Category Archives: HIking in Iceland

ICELAND 2016 6. SKJALDBREIÐUR

I have wanted to hike up Skjaldbreiður for most of the decade I have been visiting Iceland. Its name means broad shield and it is the prototype of a shield volcano. It sits on the horizon each time I visit the historic Thingvellir National Park, reminding me of my first attempt to reach its summit in 2010. I came to Iceland in early September that year, later than usual. Late August had always seemed to have reasonable weather, so why not September? But that year the weather gods (most likely Thor) did not cooperate. The skies were usually cloudy, and temps cooler than expected. Bragi and I tried a hike up Snæfellsjökull, a big glaciated mountain northwest of Reykjavik, but the sno-cat tracks we planned to follow were buried in early season snow, the possibility of crevasses lay beneath that light layer, and clouds kept drifting across our landscape, making navigation a continual challenge. We enjoyed early progress up the mountain, but decided not to risk our safety in the chancy conditions and returned downhill after hiking a couple miles.

We were scheduled to hike Skjaldbreiður the next day of that tour in 2010, but the weather started misty and only got worse as we approached the mountain. I recognized the driving route as far as the turn from northbound Highway 1 toward Thingvellir on Route 36. When the road to the Thingvellir National Park headed east, we drove north on two lane Highway 52. As the road started gaining elevation the mist turned to rain and then snow. Then the wind rose and it really did not look like a good day for a hike up a tree-less volcanic mountain. Bragi did not like disappointing me two days in a row, and drove as far toward the trailhead as he could. I was ready to turn around as soon as the snow started, but he wanted to make sure it was not just a brief shower. Later we learned that we had experienced the start of a severe and totally unexpected early-season blizzard. Many farmers had left their animals out in the weather, and a lot of sheep were lost in the several feet of snow that fell in the highlands and remote rural areas.

I think I had put Skjaldbreiður on itineraries a few times during the years in between, but either the weather or the schedule had not worked out. I was hopeful this year, but not totally optimistic. I had looked at an Icelandic hiking guidebook (Ari Trausti Guðmundsson’s Íslensk fjöll : gönguleiðir á 151 tind) before this year′s trip. It describes the hike as longer with more elevation gain than I had expected: 9 miles distance round-trip and almost 2000 feet to climb. The one good change since the last time I had planned to hike the peak was that jeeps and motorbikes were no longer allowed to join hikers on the ascent. Conservationists had won the battle to save this and some other scenic peaks from motorized mountain climbs.

The weather on the day we picked to hike up Skjaldbreiður this year did not look promising. We left Reykjavik in mist that was thick enough to require windshield wipers to clear our view. I recognized the gravel road on the west side of Skjaldbreiður as soon as we left the pavement and wondered if the weather would chase us from its approach yet again. When we turned onto the road on the north side of the mountain, the rain lightened. When Bragi parked the car at the trailhead, the rain stopped. We climbed out, put on our boots, and the weather held. Perhaps we would be successful!

Bragi had told us there is a big crater full of snow just under the summit ridge. As we started hiking up the trackless north slope, large snowfields appeared below the rocky top. It didn´t seem far away, but I could not tell whether the snow we saw was in a basin like a crater, or was just a sloping mountainside covered in white.

As we ascended, our views of the surrounding landscape grew around us. First we could only see rocky ridges across the narrow valley of our immediate vicinity. As we reached the snowfields on the upper slopes we started to see the large glacier fields of Langjökull farther north. I was surprised how quickly we climbed the mountain with no

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Langjokull’s glacier fields on the distant ridges

trail. It certainly did not seem as far or as steep as the guidebook suggested. For some reason my boots did not give me as good traction on the snow as Bragi and Susan had. So I took a slightly longer route on the rocky edge of the snowfield. While not smooth, the surface underfoot was not too lumpy, so I was able to keep up with my companions′ pace and followed a parallel route up the mountain.

I caught up as they started to climb the short rocky traverse to the ridge top. It was no more than a twenty-foot ascent on rocks that seemed piled like stairs. There were also flat rocks on the ridge available for sitting and enjoying the view of the snow-filled crater20160801_133043

Looking down into the crater

and its black perimeter, and a climb of a few more feet to the highest point on the north side. Almost as soon as we sat down to enjoy the views and our lunches, Bragi´s phone rang and we heard him tell someone where we were and how clear our view was. ‘‘Rain? No, we have none of that here.” We were surprised to learn that we were apparently at one of the few spots in Iceland without rain that day.

