Friday, July 27, 2012

The Trek Begins: Volcanoes and Glaciers (Part 1)

Our second day in Iceland, we got on a bus early in the morning to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, on the south coast of the island.  The bus ride was pleasantly uneventful, except for a few stops at nice waterfalls and a black sand beach.  When we got off the bus in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, we met two other women who were doing the same trek.  We managed to locate our hostel, which wasn't too difficult, since "town" might be a bit of a stretch as a description of where we were staying.  It was pretty small.  Michael and I found the visitor center and watched a very, very dramatic, but still interesting documentary about the devastating 1783-84 eruptions at Lakí, which ultimately killed one-fifth of Iceland's population and caused widespread famine in Europe.

The next morning, we got on an all-terrain bus and set off towards Laki with a lot of sightseeing day tourists. We stopped at a cool canyon and a pretty waterfall before arriving at Laki Mountain itself.  Just before we arrived there, our guide stopped the bus at the bottom of the mountain and had us drop our bags so we could climb without them.  Enthusiastic and excited, we climbed the mountain in no time.  There, we got our first glimpse of the ice on which we would spend two days (out of a total of three).  Back down at our bags, our guide distributed the food.  He had warned us the night before about the weight.  He wasn't kidding.  Unlike the lightweight, dehydrated backpacking food we are used to carrying on long trips, we had smoked salmon and full loaves of bread - enough food for five days for nine people.  We would get a resupply on day 6.

We set off across dusty lava fields towards the glacier.  The black landscape was dotted with bright pink and white clumps of flowers.  Anywhere there was a little moisture, bright green moss carpeted the ground.  It was pretty windy and the nine of us walking kicked up quite a dust cloud.  The loose sand and ash were somewhat annoying to walk in, but the next day would make me wish to be back on dry sand.  It wasn't long before we were all covered in volcanic ash.  It was bright and sunny when we arrived in camp between two pretty lakes.  Tundra swans called from the lakes.  Dinner was smoked salmon pasta and chocolate cake.  It was really good and it was good to eat some of the heavier food out of our packs.

I would say that day 2 dawned sunny, but it never really got dark (Iceland has 24 hours of daylight for most of July).  We began the day hiking across a lava field toward the glacier, Síðujökull, which is part of Iceland's largest ice sheet, Vatnajökull.  Our guide hoped that the river draining the glacier's meltwater would be low enough that we could cross it, rather than hiking miles up the edge of the glacier looking for a snow bridge.  We were not that lucky.  It was well into the afternoon before we were on the ice, but we saw some really spectacular terrain getting there.  Once on the ice, our pace slowed because of the uneven surface of the glacier.  I swear we climbed 4,000 feet - two steps up at a time, followed by two steps down.  The ice was absolutely beautiful.  There were so many spectacular shades of blue.  

The long hike around the large river meant that it was pretty late by the time we were getting off the ice.  We had to navigate through and around pretty deep mud.  I had neglected to wear my gaiters, so my boots wound up filled with gravel for the last mile.  Then we arrived at the campsite where there was supposed to be a freshwater lake...which was completely gone.  I felt pretty bad for our guide.  It was almost 8 p.m., the group was exhausted, and his dependable source of water was gone.  Of course, I was beat down, dog tired, so I wasn't actually much help.  There was a river not too far away, but glacial rivers are no fun to drink out of:  they are the consistency and color of dirty milk from all of the ground up rock in the ice.  Finally, he found a small stream which was moving too slow to carry much sediment and we all agreed that it was a great camp.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Skógarfoss, one of the large waterfalls along the south coast.  Our bus stopped here on the way to the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Looking inland from the black sand beach at Vik.
Two lakes near our hostel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.  They were up on a plateau above the town.  We were sort of tired of sitting on a bus, so we hiked up a path for a while to see where it went and this is what we found.  
 Eriophorum scheuchzeri (Cottongrass).  This was growing in a marshy area below one of the lakes.
 Bootshot over a canyon where our river-crossing, all-terrain bus stopped on the way to the start of the trek.
 The view from the top of Lakí.  The line of craters is the result of the 1783-84 eruptions.
 Hiking across the barren landscape.
Our campsite on the first day.
 Cake after dinner.
 Pink flowers (I haven't gotten the identification for these yet) near our campsite.
 Tundra swans on one of the lakes near our first campsite.
 Setting off the toward the ice on Day 2.
 This is the river that prevented easy access to the glacier.  We had to scramble up and down the ash covered ice looking for a route over the river.  Eventually, our guide found a snow bridge.  The stark landscape is typical of the edges of the glacier.  Melting ice leaves black volcanic ash, gray rock, and mud in piles.  Our group joked that the area looked like the entrance to Mordor in Lord of the Rings.
Hiking on the ice.


  1. Wow mistical ;-) Great pictures! Seems like a wonderfully serene place!

  2. Hi I stumbled across your blog. I'm heading to Iceland for a 10 day trip mid-august and am doing some last minute you mind sharing who your guide was for the trek? Thanks! Carrie

  3. We used Icelandic Mountain Guides.