Living large on the lava fields at the Fimmvörðuháls Pass, Iceland

I'm glad it was misty so I was little less aware of the 2,000 foot drop on both sides of this ridge.

I’m glad it was misty so I was little less aware of the 2,000 foot drop on both sides of this ridge.

When we arrive at the lava flows, I am so glad that we opted to make the trek from Þorsmork (pronounced “Thorsmork”) to this misty pass between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers here in southern Iceland.  Yesterday the forecast looked grim, with rain and high winds predicted. Several of the groups camped out at the huts in Þorsmork bailed Saturday morning on the early bus to Reykjavik.  Our group of nine, led by our guide Elin, decided that we would attempt the hike to the Fimmvörðuháls pass, but would postpone our start until after lunch to avoid the worst of the weather.

That’s one great advantage of summer-time hiking in Iceland – although the sun may briefly set, it never gets dark, so hikers can hike around the clock without worrying about walking in the dark. After seven days in Iceland, I have come to appreciate long days of light (with about three hours of dusky twilight) and to enjoy wandering about after dinner for a 10 p.m. walk.  (Wearing blinders helps me to get a good night’s sleep).

July 2013 DF 192

We hiked in the braided bed of the Krossá River en route to the glaciers. When Katla erupts, this river bed might quickly fill with raging icy water.

My husband and I came to Iceland to do the world-renowned Laugavegur trek from Landmannalaugar to Þorsmork, and then to continue the trek by hiking from Þorsmork over the pass and then down along the many waterfalls of the Skógaá.  I had long wanted to complete this trek, but I especially wanted to climb up to the glaciers to see the landscape created by the 2010 eruption of the volcano beneath Eyjafjallajökull glacier.

In April 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption created a cloud of moisture-laden ash that shut down all air traffic to and from Europe for almost two weeks. Today, scientists in Iceland are monitoring Katla, the volcano that lies beneath the other, larger glacier, Mýrdalsjökull, and which has erupted every 40-60 years since Iceland was settled around 800 AD.  The volcano, which may be the largest in the northern hemisphere, is way overdue for its eruption and recently has been showing signs of increased activity.  Because of its size and power, Katla is a more destructive volcano, mostly due to the intense flash floods created when ice over the volcanic vent melts.  Trailside signs within a 25-mile radius of Katla tell hikers to run for high ground if they see or hear flares that mountain hut masters will shoot into the air if an eruption is imminent.

July 2013 DF 201

Just for fun, another view of the narrow ridge. I didn’t dare take out my camera at the other tricky spot, where I clung to an anchored chain only to realize half-way across that most of the anchors had pulled loose.

For months now, I had been looking forward to the climb up to the pass, where we planned to spend the night in a small mountain hut.  But I have to say, when Elin said the weather might prevent us from hiking to the glaciers, I wasn’t as crushed as I might have expected. I greatly enjoyed the four-day Laugavegur trek from Landmannalaugar, but I hadn’t undertaken a multi-day hike since before my son was born, and I was pretty hiked out after four long days on the trail.

But when we arrive at the glacier, all of us soaking wet despite our rain gear, I am so so glad we made it here.  Wrinkled mounds of dark reddish-brown cooled lava rise out of the snow.  Up close, I can see broken off lava tubes through which the molten lave poured in 2010. When I put my hand on the earth, I can feel the warmth leftover from the eruption.  These lava fields are amazing ++!

Lava fields in a misty landscape between the two glaciers.

Lava fields in a misty landscape between the two glaciers.

To get to the lava fields, we climbed up about 3000 feet (1000 meters) from Þorsmork – the Valley of  Thor – along a path that rose gradually over about six or seven miles. By New England standards, the hiking was fairly easy and not steep. At one point, however, we walked across a three-foot wide ridge, with the mountain dropping off a 2,000 feet on each side, a softer version of the Knife Edge at Maine’s Mount Katahdin.  I felt a wee bit terrified, but manage to scramble across the ridge.

Later, as we climbed higher, we walked on a path about 16 inches wide, with volcanic-sand mountain on one side and a steep drop-off on the other.  Along the path was a chain that hikers can hold onto for security, but the chain was anchored in the sandy-rocky volcanic scree, and at several points, the anchors had pulled free.  So, not much security there.  But it’s good to live on the edge, right? And maybe that’s why I wanted to come here, to see if I still have it in me to live on that edge.

Our Romanian hiking buddy Michaela points out a lava tube.

Our Romanian hiking buddy Michaela points out a lava tube.

At the rainy pass, after spending some time exploring the lava fields, we continue on in a thick mist, trudging through mushy snow towards the hut where we will spend the night.  By the time we reach it, all of us are thoroughly soaked. A scramble of changing clothes, stringing up lines, and hanging things ensues.  This hut, which is newly built and at which we are the first or nearly the first visitors, sits on a gravelly flat spot on the pass and is very exposed to the wind.  The hut had an outhouse, but it blew away a few days after its installation.

Our guide stands on a snowfield melting over the lava.

Our guide stands on a snowfield melting over the lava.

By now, it is after 9 p.m. In the tiny kitchen area, Elin efficiently prepares a late-night supper of lightly fried Arctic char.  Our group, which includes four other American hikers, a German guy and a young woman from Romania, gathers around the table and dives into the food.  I am so happy to be here, on this ghostly mountain pass on a mid-summer eve.

The total hiking distance for the trek from Landmannalaugar to Skogar is roughly 72 kilometers (45 miles) over 6 days, with a maximum daily ascent of 800 meters (2600 feet) and about 4-7 hours of hiking time per day.

A view of the hut at Fimmvörðuháls . The mist was starting to clear.

A view of the hut at Finnmordhuhals. The mist was starting to clear.

Resources

As I said in my earlier post, I completed this trek with a group through Icelandic Mountain Guides, but hikers can do it on their own too.

See a few more photos below!

We saw more than 20 waterfalls on the hike down to the highway and Skogar Falls.

We saw more than 20 waterfalls on the hike from the hut at Fimmvörðuháls down to Skogar. Pictured here, Skogar Falls, which is directly off a major highway.

You can't blog about Iceland and NOT include a photo of the Blue Lagoon. It's overpriced and touristy, but those flaws don't make it any less spectacular.

You can’t blog about Iceland and NOT include a photo of the Blue Lagoon. It’s overpriced and touristy, but those flaws don’t make it any less spectacular.

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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2 Responses to Living large on the lava fields at the Fimmvörðuháls Pass, Iceland

  1. Rachel says:

    Wow, Iceland looks like a great place to visit, we’ll have to go check it out.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. There are very few places on Earth where you can see lava in person. And even fewer where you can walk right up to it. Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii is the safest and easiest to access of these locations.

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