Got a bit of puppy fat? Wanna lose it? Try this hike. I went in weighing 74kg. Seven days later, I was 62kg. In between, I’d lugged 30 kg up and down mountains, through rivers, across snow fields and volcanic plains. I’d eaten anything I could lay my hands on, including fish served through my tent window by an Icelandic child in the middle of a downpour. We saw sun, wind, rain and snow, just on the first day. And in all that time, I only had one shower. It was three minutes long and cost about five bucks. Welcome to the Laugavegur – Iceland’s famous and awesome trek.
The Laugavegur trail is named after Reykjavik’s shopping street because in peak season – July – it’s just as crowded. Only a few weeks later, about the the third week of August 2005, it was pleasantly empty. We started out at Landmannalaugar, arriving by bus that wound its way from Hella past the volcano of the same name and into the flat valley. Some nearby tents gave it the look of a base camp, which in some ways it is, as the starting point for Iceland’s most famous trek.
Before we did anything at all, it was time to check out Landmannalaugar’s natural hot spring. It rained while we were soaking, and then the sun came out with a glorious light that lit up the whole valley.
Yon had really done her research on this part of the trip and she knew this was something we’d both enjoy. I’d never heard of this walk, so I am glad she did.
Back in Hella we’d stocked up with everything we thought we’d need to stay alive for the next week. Some of it was pretty questionable – saltfiskur dried cod, for example – but we had enough pasta, cheese, chocolate and stove fuel to keep us out of trouble. On top of all our gear, and my camera stuff, we had about 50kg between us. I carried 30, and Yon, the little powerhouse, carried the rest.
Iceland is alive. Not the people, plants and animals. The land itself. It hisses and bubbles and vents great clouds from tiny holes in the ground. Its streams are more like blood veins than waterways. Dip your hand in and it’s just as likely to be boiling hot as ice cold. As we hiked, the land enveloped us with steam, often tinged with the faint smell of sulphur. Strangely sweet to inhale, it was like walking the platform of a train station in the days of steam locomotives. Behind a small hill, we sat by a stream, and washed our dirty hands in its warmth.
The Ice Caves of Hrafntinnusker
Towards the end of the first day’s 12 kilometer hike, black fields of obsidian spread across the route. We had some light snow as we traversed this rocky area of dark grey earth pocked with lumps of razor sharp volcanic glass, broken by drifts of earlier snow. It was here in 2003 that a young Israeli hiker, traveling solo and poorly equipped, died after losing the path in a snowstorm. His body was found less than two kilometers from the mountain hut.
The first night of this trek is spent at Hrafntinnusker. Many hikers skip it and push on to the next hut, but they would have missed the amazing ice caves that are a short walk from the hut. Apparently these collapsed in 2008 – as we went about 20 meters inside, the grinding noise of moving ice was enough to scare us back out pretty smartly.
The Crazed Ranger at Álftavatn
The terrain and weather on this trek is constantly changing. On day one alone, we had beautiful blue skies with fluffy white clouds, then rain, then snow and wind, and then lovely clear starry night skies. Day two was the same.
As we walked into Álftavatn a vision of Icelandic beauty approached us. Tall and blond, with piercing blue eyes, she was the ranger at the mountain hut. In flawless English she demanded to see our equipment. “Do you have sleeping bags?”, she barked. “Are you prepared? Do you know what you are doing?” I was dressed in Gore-Tex, head to toe. I had a GPS in my hand and a proper topographic map in my pocket. I showed her and she looked us over again. Her hard face softened, just a touch. “I am the one who found the Israeli’s body”, she explained. “So many foolish people come here, totally unprepared”. She looked away, back towards Hrafntinnusker. “I don’t want to find any more bodies. Be careful”.
No sooner had we promised not to kill ourselves in some foolhardy way, and pitched our tent, the sky opened up and unloaded an improbably vast quantity of rain. We huddled in our sleeping bags and munched on some dry snacks, unable to use the whisperlite inside the tent. Soon we heard a voice outside, small and high-pitched, in excellent English. “Hello, hello in there!” I zipped open a crack in the door and peered outside. Two tiny Icelandic kids, about 10 years old, stood there in the rain. Their hair was mussed up high, looking bizarrely like the top of a root vegetable. “What do those little munt-turnips want?” whispered Yon, using a weird turn of phrase that was strangely accurate. “Hello, are you hungry? We have some spare fish, would you like it?”. Yon and I exchanged a quick glance. Thoughts of politely declining entered our mind, to be banished a nanosecond later by the more primal part of our bodies which urged us to accept any gift of free, hot, high protein food. I literally saw the thought enter her head, pass quickly across her eyes and out the other ear, replaced by the twinkle of anticipation of a decent meal. “Yes please, thank you very much!” The kid handed in a baking tray covered in foil, and two forks. “We had way too much, we hope you are dry inside!”. They ran away in the rain, towards the mountain hut not far from our tent. Later, I took the tray back to the hut, washed it and thanked the kind people – a school group as it turned out – for thinking of us. In a typical short Icelandic way, they waved it off as though it were nothing. It had made a big difference to us and we slept well indeed as the rain lashed our tent long into the night.