My GPS reported we had hiked three miles and gained only 1000 feet on our way to the top. Bragi had certainly found an easy route for us. He said it was the usual way for local hikers, but it is clear that a symmetrical mountain, which a shield volcano must be, may well offer a variety of access paths. We thoroughly enjoyed ours.

On the way down we paid more attention to the late summer vegetation on the20160801_153423 slope: bladder campion, mosses, and a variety of grasses. We also noticed wonderful patterns in the undisturbed lava. And we observed dark clouds headed in our direction again. Finally the car came into view and we began to wonder if we would reach the car first. We succeeded, but not by much. We jumped inside and changed out of our hiking boots as the rain began its tattoo on the roof.p1030086

Our lodging that night was at the Efri-Sel Hostel, quite close to a similarly named golf course and just outside the town of Fluðir. The golf traffic supports an associated cafe, and we joined the family-dominated crowd there for burgers.

The hostel is a very comfortable modern house on a farm property, providing a kitchen, dining and lounge area laid out to encourage guests to join in general conversation and get acquainted with other visitors. We enjoyed meeting international couples from Germany and Ireland, South Africa and Taiwan, and England. Other assets of the house are laundry machines and a roomy hot tub –both of which we enjoyed using.

ICELAND 2016 5. Hiking at Ulfljótsvatn, Nesjavellir and Visiting Thingvellir

This was intended to be a recovery day after a big hike. But yesterday’s full day hike had turned into a moderate afternoon hike, so we had lots of energy for exploring the area near the Ljosafoss Skóli Hostel. Susan and I had noticed a nearby lake on our map that appeared to have a shoreline trail. Bragi remembered a gravel road that led to the trail, so off we went—with his warning that it might a buggy hike beside the water.

We parked at the top of a steep hill, and headed down to Ulfljótsvatn. Despite the homes sitting beside the road approaching the pretty blue lake, there were no boats on the surface or walkers on the shoreline. Once we reached level ground, all the houses were out of sight and we had the place to ourselves.20160731_032402The trails became less developed the farther we went. It seemed they were used mostly by sheep and occasional birdwatchers. We saw swans on the water, heard and finally spotted a pair of loons. Among the grasses we observed pipits and wagtails, too. Occasionally we walked through a cloud of midges, but the bugs were cooperatively stationary, so they did not bother us much at all.

After cautiously crossing a marshy area and climbing over a small grassy hill, we were surprised to find some low stone walls and an archway, remains of a small building abandoned in the pastoral scenery above the lake. After snapping some photos and ascending one more hill, we wandered back through the tall grasses and returned up the road to the car.

 

 

Walking through the unknown countryside somehow made me think of the very first hike I had taken in Iceland, way back in 2007. The tour I was with had stayed in a grim workers´ hostel (small dark rooms and bathrooms, narrow halls, no fresh vegetables; I can’t remember how else it offended us) and hiked from its door into a geothermal wonderland. The lodging was close to the Nesjavellir Geothermal Powerplant, and it was surrounded by well-marked trails showing off the hot streams and colorful sulfurous soil that are features of the geologically-active area.

Before starting the hike, we visited a new hotel that has opened close to the site of the old hostel. The Hotel Ion is intended for international visitors who fly in for exclusive tours of Iceland’s highlights. I was a little surprised at the courtesy with which they welcomed three almost random hikers, but happy to take a coffee break in such elegant surroundings.20160731_064758

We drove a short distance to leave our car beside an adventure park that features a complex climbing structure with physical challenges for agile children and adults. We had a different adventure in mind. For the next couple hours we hiked past steamy streams, bore hole enclosures, neon green moss, carefully crossed narrow rocky creeks, and took in the views from wooden streamside platforms. After we had seen the highlights, Bragi returned for the car while Susan and I continued to a hilltop viewpoint beside a roadway. Our route didn’t always follow the developed trails, so we surprised pairs of grazing sheep more than once.

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From there we drove to nearby Thingvellir (Þingvellir in Icelandic), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as Icelandic National Park, both designations in recognition of its being the site of the world’s first parliament (Thing or Þing in Icelandic). About sixty years after the Vikings first settled in Iceland, the clans acknowledged they needed to get together to discuss and agree to laws they could live by. The clan representatives were appointed, not elected, and they were not able to record their decisions on paper, but these do not diminish their achievement. The representatives gathered from all over Iceland each summer, starting in 930. They camped under high cliffs that helped project the sound of speakers’ voices. They sat in council with their advisors and adopted laws, settled disputes and passed judgment on evil-doers.

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We were lucky to visit Thingvellir late in the afternoon after the biggest crowds had gone. It was a fine ending to our patchwork day that was far more enjoyable than anticipated.