Two full years has passed, for a while I feel like I’ve been slowly fraying at the edges, without any wild to hold me together. Lockdown has been harder for me in ways it probably wasn’t hard for others and easier for me in so many ways that I have to feel some gratitude. During the first full year of covid I walked over 3000 miles. Each mile propping me up, bonding with friends I am truly appreciative for and adventures I will always remember. But still, two full years of my life has passed.
28th July 2021, me, scrolling through the socials, article saying travel restrictions have changed, send article to Willow, Willow reads article. Many, many hours on the Google, some hysteria and tears, mainly on my end and 2 days later we have flights to Iceland booked. Not only booked but booked for 4 days time, of which I have to work for two of. We are excellently matched travel companions because neither of us has to worry about each others preparations or packing or gear, we will turn up as equally prepared or unprepared as each other. Didn’t sleep an enormous amount non the less, waking up thinking about where my bloody crocs were, if I have enough grip left on my very old trail runners and most importantly what flavour dried pasta meals will be the least gross and most calorific.
Covis tests, covid tests, covid tests. Adding a new dimension to travel anxiety, one before I leave, one when I’m there and one when I get home, I don’t even care if it’s over kill or the tests cost neary double the price of my flights, it’s a small price to pay, I’ll have my brain tickled by a swab for the chance to get on a plane. Devon needs to step up it’s game though, there’s literally nowhere to have the tests done, it’s been a long while since I’ve felt the annoyance of backwards rural living.
Iceland, Day 1
International travel from the UK is actually amazing. We have the world right there, flights a go go. You know what’s not amazing, traveling to any airport from Devon. I feel like I’m being a bit harsh on my home County and I don’t mean to be because it’s got a lot to offer but public transport is not one of them. However, that being said, I got a considerable amount of joy from being on a National Express coach even if it did take me 10 hours to get to Luton Airport.
Meet me in Iceland were the last directions we gave each other after not seeing each one another for nearly two years. It seemed so normal to just casually see Willow at baggage reclaim, but I couldn’t stop the tears when we finally got to aggressively hug each other in the middle of Keflavik airport, not even caring who was watching our hysteria.
Our first day in Reykjavik consisted of catching up, finalising trekking plans unpacking and repacking our pack, making our best ever trail mix and picking up our packs exclaiming, mmmmm how is it so heavy? Honourable mention of the day has to go to the bowl of soup we had. God knows we love a bowl of soup and this Icelandic (questionable) meat soup was outstanding.
Landmannalaugar to Alftavatn
First of all, don’t ask me to pronounce anything in Icelandic, it’s basically alphabetty spaghetti. Secondly, I barely got any sleep last night because I was all het up about making a decision about what to bring on this hike. I had most of my gear sorted, but I had room for one more thing and two items to choose from. It could either be my down bodywarmer or a tube of prawn cocktail pringles. Stay tuned for the answer to this cliffhanger (as if you don’t already know what I chose!)
This is definitely the least prepared we have ever been for a hike. We were definitely not unprepared by any standards, we are girl scouts first and foremost, but when we arrived in the pop up seasonal tent village of Landmannaluagar and looked at the check list for what would be required for the 4 day hike to Porsmork we laughed and started the hike anyway.
Hiking boots – nope
Map – nope
Compass – pretty useless without the above map
GPS – nope, how do they even work?
Guidebook – well…… I did have a guide book that I had downloaded, written by a geology professor which provided some information about the trail and a lot of very useless information about rocks. The best information he gave was that the trail was well marked which we were wholly relying upon.
The trail is broken into 6 day stages, we only had 3 and bit days just because of our travel schedule. We knew we wanted to double up on our first day, I had heard that the first hut at Hrafntinnusker, was high and exposed and subjected to radical winds to the point where your tent would need to be weighted down with rocks, so we wanted to push on to Alftavatn, but after that we didn’t really know. We could be picked up by bus in either Porsmork which would be us then completing the hike in the recommended time scale, or push on the Skogar which would mean us completing the 6 day hike in 3 days, doubling up on every stage. (Without reading on, if you know us, you can predict our decision im sure)
The first 2 miles of the trail were overcrowded with day hikers fresh from their bus with nothing but an enormous camera and umbrella in their hands. The weather was dull and rainy but the mountains were too majestic to care and still looked spectacular. Within 5 mins of hiking, the phrase, ‘wow, look at that’ or ‘oh man are you seeing this’ was just on constant repeat, and even though we knew neither of us were hiking with our eyes closed, we just couldn’t help but say it.
By about 3pm we had reached the first hut and completed the first 12km. Most hikers had stopped here, there was a huge encampment of tents and hikers milling around in crocs, already done for the day. We ate a swift lunch of tuna wraps and prawn cocktail pringles (did you guess right?) and carried on hiking, even though we were cold and wet and tired and tried not to think about how warm they must be.
