27th June 2004 during a blizzard. We knew the hut was only a few km away and seeing this memorial certainly reinforced how dangerous any mountain area can be when the weather turns. Less than an hour later we were at the hut searching out a sheltered spot among the boulders, stones and black volcanic dust that would be our campsite for the night. There is no vegetation here to speak of and it does feel pretty bleak and exposed - it does however boast a "long drop" toilet. Nearby fumaroles produced columns of steam while the all-pervading smell of rotten eggs indicated sulphur gas continually crept across the land.

Day 2 Hrafntinnusker - Alftavatn 12 km Elevation Decrease 490m
We were up at 06.30am to low cloud and drizzle and in the hope it would clear we again had a leisurely breakfast. Leaving camp at 08.30am the trail took us through an area of snow filled ravines some of which had steam vents issuing from them. One ravine in particular highlighted the risks of walking on such terrain. Here the underlying snow had melted leaving several holes and snow bridges. Taking no chances we crossed carefully one at a time. A few yards further and our one at a time caution was justified. Here a large hole had opened up where a snow cave had formed and then subsequently collapsed. While not having the depth of a glacial crevasse a fall through a roof into one of these would certainly cause serious injury.

03D-5002 Walker Crossing a Crevasse in a Snow Field on the  Laugavegur Hiking Trail from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork in the Fjallabak Area of Iceland

These snow filled ravines contained holes and crevasses that were not always easy to spot. Crossing them in the early morning while the snow was still frozen was the safest option. Image Copyright David Forster

03D-5028 Trekker Looking into the Entrance of a Collapsed Ice Cave on the Laugavegur Hiking Trail from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork Fjallabak Area of Iceland.

Graham checking out the collapsed ice cave. Needless to say we did not go inside. Image Copyright David Forster

A steep pull eventually led to the high point of the day. By now the cloud had lifted providing a good view of this morning route from the hut. This was also the point where we would leave the Rhyolite Mountains behind and make our way towards the darker palogonite mountains to the South.

03D-5079 Trekker Enjoying the View Over the Colourful Ryolite Mountains on Day 2 of the Laugavegur Hiking Trail from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork Fjallabak Area of Iceland.

The view back over this mornings route towards the Hoskuldssklai Hut which sits just below the far horizon. Image Copyright David Forster

Beyond on the far horizon we had our first view of the glaciers we would need to find a way through in order to reach Skogar 3 or 4 days away. Below we could clearly see the green valley containing Lake Alftavatn and our campsite for the night. Importantly after the bleakness of the last campsite it had the look of an oasis.

03D-5304 Tents at the Alftavatn Camping Area on the Laugavegur Hiking Trail Iceland.