Monday, April 18, 2016

Iceland Adventures - Hiking the Laugavegurinn: Álftavatn to Emstrur

Iceland Adventures – Laugavegurinn Day 3 – Álftavatn to Emstrur – 8/31/15 - 15km

Where has Cathy been on the Laugavegurinn? Leading the way ahead of me.  But today Cathy and I stayed together so she is the star of my photos as we walked from Álftavatn to Emstrur-Botnar.  New terrain and fresh challenges were on tap today. 

All packed up
And we think we’re ready to go
The Laugavegurinn passes to the rear of Álftavatn, crosses a little tributary and climbs up over the shoulder of Brattháls Mountain. 
Although forward movement is the main objective in hiking (as in life), I find that occasionally turning to look back gives an additional perspective and enriches the experience.   Leaving Álftavatn, pausing for one last breath, makes me resolve to return someday.
Our first significant water crossing is immediately before us:  Bratthálskvísl 
Mike prepares to get wet.  We all carried alternative footwear for the crossings so we wouldn’t have to walk in squishy wet boots. 

Bratthálskvísl (pronounced b-r-r-r-r because it is bone-chilling cold) seemed to take forever as we crossed two sections with a gravel bar in between. 
Paul and Kim entering Hvanngil “Angelic Valley”
I felt I was drifting through the valley, my feet moving along the track without conscious thought, my brain working to translate what my eyes were seeing.  Such a different landscape/world from what we walked through yesterday, yet equally magnificent!  Wispy clouds floated around Stórasúla Volcano, giving the appearance of steam puffing from its top.  Is a flying dragon about to emerge?
Stórasúla Volcano
At Hvanngil Hut there are accommodations for 60 people and plenty of space for tenting.  This is a good option if hikers want to get a few kilometers past Álftavatn (like our Czech Republic friends).  We took advantage of the bathrooms. 

From Hvanngil we walked through a series of lava fields.  Rocks are really lava “bombs” of different shapes, their names derived from the amount of cooling prior to impacting the ground after exploding out of a volcanic vent.  Yes, one type is a “cowpie bomb.”  Technical term.  Look it up.
River Kaldaklofskvísl, which we definitely do not want to attempt to cross. 
Iceland has thoughtfully provided a bridge
Barely a kilometer later Kaldaklofskvísl’s flow is less treacherous but no less frigid, and the only way across it is through it.  Each hiker that arrives at the riverside takes time to watch those who go before, sussing out the most advantageous crossing.  Not too deep here.

Past this bridge the Laugavegurinn merges with 4WD track F261, a rather boring flat walk across the basalt desert after the thrill of green mountains and lava flow.  But…what’s this? (Click on photo to see full screen)

Cathy:  In the middle left horizon is our first glimpse of Mýrdalsjökull, the monster ice cap that covers Katla, an active volcano that erupts every 40 to 80 years.  The last eruption was in 1918 so she’s overdue.  Is today the day? 

Stórkonufell is the mountain on the right, Mýrdalsjökull Glacier glistening in the sunlight.
The river Innrí-Emstruá flows down from Mýrdalsjökull, cutting through the basalt lava rock.  (Yes, there was a bridge here.) 
The river Innrí-Emstruá and Stórkonufell Mountain
We are getting closer
You have to bend down to inspect them, but the plant world of Iceland thrives:  sea campion

The big green mountain is Hatfell.  The funky rock formation in front of it – who knows?

Just as we were beginning to tire of the flat lava dust walk, around the bend the world changed yet again.

And there is Emstrur-Botnar, our red-roofed refuge, with Entujökull, an arm of Mýrdalsjökull, reaching towards it.


Every accommodation along the Laugavegurinn is unique and Emstrur was my favorite, three cabins, each with 10 double bunks to sleep 20 people, quite cozy, with picnic type tables in the middle of the room, kitchen facilities and supplies on one end, and a grand view.  Cathy and I arrived first and met the hut warden, a woman of ambiguous age dressed in Icelandic costume complete with a tunic, knit cowl wrap and a necklace of gigantic gemstones.  We were assigned to Hut #3, and since our group was an odd number the warden informed us that one of us would have to sleep with a stranger.  We cheerfully volunteered Mike.

Mid-afternoon, energized by what we had glimpsed on the final descent to Emstrur, Cathy and I got the scoop from the hut warden about nearby trails and went exploring.  We followed the wooden posts marking a trail to Markarfljótgljúfur Canyon, which I had skimmed briefly in my geology book, The Laugavegur Trail, but I was unprepared and overjoyed for the experience.  The author describes, “Every river you crossed since coming down from Hrafntinnusker eventually feeds into the Markarfljót.”  The power of all that water has sliced through 600 feet of lava rock, exposing vent areas of red rock from preexisting volcanoes.  The color palette of rocks and plants was spectacular.
We walked along the Markarfljót plateau for half an hour catching glimpses of the river from many viewpoints.  We parted ways as Cathy chose to continue on and I opted to cross the plateau to explore what the hut warden had called the “Lion King Rock.”  Aptly named, don’t you think?

Sitting on top of the world looking at that big ol’ Mýrdalsjökull glacier

Looking at Emstrur

I stayed alone on Lion King Rock for a long while, chilly but comfortable, reflecting a bit on gratitude for the opportunity and ability to be there, but mostly I didn’t think about anything, just sat and looked and breathed in and out. 

When I returned to Cabin 3, Mike had arrived and gotten his bunk arrangements worked out (a top bunk which he ended up not having to share).  He was preparing to settle in for the evening, but I insisted that he walk out to Lion King Rock and carry his camera.  He was glad he did.  If you are considering hiking the Laugavegurinn, I highly recommend spending half a day or even an extra day in Emstrur so you can explore around Markarfljótgljúfur Canyon. 

By now some new faces and many familiar hikers had rolled in, including the four women we met the previous night, the German couples, and a single young American fellow, a former Boy Scout, whom we had encountered each day. Around the dinner table were multiple languages and similar smiles. Kim told me she’d found a book written in English in another cabin so I went in search of reading material for myself.  In Cabin 1 I found the bookshelf, as well as a party of French hikers who had set up an impressive bar and were just getting the party started.  Our Boy Scout friend was the lone American in that cabin.  (The next morning he said that he hadn’t gotten much sleep but the French fed him well and shared their liquor generously.)

Three days, three very different experiences. Good night, sleep tight.

In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the desert of truth
To the river so deep
We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We're all carried along
By the river of dreams  ~ Billy Joel


Stuart Jones said...

I've been there, and it's still almost too spectacular to believe. Nicely done.

Nancy said...

I am still in awe of this other worldly landscape your pictures show. I simply can't wait to put this one on the books and am likely going to start planning it for next summer with our family! Can you recommend any guidebooks or websites that pertain to traveling in the country itself and on this hiking route? Thank you for sharing your journey, as always!

smoky scout said...

We started with the trail's official website
Next, this blog offers good advice and a little bit about the extension south from Thorsmork to Skogar:
This website will get you excited:
For good details about the huts:
I also uploaded a GPS track from GaiaGPS to my phone so that I could keep on course, but since our weather was good I only referred to it a few times during the 4 days.
For general info about Iceland, I recommend Lonely Planet's guidebook.

Nancy said...

Thank you soooo much for all this--I can't wait to looking at all of it and making it happen!