Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Inside Stakkholtsgjá Canyon

The second hike I did on Tuesday was special enough I thought it deserved its own post. The canyon is accessible by bus once a day from the Volcano Huts (or, I suppose, by foot). The ride is only 15 minutes via Reykjavik Excursions. (If you get to the huts on RE, as most people do, the ride to the canyon is free.)

South of Þórsmörk is the Krossá river valley. On the south side of it, the Stakkholtsgjá canyon opens up between tall cliffs. This canyon itself is the hike, although there is no trail per se. It's quite flat, but a hiker will have to cross a stream several times. I would recommend hiking poles, and if you know me you know I don't use them! But they are helpful for stream crossings.

The canyon itself is beautiful; my photo above doesn't do it justice.* The walls are vertical, and in many places green with mosses and small plants. The canyon winds a bit, so the view constantly changes. 

I was the only one to get off the bus, but I encountered other hikers who had arrived by car or tourbus. Aside from the large group of Americans, chattering away about their lives and seemingly oblivious to their surroundings, the experience seemed to reduce most visitors to silence. With the high walls and the tumbling of the water, the space seemed sacred.

It was probably my favorite hike thus far, although I had a feeling that this was one of those trips where I said that about every hike. If I come back to Þórsmörk, it'll be to do the Fimmvörðuháls or Laugavegur treks, not repeat dayhikes, but I would stay an extra day just to do Stakkholtsgjá again.

* Better photos to come from my camera.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Merkurrani Plateau and Valahnúkur

With another hike planned for the afternoon, I decided to kill the morning by doing the Merkurrani Plateau hike, which didn't sound all that exciting.

At first it goes up through the woods, past Sönghellir cave, which I didn't stop to look at. Maybe next time. The trail is supposed to turn west, while the trail up to Valahnúkur goes straight. I didn't see my turn, but I wanted to go up it anyway.

It was a steep ascent, 869 feet, and much of it heavily used and in need of some TLC. However, the view from the top was incredible in all directions. At the peak there is a sundial (inoperative at the moment) that also labels all the surrounding features. Unlike Rjúpnafell, the view from the top was much better than on the way up.

On the way down the turnoff was more visible; at least, the pegs were. The path itself wasn't worn. It followed the top of the plateau quite pleasantly for a while, before descending to the valley below. 

Supposedly, the trail passes by the cave Sóttarnellir, but I didn't see it. However, I had descended all the way to the valley, and on the map it's not clear the trail goes that low.

The hike was about 3-4 miles total, with 1079 feet of cumulative elevation gain.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hiking the Tindfjöll Circle and Rjúpnafell Mountain

On my first full day in Þórsmörk, I decided to hike the Tindfjöll Circle, a hike of 4-6 hours.* It's the longest of the recommended short hikes in the area - the longer ones being the two treks that end in the valley.

From the hut to the riverbed (2km) is pleasant but nothing exciting. From there one picks up the Tindfjöll trail.**

The trail climbs gently up through a canyon to emerge on the north face of Tindfjöll, with spectacular views in every direction. My phone was hard-pressed to capture them, although I hope my proper camera did better. The trail heads east towards Tröllakirkja, a rock outcropping that looks rather like two hands pressed together in prayer. 

Not far past this point, the mountain Rjúpnafell is visible. It sticks out quite  obviously from the land around it and is also obviously quite steep; the trail switches back and forth up the side of it. For some reason I decided it would be a good idea to climb it.***

After heading downhill to a pretty mountain stream, I began the ascent. It was steep to begin with and got more so, until I was using my hands as much as my feet.

Finally, I did something I don't do very often; I decided to turn around before the peak. I was at least two-thirds of the way up, and technically I probably could have done it, but it wasn't fun. The views weren't going to get any better - I was already on the side of a bald mountain. And all I was doing was worrying about getting back down again.

So I climbed down and set out to finish the Circle. The trail here is a little dull (relatively speaking), until the river valley comes into view. From there it is ludicrously spectacular, with viewpoint after viewpoint, descending to the river. The trail then follows the river back to the beginning of the loop.****

All in all, it was a lovely hike. It's in need of some maintenance, which I believe it is undergoing, but Icelandic weather is rough on trails. My best guess is that I hiked 5-6 miles, with 3,238 feet of elevation gain. (The latter being derived from the altimeter on my watch, although as it is based on barometric pressure it is basically useless in Iceland.)

* This is my first of many pet peeves about the Icelandic trail maps; the one sold through Volcano Huts lists distance only in time. You can only estimate imprecisely with the key.

** Theoretically. My second pet peeve is that the Volcano Hut maps color-code the trails, but in different colors than the trail markers. Blindly following the markers led me to cross the river quite unnecessarily, although to be fair it was quite obvious from the map that I shouldn't.

*** My third pet peeve is that the VH maps indicate steepness with "xxxxxxx" on the trail, ignoring the perfectly good convention of contour lines. Here the official Iceland area maps do a much better job, although they are worse in almost every other way. They make great guides to the local birds, though. Which is exactly what one looks for in a map.

**** On one online forum, a user complained that the trail in fact did not follow the river valley, which was impassable. Here I am inclined to give the VH map a pass, as (a) there was a trail and (b) the watercourse changes from year to year and season to season. Mind you, I extend no such charity to the Iceland map, as it doesn't show the river trail at all.

Two weeks in Skaftafell

Yesterday was my last day in Skaftafell. We spent the last two weeks building a bog bridge, repairing wooden-earthen steps, digging out water bars, rebuilding ditches, building stone step, and uprooting lupin. I learned to cut turf and use a handsaw properly and greatly improved my hammering efficiency. We were quite lucky with the weather, with only three days being wet, and the free weekend was beautifully clear. Even so, it was great to have professional-grade 66* North raingear. Icelandic summers are pleasant enough if you lose the expectation that the air ought to be warm on your skin, but working in them requires an adaptable wardrobe. The rest of the team was awesome. There were three Americans (all New Yorkers) and seven Brits (one of whom lived in Germany), varying in age from 18 to 40-something. While we varied in experience and expertise, everyone worked hard - on the trail and in the kitchen, as we had to cook our dinners in teams. I probably ate much healthier than usual as a result. I'm now on to Þórsmörk for a few days of hiking.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Volunteering in Skaftafell

To read more about what I'm doing for two weeks in Skaftafell, check out a blog by two of my fellow volunteers here. Lots of detail and good pictures!