This is the 2nd in a 4 part blog about our Iceland trip. Click on the hyperlinked text to navigate to the other blogs.
Hiking in Vatnajökull National Park & the Fimmvörðuháls Pass
Our first destination in southeastern Iceland was Vatnajökull National Park. Even the drive on the Ring Road was incredibly scenic. The green color in the mountains and hills was so intense.
Vatnajökull National Park, Falljokull Glacier Hike
Vatnajökull National Park covers 4600 sq miles or approximately 14% of Iceland, making it Europe's second largest national park in terms of area. Vatnajökull Glacier, which is larger than all of Europe's other glaciers combined, dominates the park. The glacial ice is approximately 1300-2000 feet thick but has a maximum thickness of 3100 feet. The glacier easily conceals a number of mountains, valleys, and volcanoes. There is so much water is stored in Vatnajökull that the Icelandic river with the greatest flow, Ölfusá, would need over 200 years to carry this quantity of water to sea.
After some research, we chose Extreme Iceland tour company for our Vatnajökull adventure. Click on the hyperlinked text for more information about this company. We were really excited about Extreme Iceland's hike on the Falljokull Glacier that included a glacier walk with ice wall climbing. And again, this is what you get when Googling 'extreme' and 'epic' when searching for something to do.
After a short van ride from the Skaftafell park entrance, we began our hike on the glacier. Oddly, you could not tell exactly where the glacier began since the edge is covered by sand, silt, and rock that has been carried down by the glacier as it flows through the valley.
We passed a river and number of 'lakes' created by glacial melting. As we hiked further we saw another group on the glacier. Our hike would bring us well above the area where this group was walking. This other group was obviously the 'non-extreme' one.
So what exactly is a glacier? Glaciers are huge rivers of ice, but they are not formed by frozen water. They form only in places where fresh snow never fully melts. Building up on mountain tops for millenniums, the snow compresses and transforms into dense ice under its own weight. As newly fallen snow is constantly accumulating, the ice keeps growing and, being very heavy, it moves down the mountain toward the ocean like an extremely slow river.
As the ice flows, the base and sides of a glacier moves slower than the surface ice in the middle of the glacier. This difference in movement and pressure contributes to the development of deep cracks and crevasses in the surface of a glacier. Our guide's job was to navigate us safely over the unstable ice and around the crevasses.
Having fun drinking water from melting ice that probably formed hundreds of years ago.
Looking into a 'moulin' which is a narrow, tube-like crevasse where water enters a glacier from the surface. Sand and gravel in the water acts as drill bits chewing through the ice.
The jagged ice surface and ice stacking is caused by ice on the surface moving faster than ice on the bottom and sides of the glacier.
Dave takes a quick break before we started ice climbing.
Ice climbing was more difficult than it looks in these pictures. Little did we know these were exercises to prepare us for our final adventure on the glacier.
As our group was small and doing fairly well on the easier climbs, the guide brought us to a different area of the glacier where he invited is to repel 40-60 feet into a crevasse. After a little hesitation Steve agreed to give it a try. We basically were trusting our lives to a one-foot long ice screw, rope, and a guide who weighed no more than 150 pounds to safely guide us into the crevasse and get us back to the surface. Dave agreed to go down into the crevasse before the last person in the group was going to go. He knew if he didn't do it then, he would always regret it. What an incredible rush when we reached the bottom of the crevasse!
What a day and what a great view as we headed back down the glacier.
Fimmvörðuháls Pass Day Trek (15.5 miles and 3280 foot elevation gain; 10-12 hours)
So would you like to hike between two glaciers and a volcano! If yes, then the Fimmvörðuháls hike is for you. National Geographic voted the Fimmvörðuháls Pass as one of the world’s best hikes. This is how they describe the hike but the following pictures tell the real story (note the word epic twice in the description):
"If you want a big, epic, non-technical, visually and geographically all-encompassing adventure, perhaps one of the most epic hikes in Iceland is the hike through the Fimmvörðuháls Pass; it’s a tiny strip of land that sits between two glaciers: Eyjafjallajökull (of 2010 eruption fame) and Mýrdalsjökull ."
The trek started at the Skógarfoss Waterfall. Since this was a one-way hike, we had to rely on a bus to return from the endpoint of our hike to our car in a parking lot near the falls (more on that later!). After admiring the waterfall, it was time to walk up the staircase along the waterfall and begin the long hike.
Notice the size of the people in the top right corner of the following picture. The waterfall was immense. I knew this hike was going to be 'photo trouble' based in the number of pictures I took before we reached the top of the waterfalls.
After reaching the top of the falls, the trail followed the Skoga River past lush covered hills, grassy tundra, mountain views, and twenty-six waterfalls. It was torture to try and select just a few pictures for this part of the hike.
