How not to hike : a novice in Iceland – PART 2

Day Two – Landamannalaugar to Hraftinnusker

My first day of Laugavegurin (“the hot springs way”) began at an ungodly hour, with a swift breakfast and a gear inspection by the wardens. All my stuff was up to scratch, but my bag weighed a tonne.

“Are you sure you can carry this thing?” the warden asked, concern creasing her face as she dragged my rucksack off a set of scales with a worrying thud.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’ve done this all before.”

This was an outright lie of course, designed to make both her and myself more confident in my hiking abilities. The previous evening I had stocked up on tins of meatballs and carrots from the Mountain Mall, Landmannalaugar’s mini supermarket located inside a bus. Heavy tinned food is perhaps one of the worst things to carry on a trek, as I would soon learn to my cost. Signing my name in the trekkers’ book I set off in high spirits, unaware of the dangers that lay ahead.

Other than a steep climb up an icy bank at the very start, the going was easy for the first leg of the trail. A broad, flat plateau opened up ahead, next to which stood the lava field that had unnerved me so much the previous evening. For an hour or so I trod along happily, my over-burdened rucksack not yet causing me any serious grief. The scenery was jaw-dropping, with rock, ice and strangely multi-coloured mountains on all sides.

My previous cockiness began to fade as the path grew steadily steeper. Suddenly the pathways were less firm underfoot and often hidden under treacherous, crunchy ice. On two separate occasions both my legs went right through what had at first appeared to be sturdy ground, leaving me in a blind panic and kicking into a deep, empty space. Shelves of melting snow were clearly not to be trusted and for a time following the footprints of other hikers were the only way to safely negotiate the route. The thought that these tracks might have been made by similarly befuddled hikers filled me with dread, and at any moment I expected to stumble over a frozen corpse.

            These two minor incidents served as a reminder to start taking things more seriously. They had taught me to respect the landscape, as it had became evident how much more powerful it was. The key was to take things slowly, think things through and not take any unnecessary risks. All of these things I began to do, though now the weight of my rucksack was a serious problem. Clearly quite unfit, I had to take frequent rest-stops. This made the going a lot slower of course, but did allow me to bask in the glory of my surroundings. Although treacherous, the melting snow gave the pastel-coloured mountains an added beauty, one that was ever changing and slowly disappearing as Summer drew to its height. This time tomorrow, I knew, it could all look very different. While drinking it all in I realised that I had not passed another person for hours. The bubbling of boiling hot springs provided the only noise, and an eggy guff of sulphur the only smell.

            The last few hundred metres to the hut at Hrafntinnsuker were hellish, as a combination of a steep, icy slope and a rucksack that only seemed to get heavier had me on the brink of despair. Near this spot in 2005 somebody had perished in appalling weather, so close to warmth and safety. Luckily for me the weather and vision were perfect and the sight of the hut, Höskuldsskáli, made me drop to my knees with joy.

The hut was full almost to bursting with hikers of all nations. People were crammed into every nook and cranny of the building – eating, sleeping or recounting tales of their journeys to this desolate spot.

After the tough day I’d had the though of camping outside on the ice was far from appealing, so I happily coughed up the extra money for a warm, dry bed for the night. This consisted of a thin mattress only, but to my tired body it was heavenly. Some people did brave the ice but lived to regret it. A Dutch couple told me the following morning how the cold had kept them awake the whole night, despite them wearing all of their gear inside their sleeping bags.

After resting up for a couple of hours I got chatting to the warden, a ruddy-faced young man who ran the place all alone during the summer months. He explained how when he had arrived here three weeks before the hut was almost totally buried under snow. He had hiked there of course and his first job was to dig his way in. Gradually the snow had melted but still smothered one half of the building as if it was desperately trying to devour the whole thing.

The warden was a geology student and encouraged me to explore the hillsides for pieces of Obsidian, black volcanic glass that gives Hrafntinnusker its name –  “Obsidian Peak”. This I did with great enthusiasm and spent a fascinating hour trying to find a suitable piece to give to my girlfriend of all but a week. How strange it was – only seven days before I had kissed her for the first time, now I was on a mountainside in Iceland trying to find her a piece of black, volcanic glass. She still has it.

After a hearty meal of pasta and sauce (kindly donated by a group of Slovenians, who saw me eyeing their meal with hungry eyes) it seemed wise to explore the area a little more. A Slovenian suggested a walk up to a nearby peak named Söðull. The way up was treacherous but enjoyable due to the buffeting winds from all directions. The effort was well worth it for the 360 degree views from the top. It was almost 10pm but the sun showed no signs of going to sleep. Thanks to this late-night sun the route for the following day was laid out clearly and my excitement rose. Another hiker had told me that the hardest part was over and it was all downhill from here. Never before had the word “downhill” gladdened my heart so much.

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