The second half of the hike turned out to be one of my favourite landscapes of the hike, it was like nothing I had ever seen before, and at this pont I had no idea that everyday would be a landscape like nothing I had ever seen before. Jet black, glinting rocks like glass (I know from my new found rock knowledge it was obsidian), geysers and boiling springs, radioactive green moss and the snow covered peaks of volcanoes. The terrain was hard, continuous steep ups and downs in loose ashy sand. Around every corner and every high pass was a new set of mountains, it’s like a new chapter of your favourite book, you know it’s going to be good, but every page turn gets you more and more gripped and immersed in the unfolding story. It’s the only reward for the hard work.
As the afternoon went on, the weather closed in on us, and rain began to fall and hard. We had to descend into a lush green valley way below us to find our home for night. Even in full waterproofs, I was getting soaked by sideways, in your earhole, freezing rain. The steep downhill trail turned into a river of slippery mud and rolling rocks. In the very distance we could see the lake we would be camping next to, but it was definitely a head down and hike last few miles.
Soaked to our bones we reached camp as it stopped to a light but continuous drizzle. You have to stay at the mountain huts as wild camping is not permitted, but you can put your own tent up outside the huts which we have chosen to do on this hike. Easier said than done when your fingers are so cold they have frozen into spatulas. I would highly recommend practicing putting up your tent with wooden spoons instead of hands if you are going to do this hike, it would have been a skill worth having at this point. We stayed in our wet clothing to cook dinner, for fear of our sacred dry sleeping clothes getting wet, but it was pretty unpleasant. Still no pringles regrets BTW.
Do you have a minute to talk about our Lord and Saviour (nope not Jesus Christ) but King of the luxury items, talcum powder? Seriously, I should be sponsored by Johnson and Johnson, because I have nothing but rave reviews, when you are wet and just want to be really dry, talc is the way, when you smell terrible and need a fresh scent, talc, when your butthole is chaffing, talc. It’s the only thing I carry in my first aid kit and I would never hike without it.
Alftavatn to Porsmork
34km (21.6 miles)
Pretty freezing, wet and windy night broken up by a totally surreal moment of going for a wee at 1am and it being light. The sun barely sets this time of year this far north, so knowing we had a lot of hiking hours in a day, we decided to push on, double up on the next two stages, and do the 20 plus miles all the way to Porsmork.
We got a pretty early start, well away on the trail in the 7 O’ clock hour to a few patches of hopeful blue sky. I managed to basically tumble dry my wet clothes overnight inside my sleeping bag, but my shoes were absolutely soaked and frozen which was mildly unpleasant but wore off after a few steps. The great thing about trail runners vs boots is that I know they will dry and be warm almost immediately where boots would just stay wet for eternity.
First up on our agenda was our first river crossing. A total faff, taking off your pack, your shoes and socks and trying to get your leggings to roll up above your knees but not cut the circulation off, then crossing the fast flowing glacial river without getting dunked or swept away, to then repeat the faff in reverse. When you first enter the water it takes your breath away, then by about the middle of the river you’ve lost all feeling in your feet, then searing pain, then it’s over. I enjoyed it way more than I probably should have, totally refreshing!
Surprise, totally new landscape today. A lush green hobbit valley. I love a traditional pointy mountain and all morning we were surrounded by them, erupting around every corner. It’s name is Hvanngil, translated means Angelic Valley. Under our feet was a path straight though a lava field, not obsidian today but basalt (nerd knowledge thanks to our geology guide book) and all around us, bright green mountains and super pretty wildflowers. The ground is so black it’s hard to believe it can support such a delicate and pretty ecosystem. The contrast between the black and the colour scale is really unique.
With some reasonably easy terrain we found ourselves at the first hut by noon, solidifying our decision to press on, we are not the kind of hikers who are good at hanging around camp for an afternoon, although perhaps this is something to investigate for when our bodies give out, but for now we are happy to do big mileages while we can.
With the afternoon came many more changes, we started following a deep gorge, that eventually twisted and turned away, leaving us in a dry and barron basalt desert, but flat (mountain flat) terrain.
Our destination of Porsmork is pronounced Thorsmork. Thor being a norse God and Mork meaning trees or forest. Iceland is not home to any forests thanks to viking invasion who wiped them all out, but a few have regenerated in this rich valley, mostly shrubs no taller than us, but our guide book told us it was tradition to yell “Mork” in celebration of seeing them, which we took very literally for the whole afternoon.
One last river crossing at the 31km mark and we thought we were done, only to discover the actual campsite was a further 3.5km away. I thought we were home and dry with no tantrums, but we trudged on pretty grumpy about the additional mileage with the only consolation being that it was shaving miles off our day tomorrow.
Setting up camp was remarkably easier with opposable thumbs, we are camping pretty much at sea level so the temperature, although still only about 10 degrees, was remarkably warmer than the night before. We have nicknamed Porsmork, pronounced Thorsmork as ‘Porksmork’ which has brought us great joy in many a damp situation so far on this hike, we just have to keep reminding ourselves to not say it in front of other people so they don’t think we are accidentally mispronouncing it.
