Saturday, April 2, 2016

Iceland Adventures - Hiking the Laugavegurinn: Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn



Iceland Adventures – Laugavegurinn Day 2 – Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn – 8/30/15 – 12km

Icelandic name challenges for today:  Álftavatn  Háskerðingur  Torfajökull  Jökultungur  Grashagakvísl  Torfatindur  Torfatindar Brattháls Reykjafjöll  Hattfell  Torfamýrar

In anticipation of cold nights I packed my 15-degree sleeping bag, but the hut was uncomfortably hot (geothermal steam) and I slept on top of the bag in my upper bunk.  My earplugs worked very well for the inevitable snoring in a roomful of people.  Also inevitable was a visit to the toilet - at 4:30 a.m. the sun was coming up. 

A hiking breakfast for me is usually an energy bar, but every morning on this trip I forced myself to eat instant oatmeal with walnuts, which I did get used to.  Cathy and Kim brought Skyr for breakfast, heavier than I was willing to carry, but they really enjoyed it.  At 8:15 a.m. our gang of five departed for our 12-kilometer hike to Álftavatn (Swan Lake). 

We stayed within sight of each other most of the day, with Mike and me bringing up the rear and playing photographer for each other.  The full impact of the landscape could not be captured or contained, but we sure tried.  Most of the following scenes include humans for scale.  See how many you can spot.  Be sure to click directly on the photos to see full screen.

Sketchy low clouds at the start that touched the ground at times (light fog) and blanketed the peaks all day, but no precipitation
The double bump on the left is Reykjafjöll
Many snow fields to cross during the morning
Looking back, blue skies struggle to appear behind Mike and Hrafntinnusker
Looking under an ice bridge.  One time Cathy unknowingly crossed a precarious bridge.  A larger person would surely have broken it. 
Ice bridge.  As we lost elevation the melting snow uncovered a bit of green.
Photo op for Mike.  Háskerðingur is the tall peak in the upper right and the small glacier called Kaldaklofsjökull.  It’s hard to distinguish the glacier from the seasonal snow pack.  There is a side trail going up the mountain but we didn’t take it.  Next time.
Rhyolite mountains on the right.  Cathy and Kim and Paul are teeny-tiny in the upper left, standing on the rim of the Torfajökull caldera. Zimmer's The Laugavegur Trail explains the change in geology.
Minerals make the orange colors, similar to what I saw in Yellowstone National Park in July.  We also saw many saucer-sized puddles of clear percolating hot water. 
 
Kim and Paul

The ascents and descents were short but steep. Some were covered in snow with nice kicked-in steps.  Others were piles of black ash, like coarse sand, and descending them was most unnerving.  On one particularly disturbing slope (seriously? we’re supposed to go that way?) Cathy, Mike and Paul made it down with relatively little trouble.  There was not one single blade of grass to hold onto and I just didn’t feel like my hiking poles offered enough stability, so I practiced glissading, starting on my heels and ending up on my butt.  At least if I fell over I would already be close to the ground. Kim went for the extremely cautious step-down with Mike patiently coaching her. 

 
Kim

Mike
Side view of a stunning cascade.  Do you see Mike?  Yes, we had to cross this upstream, but it was a moderate rock hop.  We didn’t realize the drop until we reached this view after the crossing.
Waterfall and steam vents, tiny specks of humans on the horizon

Looking at Álftavatn (Swan Lake) and the Álftavatn Valley.  The pointy mountain on the center horizon beyond the lake is Hattfell.  The dark brooding mountain flanking the valley on the right side is Torfatindur and the mountain flanking it on the left is Brattháls.  We walked into this landscape painting for over two hours as we descended into the valley.

Lunch view
If our minds weren’t already blown with the landscape… two mountain bikers pedaled cheerfully up the trail.
What hovering cloud?
Álftavatn Valley, the lake as calm as a mirror in the upper left.  The sliver of glass beyond it is Torfavatn, a smaller lake.
Starting the descent down Jökultungur required great concentration and quad strength.  Loose palm-sized rocks and smaller pebbles on the steep slope made for slippery footing.  I skidded many times but only hit the ground once. 
Mike walking towards Tortafindar, the brooding dark mountain, and the braided river Grashagakvísl.  We spent some time scouting out the best route to cross, and Paul was able to rock hop it with his longer legs, but the rest of us put on water shoes and waded across the channels.  Glacier melt = numbing cold, a prelude to upcoming crossings over the next two days.

 Cathy and me walking on the valley floor toward Álftavatn 
Álftavatn accommodates 52 people in sleeping bags and is equipped with gas stoves, crockery, utensils and running cold water.  Bonus for those who have limits for a rustic experience:  flushing toilets and real showers. 
 Kitchen and dining area
Our bunk room for five, a very tight space.  On the main floor are two more similar rooms and the upper floor is an open dorm, all full tonight. I chatted with Sigrid, one of the hut wardens on-site, and learned that the second bunk house was empty and we could move into it to spread out, but there was no heat.  I peeked in the window and the place looked rather gloomy.  After thinking about it for a while, I decided to stick with the crowded-but-friendly main building.
 Bath house
 Lakeside camping area

Early afternoon, still feeling energized from our morning hike and now unencumbered by backpacks, Cathy and I went exploring across the meadow to the lake. 
 
 One of the creeks that feeds into Álftavatn, Brattháls Mountain in the upper left
 Lakeside 
 Looking back at the huts
We scrambled around on the toe of Torfatindur (not to be confused with Torfatindar right beside it), great rocks for walking, very rough with a good grip.  Here’s looking down at the lake, Brattháls Mountain on the far side. 
A troll cave on Torfatindur 
 
Looking down onto the plains of Torfamýrar 
The road through Torfamýrar is part of the Middle Route, so you don’t have to hike to stay and play in the Álftavatn Valley.

We scrambled back down and Cathy continued exploring along the base of the mountain as I headed back to the hut.  There I ran into the two young women from the Czech Republic that we had met on the boat at Hornstrandir.  They were cooking a little supper on the deck before continuing on to spend the night at Hvanngil (which we’ll pass tomorrow).  The ease and confidence of these 20-somethings and other solo women I met hiking in Iceland made quite an impression on me.  Without exception, they were skilled and comfortable and fearless.  When I asked if they ever felt vulnerable as females, a common question I get asked in the U.S., they were perplexed.  Why should they?  Indeed. 

The day ended sitting around the kitchen tables talking with fellow hikers.  A group of four women (three of them were friends from UVA grad school) had a lot to share about their adventures.  I was suffering a little regret for not carrying a book and one of them loaned me her National Geographic magazine to read myself to sleep.  I think I got through one paragraph…Fell asleep with colorful rocks swirling in my head

"I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took." - W. Somerset Maugham


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