28th June 2015
Hornvik to Veiðileysufjörður (Botn) (11km), over Hafnarskard (519m)
It is almost 8am, but I am still the first up, at least in our group. Some other groups are eating breakfast, others still are already striking camp. It is cooler than yesterday and a slab of grey cloud hangs low over the peaks of Hornbjarg. The cloud masking the mountains at the back of the bay are whiter; this is our route and I am grateful for it. The rush of surf and the plumes of sand, snatched in gusts from the dunes, are more intrusive than the nearer German party packing their things. Despite the presence of more people than I’ve seen for almost 48 hours, this is the epitome of peaceful solitude.
It’s evening now, and the weather has turned. It turned, to be honest, with the wind that first ripped into us just below Atlasgard; a vicious, remorseless wind, racing in from the north east [later, back in the UK, I would see the gale warnings on the weather websites], that even here, in a campsite by the sea, batters the tent angrily. It has brought a little rain and much colder temperatures, and it refuses to die, despite our curses.
The day’s walk began calmly enough, stretching out along the valley floor, behind the dunes of Hornvik. The plumes of sand said that there was already a strong wind in valley, but it did not trouble us and the ramble through the meadow slid by. There were even little board bridges over the criss-crossing streams. A broad waterfall cut a gash in the hillside ahead of us, and I prepared myself for the day’s first foot wetting.
But the path rose up to the right before we reached it, zig-zagging then traversing the sharp slope; a narrow track, but perfectly navigable and not too testing of the lungs or legs – we hardly realised that we had gained 150m by the time we reached the lip of the ascent.
It was clear that we had left behind the gentle greenery below; instead, a plateau of snow and rock and chaotic surging rivers stretched out ahead of us. The rivers made sense: from below, we had seen their product in the gushing waterfalls that lined the valley walls, cascading over the strata, white and energetic; one, hanging on the distant opposite wall, fanned out broadly, almost pillared, and was named by Theo as the temple falls. It remained visible to our left, then over our shoulder, as we set off across the gravel and rocks, the low cloud becoming a more immediate concern.
Snow field, rocky island, cairn, stream, snow, always rising: the pattern of the next few miles was soon set. Almost without noticing, we were at 400m. We paused, just below the cloud, to take on some snacks and water before the pass. The intention was to have lunch on the other side, once we were out of the wind, not realising that we would never be out of the wind.
Another snowfield, another solid reserve of jumbled rocks, then a rising snowfield seemingly without end, its far shore lost in cloud. Visibility was poor, maybe 30m, but was to get worse. We reached the next rocks and another plateau, then more snow. Useful visibility was now 10m ad we had only the tracks of others in the snow and the ghosts of cairns to guide us. We walked in slow measure, keeping the person in front of us about 5m distant, no more no less; the whole caravan pausing when it became too stretched.
Eventually, we hit a snow wall, maybe 10m high, marking the pass. It was maybe only 50 degrees steep, but the snow was ice, the wind was gusting wildly and the top was only sometimes discernible: it was another daunting prospect. Alex and Theo went first, soon to disappear over the lip. I went ahead of Mark, to kick out steps in the ice to make his ascent easier (and mine more secure), while Adrian and Simon waited below. Kicking out the steps was hard work, but for the last few metres I was effectively on all fours, although upright, crawling up like an inelegant Spiderman, stuck to the wall be the now driving wind. It was the wind that carried me over the lip and onto a narrow ridge of ice – I simply had to let go and let the wind pick me up.
Visibility was still poor, but the wind had taken on demonic proportions, raking the pass malevolently; it should have shredded the cloud, but the stubborn opacity clung about us. The footsteps beyond the cairn at the pass led off to the left, leading down diagonally into the thick unknown. As we traversed down, the murky shapes suggested some dimensions to this limitless world of white and eventually we reached a rocky outcrop and the reassurance of a cairn. But the wind continued to whip down.
We snaked together a path as other cairns emerged and receded into the cloud, and slowly an actual path on the ground formed itself. Visibility returning, we let the wind push us downwards. At about the same time that the vegetation returned, the shape of Veiðileysufjörður appeared through the murk, lifting the mood greatly, if prematurely. For a time, the path behaved itself, interrupted by largely benign snow fields on its gradual descent. Only the wind lessened our enjoyment of the beauty unfurling around us.
And it was beautiful. Stunningly so. Even when everything turned to water underfoot and the path became stepping stones through a million streams, it remained beautiful. A fast-flowing river crashed down the valley to our left, spouting over falls and rapids; our tamer streams gurgled and chuckled over rocks and cut caves through the ice.
We neared the bottom and turf returned. The path cut close to one of the incalculable waterfalls and we crossed our last snowfield; soon we dropped inelegantly onto a little stony beach. A group of teenagers, guided by a bullish Icelander, overtook us gradually, inveigling their way into our now strung out line. Just after a hinge of snow, hanging over the beach, the path climbed again to roll along the lip of the low ledge above the shore, then cutting out across marshy ground to the campsite at Botn.
There was no shelter from the still strong wind, which punched us with sudden gusts; the ground was rough and stubby, uneven. It was a disappointing place then, and offered no obvious respite. We debated our options: there was another campsite further along the fjord, but that could only be reached at low tide and there was no guarantee that it would be any more sheltered than Botn; a boat was coming – the teenagers were taking it – and the idea of trying to sneak aboard was muttered. Eventually, we reconciled ourselves to a night here and sought out sheltered nooks, in which to hide from the wind’s attentions or wrestled with it for control of our tents: a light rain washed through and hastened our efforts with the tents.
Camp was set and, while others cooked and ate in their tents, I walked around a low rise to a little beach, somewhat sheltered, to watch the sunlight play among the clouds in the fjord. Eider ducks with their ducklings did their thing on the rippled sea, and I became convinced that this spot, under high crags and streaming waterfalls, a ledge of precarious snow at the back of the beach, was the finest place on the face of the earth.