We bought ourselves a snickers bar each which was so delicious and retired to our tent before 9pm, pretty nervous about the hike tomorrow with very little margin for error, it was going to be a big day.
Porksmork to Skogar
26km (16.2 miles)
Slept pretty well, in fact better than I probably would have in a bed, except for the old lady hip pains of being on the ground. From the tent it was hard to be sure and I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but it looked like blue sky. Carefully unzipping the tent we were welcomed by full sunshine, not a cloud in sight!
Our living space is small, our tent is about a metre wide in total, and there’s some intense yoga positions we need to be in to allow the other person to enter or exit or move really, but the combined body heat has been well worth it in these conditions, but we have been fantasising hard about a tent with 2 side openings.
Today’s hike was to take us immediately up over 1100 metres of elevation gain over the top of the active volcano Eyjafjallajokull, which you may remember from the 2010 eruption which caused flights ground to a halt. Early start for us but a wonderful day for hiking.
The day started in full greenery of every shade but was constantly climbing. Not unbearable and the few incredibly steep sections gave way to flat plateaus which proved some much needed respite and sped up our pace. One section definitely got my heart pounding when crossing a deep ravine on a knife edge, which gave way to a section of chain to hold onto to stop anyone falling down the cliff. Absolutely no way I was going to stop and take a picture, I could barely form words and held my breath the entire time and that’s coming from someone who takes absolute joy from the look on my mother’s face when I stand near cliff edges.
The upward climb got continuously more strenuous, there were some terrifying sections of loose ash sand, like walking up an escalator going in the opposite direction, but they were short sections which gave way quickly to other equally terrifying terrains just just keep your brain active. Once we reached the first high pass the landscape opened out to an enormous white and black plateau.
We found ourselves saying things like, let’s walk on the glacier but stay close to the lava. Not a sentence I have ever used in my life before. There were lots of choose your own adventure moments, either walk on razor sharp lava rocks or slippery cold ice. I feel pretty confident walking on scree and sand type ground, probably because I’ve grown up playing in sand dunes, but feel like bambi when it comes to snow and ice which is the total opposite for Willow who has several white out months every year. Shortly after laughing at willow sliding down a sand bank on her derriere I got my comeuppance when it turned to an incredibly steep down hill section of ash covered melting ice. Her words of wisdom were ‘just let your feet slide a bit’ to which I replied, I can’t I’m too busy trying to swallow my mouthful of bile, apparently stressful mountain situations give me terrible indigestion.
On we climbed as the wind kicked up a gear forcing us back into our layers of clothing, to cross the relentless snow fields followed by lava flow followed by ash scree and over again.
We finally reached the high pass of 1100m just in time for lunch. We couldn’t dawdle here, the wind was whipping up into a frenzy and we still had the downhill to do.
Pretty immediately we began to feel the warmth of the sun and had to keep stripping layers off as we descended off the top. The trail was rocky making it slow going but not steep. We had a constant stream of hikers coming towards us on a day hike from our destination seeking the thrill of a mountain top without the hardship of the pass. I’m wondering if I may have lost my tolerance for people over the last months after turing to Willow and proclaiming ‘I’m not saying hello to any more people, im sick of it’
The path turned green and the valley opened up to rolling hills and a deep river gorge. We followed the river down the whole way, being treated to enormous and picturesque waterfalls, that were so loud we couldn’t hear each other but providing a glorious cold mist spray for newly crisp, sunburnt faces.
The hike down was not at all strenuous except that we were nearing 80km after only three days of hiking, our legs were tired and our feet were pounded. We took a ridiculously luxurious pack off, shoes off, feet in the glacial river break with snacks. The ice cold water hurt so good, it was like torture therapy. Another honourable mention goes to our trail mix, a perfect blend of UK and USA, sweet, salty and spicy, it was genuinely a work of art.
The final push of the descent took us down the side of a 65 metre waterfall, where the very bottom would be out final campsite. It was magical and thunderous and possibly our most majestic non mountain tent view ever. We plonked down, poped our tent and began to relax in the sheer relief it was over, a 6 day hike beasted into 3 days finishing with a rainbow. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, burnt face and all.
Our last 2 days in Iceland were about the closest we’ve ever been to taking a vacation. On the way back to Reykjavik from the trail we stopped at one of Iceland’s infamous public pools, a beautifully clean and warm outdoor pool with many hot tubs varying in temperature from warm to cooked lobster, an ice bath and sauna, everything our poor little bodies needed, absolute heaven, followed by a picnic in the park full of weird cheese and breads and strange chocolate and liquorice items.
Our final day was spent moseying around the old harbour in Reykjavik on a truly beautiful summers day and a whale watching boat tour. We saw Dolphins in large pods and puffins playing and our commitment to seeing a whale was rewarded right when everyone else had given up hope and gone inside to warm up from the artic winds, the breaching back of a Minke whale.
Tinged with some sadness we treated ourselves to some great food for dinner with many stories shared of the last 2 years apart and dreams of our future plans. Friends who suffer together stay together.
Cue more airport crying……