Reykjavik, Laugavegur Trek, and Fimmvörðuháls Pass; July 28 - August 4, 2012

Emily arrived from New York on schedule and we spent a day exploring Reykjavik. With only 120,000 residents, Iceland's capital isn't much more than a town -- a very accessible and enjoyable one at that, at least on a sunny summer's day (photos 1 and 2). In Reykjavik we also met up with Hjalli Hafsteinsson, a friend from graduate school (now a professor at the University of Iceland), whom we hadn't seen in almost 25 years.

The next morning we set off by bus for Landmannalauger, the starting point for the popular Laugavegur trek. We would connect the four-day Laugavegur trek with the two-day crossing of the Fimmvörðuháls pass, ending in the coastal town of Sk
ógar. The Laugavegur trek is being touted as one of world's great multiday walks, while the somewhat more difficult Fimmvörðuháls crossing is popular among hardy Icelanders, many of whom do it in one extremely long day. Thórsmörk, where the trails connect, is a beautiful valley that's accessible by four-wheel drive, although a photo album in the Thórsmörk hut shows an alarming number of vehicles and even buses overturned in the road's notorious river crossing.

Over the years we've trekked in just about every mode: self-sufficient backpacking, fully-supported guided expeditions, strings of Alpine huts with three-course dinners and wine, you name it. The options for this trek were to camp, or to stay in self-catering huts. With Iceland's reputation for bad weather and cold, we opted for the latter -- bunks or mattresses in shared space, toilets, cooking facilities, and a warden. Given the popularity of the Laugavegur trek, and especially the relatively small hut at the Fimmvörðuháls pass (photo 3), we'd had to book several months in advance. The hut accommodations varied a great deal, from a lucky private room with four single beds, to 20 trekkers crammed in tightly-packed bunk beds (two people on each 1½ person sized mattress). Our hut-mates were an international crowd of varying ages, although 20-something Europeans dominated. We didn't meet any other Americans, nor any other families.

The trek was indeed stunning, in part because we were extremely lucky with the weather: We had two overcast days and four mostly-sunny ones, with the only rain coming in the late afternoon or evening, well after we'd arrived at our hut for the day. The Laugavegur trek begins in a unique area of colorful rhyolite hills (photo 4) and plenty of geothermal activity (photo 5). It moves into greener vistas with rivers, mountains, and glaciers (photo 6), then bleak volcanic territory (photo 7), and finally the
Thórsmörk Valley (photo 8, taken on the next day's hike). For us, the remote Fimmvörðuháls crossing was the highlight. The hike up steep mountainsides (photo 9) brought us to an otherworldly plateau (photo 10) between two major icefields. Shortly before reaching the hut, we explored an area still smoking (photo 11) from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, remembered for its ash cloud that halted air travel in 2010.

The Fimmvörðuháls crossing also had the most interesting human element. Shortly after we reached the hut -- we were the first to arrive around 3pm -- dense fog enveloped the pass. A guided group of 11 Spaniards arrived safely a couple of hours later, but into the evening two separate parties arrived visibly shaken from getting lost in their attempts to cross the pass. It hadn't helped that a critical snow step (photo 12) had collapsed after all of the Spaniards used it. Even though the small hut was fully booked, the exceptionally friendly warden accommodated the lost hikers, making for what we'll simply describe as a "cozy" night. Despite some hikers' hardships, on the same stretch we met an Icelander with multicolored hair and a dog, toting a mountain-equipped unicycle up one side of the pass in order to ride it down the other (all in one day), and an older hiker tuning his ukelele.

The six-day trek involved numerous river crossings (photo 13), and the trails tended to be quite steep -- Icelanders don't seem to believe in switchbacks. But the hiking days weren't particularly long (typically well under 10 miles), allowing us to take several interesting side trips. Tim wasn't quite as busy with photography as he was on the camper part of the trip, but he still had many nice opportunities (photo 14), and he was happy with the result. Our final trekking day descending from Fimmvörðuháls had no fewer than 23 major waterfalls along the trail. The last waterfall, the famous Sk
ógafoss, was conveniently situated at a bus stop, bringing us back to Reykjavik for our flight home.


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