Monday, March 21, 2016

Iceland Adventures - Hiking the Laugavegurinn: Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker

Iceland Adventures – Laugavegurinn Day 1 – 8/29/15 – Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker – 12k

Thought for the day every day on the Laugavegurinn:  “We’re going to need a thesaurus to describe this to the folks back home.” 

The Laugavegurinn is Iceland’s most famous hiking trail, 55 kilometers of walking through an OMG landscape from one unpronounceable point to another.  Hikers do not go to Iceland in the short summer season to get a tan, but for glimpses of a moonscape that is often shrouded in fog.  After seven days of soldiering through drizzly rain and gray skies in the Westfjords, our merry band was rewarded with four spectacular clear days of an unforgettable adventure of lava fields with big boulders, small rocks, coal ash, thermal features, hot spots, steam vents, snow fields, gentle slopes, steep climbs, scary descents, multi-colored mountains and brilliant green moss.

Combine Death Valley’s rhyolite rocks at Zabriskie Point, North Carolina’s Roan Highlands long views, Virginia’s green Shenandoah Valley, Yellowstone’s thermal features, New Hampshire’s White Mountains huts, and delete all the trees.  Oh, and throw in massive waterfalls tumbling through the colorful rock.  Enjoy.  Click on photos to view full screen.

Sources:  Lonely Planet’s Iceland guidebook has a nice description of the Laugavegurinn and the accommodations available.  We stayed at Hrafntinnusker, Álftavatn,  Emstrur and ended at Þórsmörk. I also carried The Laugavegur Trail by Brian W. Zimmer, a useful geology guide to what we were seeing. The trail’s official website is here.

Cathy made hut reservations several months in advance.  Camping is also available at each hut without reservations, but we chose the cushier option because of the trail’s reputation for bad weather.  Much nicer to sit in a warm, dry hut than stake out a tent in high winds and cold temperatures.   Mike reserved seats on a Flybus for the four-hour ride to Landmannalaugar, the trail’s starting point.  Our adventure really started with the bus ride.

Our comfy motor coach tour bus left from Reykjavik’s main bus terminal headed toward the southern highlands.  After two hours the bus left pavement and teeth-rattling gravel tracks took us through the flat valley of volcanic ash edged with looming rhyolite mountains.  As we approached the first braided river, I was dumbfounded to see there was no bridge and the big bus drove through the water, rocking gently from side to side on the uneven bottom.  We did this again and again.  Watch it on Youtube.

Landmannalaugar (which Icelanders pronounce in a slur of “Lam-a-logger” like you would say “Worchestershire”) is in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.  It’s a popular daytripper destination for geothermal springs and short hikes and a base camp for the majority of Laugavegurinn trekkers who traditionally hike north to south.  Open from mid-June to mid-September, the hut facilities sleep 75 people and the grounds spill over with tents pitched helter-skelter. 

From the bus we unloaded our backpacks, used the facilities, and sat down at a picnic table to eat a quick bite and inhale deeply and a tad nervously about what we were about to do.  My main worry was finding my way if fog rolled in.  Before the trip Mike had helped me upload a GPS track of the hike onto my phone, and now I checked to make sure it was still there.  Now I could worry about my battery lasting for four days.

Today’s destination is Hrafntinnusker, 12 kilometers away, a hut that sleeps 52 with an outhouse (no showers) and kitchen facilities that include propane stovetops, running cold water, pots, pans, crockery and cutlery.  Bring all your food and carry out all your trash.

And here we go!  Mike had been to the trailhead a couple of weeks ahead of us and he confidently set off on a white blaze trail beside a glacial river… but we didn’t see the Laugavegurinn red blazes.  No worries, there’s more than one way to start, and we soon intersected with our trail. 

Now here we go – really!  

Go ahead, look through the photos again.  I couldn’t believe it either. 

First look at Hrafntinnusker
 Tents and outhouses
The entryway to the hut is a mud room where all boots come off, only hut shoes allowed inside, which meant that going to the outhouse took some planning.  The staff consists of a hut warden and a couple of other folks who check hikers in, answer questions and try to keep the place clean.

