26th June 2015: Hesteyri landing stage to Við Hlöðuvíkurós in Hlöðuvík (13km), over Kjaransvikursgard (c.430m)
At last, I have made it back to Hornstrandir for three days of serious walking; the edge of the world again. And it is serious walking, as the first day has shown despite the short distances involved.
The trip has been a long time in the making: I first heard about the place in 2009, from the guide when I walked the Laugavegurinn; then I came here for a day walk in 2012 on a road trip around the West Fjords. Here I am again, along with five friends who rashly said ‘yes’ to an email last December. I am not sure all of them quite knew what to expect.
Landing in Iceland was reassuringly familiar; the transfer from Keflavik cut through the lava fields on the way to the city as it always does, only this time there were a thousand-fold more of the pretty but invasion Nootka Lupins thronging the roadside, blue heads bobbing. Another change: instead of the journey ending at the BSI, the bus rolled on to the domestic airport for a harum scarum flight up to Isafjordur, the gateway to Hornstrandir. From the plane, we had perfect views of Snaefellsnes and its glacier-clad volcano, of Breiðafjörður and tiny Flatey island; of the West Fjords covered in far too much snow. A night in Isafjordur: food and drinks at Húsið, then a sleepless night at the blameless and lovely Gamla guesthouse, before the 9am boat this morning.
The skies were clear blue as the Bjarnarnes cut out of the harbour and into the fjord; the forecast was for more of the same. At Hesteyri, the boat could not tie up, so we were decanted into a Zodiac to carry us and our gear to shore. Hesteyri was busy for an abandoned village, with a launch-load of cruisers over from the massive ship at anchor outside Isafjordur. But we were quickly away, crossing the stream below the Doctor’s House and heading up into the hills; Kagrafell to our left, Kisturfell ahead of us and the water to our right. The path was easily discernible, way-marked by cairns fairly soon after Hesteyri was left behind. Our course was clear, as was our first obstacle: a massive, seemingly vertical, bank of snow where the path should have been, rising about 100m above us.
We took a detour, heading north beneath the icy slope until it was a more manageable 30m to climb. Kicking steps into the crystallised snow, we climbed to the ridge before turning back south to rejoin the path (we would later find that this snow bank was not much of an obstacle, relatively speaking, and that we should simply have taken it in our stride, instead of losing an hour on a detour.)
We found the path easily, running along the shelf above the north west flank of the fjord. Under the mass of Kisturfell, a line of cairns stretched out ahead of us across a rising landscape of snowfields and loose rocks, formed into islands in the white. Occasionally, the path was a path rather than a trace of wind-blown footsteps through the snow, or a guessed-at line through the rocks. But the cairns were always there to pull us on and upwards to the fjord’s head and the final abrupt ascent to the pass at Kjaransvikurskard (c. 430m).
Again the last section was a snow bank and we paused beneath it before the final push, debating who should lead the line and who should follow, in what order. A French couple skittered down the slope, bored of following the line of the traverse; an Arctic Fox ranged nimbly across the snowy fellside above us, unconcerned by neither us nor his footing. Then on and up, a daunting track through the snow to the pass. Just before I reached it, my already quaking legs (I’m not good on steep snow…) were rocked by the first blast of wind curling over from the north. It blew harder at the top and, recovering among the rocks, my coat got its first outing while I admired the view back down the fjord to Hesteyri and out towards the town of Bolungarvik on the ‘mainland’.
On the other side, the path picked a steep descent through rocks before the already familiar pattern of snow fields and rock islands resumed. The snow fields were easier going on the way down, but soon the terrain became a series of marshy terraces, stepping down over the strata, all the while following the rapidly flowing brook towards the sea. By the time we had to cross one of its tributaries, it was a fast moving river, cascading over low falls.
We avoided our first foot wetting by cutting nervously over a slender ice bridge; in two weeks it would have disappeared completely, but for now it held. It was here however that our trusty cairns ended, and with them any trace of a path, so we picked our way through marshy, florid turf under looming Alfsfell.
The imminent beach was announced by the stacks of drift wood, tree trunks logged in Russia, giant pick-up sticks thrown into crazy tangles. Some tents appeared beside the river’s final approach to the sea, but we were the wrong side of the mountain for this to be the campsite at Vid. The French inhabitants told us that the real campsite was indeed 1km further along the shore, that theirs was a ‘fake’ campsite (we would learn soon why they had decided to make camp there). They also suggested that the best way to cross the river was to balance across one to the tree trunks perched precariously across the stream. Two of the group followed the advice, while the other four unbooted and strode through the fierce and icy flow.
From there we traipsed (it was nearing 7pm) along the sandy beach, ready for the comforts of camp. An Arctic Fox sauntered past, between us and the surf. At Vid, the fake camp made sense: a persistent wind blew from the north east, along the coast, making pitching our tents interesting, keeping a stove alight more so. But tents were pitched and dinner was made and eaten, whisky was drunk, and sleeping bags rolled out, even as the daunting prospect of tomorrow’s route hung over us, literally and metaphorically.
I’m now in my tent, the nagging wind pulling malevolently at the fabric. The sun is still shining, even though it is half past eleven. It will shine through the night, but after today’s exertions, even it will not keep me from sleep.