One of the more spectacular waterfalls.
Pictured below is the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. The guide informed it was was unusual to have such a clear view of Eyjafjallajökull.
One-third of the way through the hike, we crossed a narrow bridge over the Skógá river and entered the volcanic region between two glaciers. The scenery changed from lush river canyons to barren volcanic rocks with only scattered patches of moss.
We took a break at the Baldvinsskáli hut while the guide checked a national alert he had received on his radio. The alert was triggered by a thunder storm. Storms can sometime be a precursor to an volcanic eruption. After 10-15 minutes, an 'all-clear' message was received and we continued. When I asked what would happen if the an eruption were to occur, he replied that "we would walk in which ever direction was most safe!" That's life in Iceland; go with the flow (or is at away from the flow?).
Leaving the hut area, we started hiking through the Fimmvörðuháls Pass which lies between the two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. The glaciers have a tremendous impact on weather conditions in the pass. Unpredictable and sudden fog, snow, or rain storms can obscure trail markers making it difficult to navigate.
Hills of volcanic ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruptions made hiking through the next section of the snowfield tough. It was a good cardio workout by the time we reached the top.
To add to our 'pain', the trail became more steep and the weather took a turn for the worst with fog and freezing rain. Notice how the snow is more ash-stained than earlier in the hike.
Toward the end of this snowfield, we entered the new lava field (Goðahraun, Lava of the Gods) created by the March 2010 'fissure eruption' (500 meters long) that opened up along the pass. Fissure eruptions occur when magma flows up through cracks in the ground and leaks out onto the surface. Fissure eruptions are more like lava fountains than explosive eruptions.
Since new magma flowed from 13 craters in the fissure, there are no steep volcano-shaped mountains but rather several new 'bumps' in the landscape.
A picture of the 2010 fissure eruption on Fimmvörðuháls.
About one month after the fissure eruptions, a major explosive eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano occurred and spread ash through much of mainland Europe.
Magni and Móði are two of the newest craters in Iceland. These craters formed during the 2010 eruption. Four years after the eruption, steam is still rising from the ground due to heat from the magma just below the surface. Luckily, we were able to summit these two craters (peaks in the top left and center portion of the picture below). However, we were warned not to dig into the ground with our hands or boots while we were on the craters.
This was likely one of the 'blow-holes' that caused some of the spectacular fountains of lava during the 2010 eruption.
Looking toward Thórsmörk from the top of Móði.
We descended Móði and began our trek toward Thórsmörk.
The hike was all down hill from this point. A steep and slippery hill called Brattafönn slowed our pace down considerably. Adding fog made the trail even more challenging.
There was no relaxing break on this hike. The next challenge was the Heljarkambur ridge, a 50-meter long knife-edge ridge. A support chain was installed on this section for safety reasons.
The reward for completing the chains was amazing views of the valley and canyons leading to Thórsmörk.
This is one of my favorite pictures of Dave and I from the hike with the Hvannárgil Canyon behind us. This epic view looks like a scene from Lord of the Rings.
The final piece of the hike involved crossing ‘Kattahryggur’ (the Cat’s Spine). It’s pretty narrow with a steep drop from each side.
After 15+ miles, we reached the end of our adventure. We were exhausted but it was such an amazing hike. As we boarded the bus we were told that we had to go to another bus stop to pick up some other hikers. It turned out that the only way to get to that stop was to cross a small river ... now note the huge tires on the bus!
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The tires were sized to accommodate the depth of the water of the small river so that the tires could grip the bottom of the river. As we started to cross, our guide unbuckled his seat belt and the ever so watchful Dave did the same. As we continued, you could feel the bus start to float and turn a bit here and there as the depth of the water was too much. Quite an interesting feeling. We made it over and the bus guide said that in case the bus tips, he didn't want to get stuck trying to unbuckle his belt! And then it turns out that the reason we had to go to the other bus stop was because previously a bus got stuck in the river and other busses had to come and pull that one out. This was definitely an unusual ending to one of our hikes.
Black Sand Beaches at Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey
Reynisfjara Beach is the most famous black sand beach in Iceland and one of the most well-known in the whole world. Black sand beaches rise from volcanic ashes. When molten lava enters the water, a violent interaction occurs between the hot lava and water. The lava cools down so rapidly that it breaks into debris and sand instantly.
Unlike the other black sand beaches in Iceland that you walk on, Dyrholaey provides one of the best views of these beaches because you are up so high
Dyrholaey is also home to puffins who nest on the cliffs during the summer. With 8 to 10 million puffins inhabiting the island, Iceland is home for more than of 60% the world’s entire Atlantic puffin population. These birds spend most of their lives resting on waves, coming ashore only to breed and raise their young. Each female produces a single puffling every year.