Busy chatter and rustling in the hut. People are finishing breakfast and packing for the day. It’s not quite 9am – we’re supposed to leave by 10 – but most people are getting towards done. I’ve eaten my porridge, washed up and am nearly packed. It’s hot in there – it was all night, which, combined with the chorus of snoring, meant I didn’t sleep much. The rain came down hard in the night – I am really very grateful not to be in one of the tents ringing the hut, pitched inside low sheep-pen walls against the wind. But the weather seems to have settled for now – the fog is lifting slowly, and more of the valley, black and white through the grey, is becoming visible. The low humped hills look like giant killer whales, beached on a surreal shore as the cloud sea recedes.
I guess I have 45 minutes to fill my water bottle, finish packing my stuff and make one last use of the latrines, which I think are surprisingly OK for earth closets (although everyone else is rather less impressed). Only the Scandinavians could make holes over a pile of human waste this sanitary. Or maybe the Swiss. I mean, there is even toilet paper.
It’s going to rain today. Probably a lot. Lots of waterproofing – trousers, pack cover, everything – from the off.
* * *
Well, it didn’t rain. And it was a fantastic day’s walking. I’m writing this by torchlight at about half ten, in the hut at Hvanngil – I’m in the upstairs room with Deepa and Rana, Michel and Arne, which is luxurious after last night’s sardine tin. It’s getting dark outside, and the air is thick with sulphur – there is an eruption under the neighbouring glacier – and I’ve left the downstairs room, where there is a sing-a-long in progress – with guitar, somebody brought a guitar! Strange amalgams of songs that start in English and end in Icelandic, or vice versa, some of which I recognise: House of the Rising Sun and You Are My Sunshine. But enough about now. I’ve had two gin and tonics, thanks to the evermore resourceful Arne, several slugs of whisky, and I think the ‘exposure’ is starting to get to me – I’d better capture the day before I drift off.
* * *
Today’s walk started at 10am as promised, first across the same black and white landscape, before rising to a ridge, where I got a mobile signal, and sent Kitty a text (there is no reception at Hvanngil or anywhere else it would seem). We paused and were passed by an older guy on a bike, who had set out from Landmannalaugur that morning and planned to be in Thorsmork by sundown. Somewhere between awe-inspiring and out-and-out mad.
The path then continued along a small river, dipping up and down, with the ice caves hanging from the steep banks. Once again the colours were various and astounding, the views stupendous. Around midday, we left our packs by the path and took a detour up Haskerdingur (1281m). The ascent involved crossing a small glacier – before we reached the snow and ice, we had crossed a stream-strewn, sandy plain. Jon Karl explained that until recently, the glacier had extended across this plain – he said on 20 year old maps, the area was still marked as glacier; my map, bought this year , also has it marked as glacier, suggesting that the retreat of the ice is even more pronounced.
After crossing the snow-field, the path rose steeply through loose sand and gravel, until it reached the rocky summit plateau. The top gave views over the full majesty of a stunning landscape: to the south a massive dome of ice, which blended with the low cumulus, shrouding its shoulders (the small glacier on maps of Iceland, but it looked big enough to me); then the green pointy mountains and valleys, where I am now; then back across the ochres, blacks and whites of this morning – you could just pick out Hraftntinnusker, where the day had begun. Beyond, were the far, far mountains. It was sublime.
The descent was less so. A steep snow slope, down which I staggered while others strode on and still others ‘skied’ down only in their boots – maybe it’s the Icelandic national winter sport: ski-less ski-ing. Across the glacier, long thin cracks appeared at 20 metre intervals, weak spots where the ice will no doubt sheer away in sections – the implications of them moving at that point didn’t bear thinking about. I chatted with Deepa on the way down – she has similar issues about descents, and a dodgy right knee to complement my left – and we eventually found our way back to the path and lunch.
We followed the river again, until the rocks changed dramatically – soft black shapes, wind-eroded, producing strange overhangs. A waterfall, crashing through a red gash down the mountainside before meeting the green plain 600 metres below – actually, less a plain, more a broad flat-bottomed valley. The path zig-zagged down sharply until we reached a grassy bank by the stream, where we filled our water bottles from the stream and regrouped before heading off again.
Our first river crossing was less adventurous than I anticipated – some made it over with their boots on. After that, I went off ahead towards Alftavatn (Swan Lake) along an easy path through the flat valley bottom – stillness and beauty. The path was reliable enough for me to spend most of the time looking not at my feet but around me at the grand sweep of the hills and the precise details of the flowers littering the valley bottom. At the lake, we regrouped by some huts – some of the group wanted to stay there – sitting in the sunshine.
Then across vibrant green moors until the second, and rather more significant, river crossing – both Priska and Julia fell in the mud. Feet dried and boots replaced, with lush green all around, the river followed us down, under a particularly spiky Tolkein-esque mountain, until we reached this hut at Hvanngil. It is much more relaxed (there is only us and one other small group here) and beautifully set. There are showers too (tomorrow…) and flushing toilets. Some of us – Arne, the Canadians, the New Yorkers and Brynhildur (? – the Icelandic woman living in Sweden) – sat out, chatting, drinking gin and tonics, watching the sun go down. A rainbow-like ice cloud hung over the other side of the valley, defying attempts to capture its glory photographically.
Things are packing up downstairs, and the snoring has started in earnest up here – I’ve just realised that the three star snorers from last night are all in here with me… So I’m going to wrap this up and give Steinbeck a go.
A more complete set of photos is on my Flickr page