The Frozen French Boys of Botnar
Day three was a 15 kilometer march to Botnar. The sun was shining again, most of the time. Much of the route was relatively flat, and there were a few icy cold river crossings to keep things lively.
After a long day we finally cleared the flat volcanic plain and into a bleak valley. The mountains towered over us either side, casting long shadows, and for the first time the world seemed just a little sinister. We were happy to roll into Botnar in the late afternoon and set up camp.
Here we met three French boys. They were doing it tough. One had only jeans and a duffel coat. I asked if they’d stayed at Álftavatn the previous night. “Yes”, he said, with a heavy French accent, “yes we have stayed there. The lady, this ranger, she was very angry”. I looked at him, and his scruffy friends poking their heads from a tent. Their appearance did put the ranger’s anger into context. They must have arrived just before us, looking like they belonged in a Parisian cafe rather than the Icelandic wilderness. But they were nice kids. I checked they had some food, and one of them offered me some corn chips from a scrunched pack. That’s ok, I said, thinking they could use them more than me.
That night was quite cold. In the morning, we were ready to go and there was no sign of the Frenchies. We debated whether to check they were ok in their zipped up tent, when the first boy popped his head out. Adjusting his beanie and rubbing his eyes, he looked up at me. “How was your night”? I asked. “You ok?” He thought a moment, and said, “Yes, but it was very ‘ard”.
From Botnar to Þórsmörk, the traditional end of this trek, it’s another 15 kilometers. All went well for us until we reached the river Þröngá. These funny Icelandic names – Þ is pronounced “th” – didn’t make this river crossing any easier. About halfway across its shallow but powerful flow, Yon slipped and wrenched her knee badly. To add insult to injury, she managed to drop her boots into the stream, and they filled up with icy cold water.
We limped into the camp area at Þórsmörk in the late afternoon and decided to take a rest day the next day. Þórsmörk is the traditional end of this hike, but there is the option to continue over the pass to Skógar, on the coast. This is only 22 kilometers, but with 1.000 meters of climbing over the glacier area at Fimmvörðuháls.
Þórsmörk had a shop, so we picked up a few tubs of “skyr“, a traditional Icelandic yoghurt-style dairy product with lots of protein and almost no fat. We also shelled out a decent amount of money for a quick hot shower, and hung out with some of the other trekkers. The Frenchies made it in alive, and declared they were done with hiking for the foreseeable future. On our rest day, day five of the trek, I explored Þórsmörk while Yon rested her knee.
Over Fimmvörðuháls with the French hitchhiker
We decided we’d make the last hike over to Skógar and complete the full trek. For the last two days, we’d have Alice with us, a young French girl who’d hitched into Þórsmörk. She was as ill-prepared as her compatriots, carrying only a light sleeping bag and a few carrots. Seriously. That was about the extent of her preparation for a two day trip over a glacial pass. In Iceland. I felt strangely responsible for this naive hiker, but she was fun company too, so we all agreed to go together.
It’s a tough long climb out of Þórsmörk, but we were blessed with sunshine and a clear view of the path ahead.
We camped the last night at Fimmvörðuháls near a decrepit old hut named Baldvinsskáli. Alice was cold, but there just wasn’t room in our tiny tent for three people. We set her up in the old hut, and I lent her what I could spare of my warm clothes. We gave her a bowl of our last supply of pasta, which she sucked down in about three seconds flat.
This was Eyjafjallajökull, the place that erupted in 2010 causing global chaos by shutting down air travel for days across much of the northern hemisphere. But we passed a safe, if very windy night. I’d tied one of the tent’s guy ropes to a football sized boulder. By the morning, the wind on the side of the tent had pulled that boulder two feet across the ground. We were still standing, but only thanks to our body weight anchoring the tent. As we packed up, Alice emerged from the hut, alive and gnawing on her last carrot.
The weather was worsening as we made our down out of the volcanic Fimmvörðuháls and towards the sea. Waterfall after waterfall crashed down the mountainside, all leading to the mighty 60 meter Skógafoss fall at the very bottom. We’d made it. Six days of hiking, covering 77 kilometers and countless meters of vertical. The trek’s official website promises “beautiful views and high temperatures when the weather is good, no views at all, horizontal rain and freezing temperatures when the weather is bad”. We experienced all that and more, often on a single day.
Alice looked at the tiny village of Skógar. “Do you think I can get a pilsur there?” she asked doubtfully, referring to the Icelandic mini-hotdogs that were a staple snack and about the cheapest food you could buy. The village, which is home to about 25 people, looked pretty closed to us. She decided to hitch towards Reykjavik. We wished her well, knowing she’d have no trouble finding a ride.
We set off to the road ourselves, and as the rain started, we hopped on a bus to Vik. It was an expensive 30 minute ride, but as the horizontal rain lashed the bus and we drove round the coast, we figured we’d earned it. We were cold, tired, hungry and dirty, but happy.