Inside Hrafntinnusker.  Bunk beds lined both sides of the room, double on the bottom, single on top, and it was a full house (with more bunks upstairs).  Picnic style tables down the middle.  Not much room to store gear.  Cathy, Mike and I grabbed top bunks while Paul and Kim shared a bottom bunk.  Modest?  Forget it.  We’re not in Kansas anymore and people were very open about stripping down.  If all that sounds like a deal-breaker to you, don’t let it be.  You can change clothes inside your sleeping bag or in the outhouse, but you quickly learn that nobody cares what your underwear looks like.

Many nationalities were represented:  US, UK, Iceland, Canada, France, Czech Republic, Germany, some solo males and females, some couples, some groups like ours.  Everyone was interested in talking about the trail and various hiking locations around the world.  And since most of us were heading in the same direction, we would see each other again at the next hut and compare notes about the day.  [The exception was two German couples with sour faces who did not seem inclined to friendly conversation.  They spoke only to each other and started up a card game at 9:00 p.m. when everyone else was settling down to snooze. At least they kept their voices low.]

Cathy in the kitchen. A huge caldron of hot water was waiting and hikers politely maneuvered in the tight space, cooking and washing up.  Cathy ventured out for a walk and climbed one of the nearby peaks.  I was content to sit with a cup of tea to help wind down from the sensory overload. 

How could tomorrow possibly be any more awesome?  Well….

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  ~Mary Oliver

Monday, March 7, 2016

Iceland Adventures - Þingvellir National Park & Gullfoss

Iceland Adventures: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss & Return To Reykjavik– 8/28/15

Today was my least favorite day of our entire trip – what??  After all, we’re still in awesome Iceland.  And today we traveled part of the Golden Circle, which is often the highlight of this extraordinary country:  the powerful Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir, and the famous tectonic plates.  The down side was the continuing troubled weather, more time spent in the car, and stress at day’s end.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

We left our paradise by the sea literally in a fog… couldn’t see the countryside around us.  Once we turned southward and inland on Route 1 we left the fog behind, but the wind continued unabated the rest of the day.

Both Cathy and Mike had experienced the Golden Circle on previous visits to Iceland and we all agreed to take just a cursory look-see before heading back to Reykjavik.  Please don’t read this as any useful information or guide to features of the area. 

At Þingvellir National Park, the wind nearly tore the doors off the SUV as we got out to walk down into the tectonic plate boundary.  Below ground was quiet and still.  The fissures are the result of the continents of North America and Europe tearing away from each other.  Read about this phenomenon here.
A brief stop at the edge of Þingvallavatn

Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is to Iceland what Niagara Falls is to the US (and Canada?), one of the most popular tourist sites in the country, but don’t let the idea of crowds deter you from visiting.  Gullfoss doesn’t suffer from the commercialization crowding in on both sides as NF does.  At one time targeted for a hydroelectric project, the landowner donated Gullfoss to the nation in 1975 for protection as a nature reserve. (Click on the photo to see full size and look for the tiny people.)
The Hvíta River tumbles into a crevice and makes a hard left-hand turn.  Roaring, all-powerful nature so loud it’s hard to hear a conversation. 

On our blustery day, we got drenched even from a distance.  So why not get closer?

With time running short, we made our way back to Reykjavik to return our rental car. (Yes, we skipped Geysir altogether.  So sorry.)   A quick stop to say hello to some Icelandic horses along the way.

So where is the stress?  We got our belongings out of storage, moved to another rental apartment, made a last-ditch stop at the local grocery to buy Skyr (Iceland’s answer to yogurt), picked up some pizzas and got down to the business of preparing for our four-day trek on the Laugavegurinn.  Tomorrow morning we have to store our gear again, then take a local bus to the main terminal to catch our bigger bus to the trailhead.  Everything goes either with me or into storage. 

As many backpacking trips as I’ve been on by now, I still get those qualms and trailhead jitters.  What to pack?  What to leave behind?  How cold will it get? Will it rain a little or a lot? How much food?  Do I carry that book or not?  Sometimes I think it would be best to have only 20 minutes to pack, with no time to agonize and second guess. 

All packed – and my water bladder wasn’t tightly sealed so it leaked all over everything.  Had to unpack, spread it all out to dry and repack in the morning.  Ugh.

What is the Laugavegurinn?  Iceland’s most popular multi-day hiking trail.  AKA walking on the moon. AKA an adventure like no other.  Stay tuned.

“Backpacking is the art of knowing what not to take.” ~Sheridan Anderson