Just a few weeks ago, in a post called “Facing Fears,” I confidently stated that skinny ledges at great heights were not at the top of my fear list. Well, I take that back. But let me start at the beginning.
In the middle of our Iceland trip, my son and I booked a hike with a local mountain guiding company. Sometimes called the Volcano Hike, the 24-km trek follows the Fimmvörðuháls Trail from Skogar to Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) and is a challenging walk anytime, but particularly so on a chilly, rainy day at the very beginning of the hiking season. The trail goes up over the pass between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull volcanoes, through the new lava fields from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, and finally down into Thorsmork.
The first several hours were an ascent up past the incredible Skogafoss waterfall and 22 additional falls. Even the rigors of a 2000-foot elevation gain in a few short hours could not diminish the wonder of rounding a bend and discovering yet another thundering gusher amid mossy green hills. This part of the trek was not scary, just a bit tiring climbing high and fast as our guide knew the weather was going to change dramatically and was practically marching us up the mountain in the ever-increasing mist.
After about 2 ½ hours, we reached a rickety old bridge to cross the river we had been following. Here, the landscape began to change and we left the lush green land and rushing river behind. As the trail became dark and rocky, the mist changed to sideways rain. We were told we had finished the hard part and that we had about 4 hours left, meaning we would finish in 6-7 hours what took most people 10 hours to complete. (Some people even do this hike over two days, staying at a hut near the pass.) We were psyched – visions of finishing by 4:30, getting back to Skogar by 6:30, and eating dinner in a warm, dry restaurant instead of on a rock out of our packs sounded great!
After a steady 1000-foot climb, we were on the flanks of a high lava field with theoretically great views of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and stopped European air traffic for weeks. Our view, however, was of ever-thickening mist and low clouds, and here we began to cross vast snowfields. Sinking deep and sliding backwards with each step, we slogged for a long time until one of the young men in our group could not continue. His legs were fried, and he had to stop to rest and eat while the rest of us stood in howling winds and sideways sleet, becoming stiffer and colder with every passing moment. Finally, we got moving again and asked how much more snow there would be. “Oh, just a few more minutes until we start to descend.” False. Egregiously false. We continued through that exhausting and freezing snow for nearly two more hours. Our legs were stiff logs, our socks sodden, our feet and toes frozen.
On those compromised legs and feet, we had to pick our way carefully down the next precarious and slippery section, where any false step could mean a fall of several thousand feet. On one steep area, there were chains to hold onto, but the poles into the ground were pulled out! Our guides stationed themselves at both ends of the chains and held on while we went down one by one. At the bottom, there was the tiniest ledge of all, and we had to eventually fit all nine of us on that skinny ledge overlooking a horrifying drop before the guides could rejoin us after holding the chains. Eek!
This ledge is the Heljarkambur ridge that lies near the pass and is a narrow, 50-meter-long traverse with a near-vertical rock face on one side and a steep snowfield dropping off from the other side. Any relief at the end of it was short-lived as we then had to cross the thin pass and begin the descent to Thorsmork along the Kattarhyggir (“Cat’s Spine”) ridge. I have never been so terrified for so long on a trail; my unflappable son said later he was too! I think in good weather these spots would be a bit tricky, but with dead, frozen legs, ice and mud on the ground, and limited visibility, they were truly nerve-wracking.
The rest of the descent was a killer on the knees and quads as we went the remaining 2000 feet down on steep muddy hills. The guide kept saying we had “30-40 minutes” left but it was another two hours until we stumbled into a hut area to await a bus back to our car in Skogar. Still way ahead of the hike time estimate, we discovered we had to wait for the only bus of the day, which was not due to arrive for an hour and a half. (This seems to be a state secret unless you know to check on it; since the trek, we have read over and over how visitors don’t understand that there’s only one way out of Thorsmork, and it’s the 8 pm bus.)
We were soaked to the bone, not a single dry piece of clothing or supplies among us. We shivered and waited and ate the soggy food in our backpacks. The bus finally came and we had a two-hour ride across the eerie, ashy fields between Eyjafjallajökull and Thorsmork – an otherworldly landscape of pure lava and zero sign of life. There were multiple streams of the Krossá River flowing at fast speeds, and we had to repeatedly cross them in the bus. Wheels churning and the bus listing, our vehicle seemed sure to be carried off by the current, but we were so exhausted we could not even focus on how scary it was. We finally made it back to our car in 2 1/2 hours, drove over an hour to our hotel, and arrived there near midnight, still soaking wet.
The next day, sore and exhausted, we marveled at our feat and laughed only half-jokingly about the PTSD we were suffering. This is a trek we will remember for a long time but, unlike many great hikes of the world, one we have no interest in redoing anytime soon!
A few more photos …