It is 9.15am. I have breakfasted on the last of the porridge, which even after just two days has rather lost its charm. I am however on my third cup of coffee and still feel mildly hungover. Last night, abandoning the lacklustre bonfire (it’s an Icelandic ‘thing’, apparently) we found ourselves at a bizarre party hosted by a fitness club camped a little way from the hut – the trail runners and hangers-on. It was much livelier than the tepid bonfire we had left, with much bonhomie.
Two guitarists led a table of about 20 enthusiastic singers, who belted their way imprecisely through a range of classic Icelandic songs, camp fire ditties and a mangled version of Don’t Look Back in Anger. The organisers had provided hundreds of tubes of Pringles, but not booze: everyone had their own odd collection of cans and bottles and wine boxes. The wine boxes in particular were prized possessions. It was a house party in a tent. We shared whatever alcohol we had had the foresight to bring; my puny flask of Dalwhinnie was rather meagre and didn’t last long.
By the time we’d exhausted our supplies, and had realised that the singing was going to get no better, it was midnight. We set out for the hut. Ragnhildur had somehow picked up a can of beer, which the five of us shared as we stumbled back through the gloaming. Gudrun continued to laugh inexplicably at my accent.
At 10am, a combined group of four, drawn from the Fimmvörðuháls party and the Laugavergurinn group with whom we had shared the hut, set off to climb Rettarfell with Leifur. I was the only one of the Fimmvörðuháls party that actually made it up in time: even the usually sparky Phoenix and Johanna chose to pass.
We set off through the little forest behind the camp and up through the trees. This section was straightforward, just a sequence of earth steps bounded at their lip by birch logs. It was sufficient to raise the heart rate, but no more. It was decidedly domestic.
Then we were on the fell, at a junction of paths above the ‘tree line’. The Rettarfell path led to the right and was swiftly, narrowly, steeply off up the flank of the lower hill, heading to the coll. The path itself was made largely of loose soil and sand, and quite quickly there were signs of earth slips across it. When we came upon a significant one, it was no surprise.
This was a problem – much of the path had fallen away for a few metres. Leifur had assured the others (I hadn’t been consulted) that there were to be no vertiginous sections to the route. Everyone got across fine, but for one of the British women both her nerve and her trust in Leifur were gone. She was now decidedly uneasy about what was to come and about what we were to re-encounter on our descent.
When we reached the coll and looked up to the next and final climb to the summit, there was a bit of discussion about whether she should continue upwards or should wait on the sure, level ground. She gave it a go, but decided better of it about a third of the way up. Her friend accompanied her back down to the coll. And then there were three of us.
The route became more treacherous (or I had become twitchier). The ground was again loose gravel and sand, heavily eroded, and the path zigzagged steeply upwards. The anxiety was contagious and I was getting increasingly nervous about the descent. My head was full of thoughts of Yew Barrow, a small mountain in the Lake District of about the same height, incline and crumbliness: it is the only place I have ever completely frozen on a hill, gripping the grass in white-knuckled terror until the vertigo subsided and I rediscovered the courage to continue the descent on my backside. I was with friends then; this time I was with a stranger and an old-hand mountain guide whose respect I suddenly craved. It was not a time to be quivering and sliding on your arse. I decided it was time to deal with the ghosts of Yew Barrow.
So, to the top. A grassy, rocky, mossy plateau, giving views to the sea (visible even under the hanging cloud – yesterday’s blue skies had deserted us). Between there and Rettarfell was the vast flood plain and broad grey riverbed of the mighty Markarfljot , formed no doubt by some cataclysmic flood, the result of an enormous eruption beneath some ancient glacier. To the north, the last stages of the Laugavegurinn; to the south, yesterday’s route, from the just visible craters, down onto Morinsheidi and along the Kattarhryggur. It unified both walks in a very pleasing way, much as the familiarity of Basar had done.
Eyjafjallajökull hung above us, in that way that glaciers do, and even at a kilometre’s distance it was haunting. I have an awe-struck love for their broken blueness, cracked and dirty, as they emerge over cliff edges. They are beautiful but laced with latent threat, angry and raw.
The trot down was less nervy than expected, just a cautious twenty metres below the top. I zigzagged down the mossy lower slope at something approaching a jog. Even the landslip was unintimidating at the second asking. The rain came, inevitably, and I trotted back to the camp to finish packing and to reflect on another whimsical, wistful end to time spent in south Iceland, trudging through black sand with strangers.
A more complete set of photos is here