(This is part eight of a series of posts about our 2011 trip to Iceland. Here are the first, second, third, fourth, fifth , sixth, and seventh posts.)
Vista from Skaftafelshaedi Trail
Once we made the long hike back from our glacial expeditioni, we made plans for the rest of the afternoon while we lunched at the small visitor center cafeii. Apparently I had not learned my lesson, because for lunch I choose my second Questionable Sandwichiii of the day, a smoked salmon baguetteiv, along with an odd Icelandic chocolate bar composed of forgettable milk chocolate overlaid by a strip of less forgettable licoricev. I should have opted for the mutton salami.
Mutton salami peeking out of bag, Chocolate with licorice top
We decided that a strenuous 5 hour hike up a massive mountain of ice was just not enough challenge for one day, and that what we really needed was a long hike through the highlands of park to ease us into evening. I think this is the same sort of thinking that has inspired other expeditions…like Shackelford’s, the Donners’, Scott’s, and Aerhart’s. But intrepid is as intrepid does, so we were off to brave the Skafatfelshaedi trail….
Without a doubt, and without any exaggeration, this hike, despite its unfortunate momentsvi, is easily the most amazing hike of not only our vacation but of my life to this point. The Skaftafelshaedi trail is essentially a circular loop of the green strip of highlands sandwiched between the glacial arms of the mighty Vatnajokul ice cap. The land is devoid of pretty much any vertical vegetation once you get about a mile in, above the tree line, but is amazingly lush and greenvii. It rises from the coastal plain to the highest points of green land, and covers most of the near side of the park not sheathed in ice and stone. Our route was about 12-15 km if I remember correctly, and it’s listed as a “challenging” hike in the brochuresviii.
Southern edge of Skaftafel/Vatnajokul, Iceland with Vatnajokul/Skaftafell National Park in red, The National Park with Hike area in red, Our route
The first part of the hike took us back to the Svartifoss waterfall we visited the day beforeix. We didn’t stop for very long this time. I did fill up my secondary water bladder with water from the stream, thinking Romantic thoughts of drinking the Waters of the Land while we traversed its Widths and Breadths. Being mindfull of the less pristine condition of this water as compared to the glacial melt I’d drunk earlier, I added a shot of Brennivinx and allowed it to mix for 30 minutes or so, to kill off any remaining bacteriaxi. This would come back to haunt me…not because I got sick from the waterxii, but because the “uniquely nauseating” taste of Brennivin, no matter how faint, would stick with me throughout the rest of the hike.
On the hike, Wildflower, Water and Stone, Svartifoss columns
Past Svartifoss we had a decent vertical climb to the top of a ridge, from which the views were practically incomprehensible, and so you’ll have to pardon me lapsing into the poetic. The low sweep of winds over these high places is one of my favorite sounds, a hush rather than a silence that to me is the sound of the high places of the world. We were infinitesimal motes, alone in the endless landscape for the majority of the time. Our long, meandering walk through tundra-like meadows, wildflowers in explosive bloom and birdsxiii flitting like ghost from outcrop to outcrop around in the waning afternoon light. Vast mountains and the stygian depths of glacial valleys swathed in afternoon shadow surrounded us on the periphery rim of the world. We came to a slight plateau, and in turning around, saw the expanse of the glacial plain spreading out before us, innumerable watery fingers stretching out from glacial arms to encompass the knowable extent of the earth behind us. The wind played in the high meadow grasses along an unexplainable mountain pond, a small bowl on an otherwise unmarred slope of green skin stretched over dark volcanic bones.
Patterns of Light, Ancient Rock, High meadow pond, Wildflowers, High Place of the World
Along the way a vast wheel was set on a platform like some ancient, mysterious relic, with arrows pointing in all directions to the identifiable landmarksxiv. The whole atmosphere practically emanated a Middle Earthian vibe. However, dark clouds had started to gather in the distance so we pressed on.
Seth and Kate at the Wheel, Light on the Mountains, Storm at last light.
The gentle winding path through the high meadow came to an abrupt end as we reached the foot of a massive swell of land ahead of us. I have never been in a single spot that offered views like those we found after reaching the topxv, and I wish we could have stayed longer, but by the time we reached the top, more ominous clouds had arrivedxvi. We stopped briefly at a cairn at the bottom of an alternate ascent to the high peaks, and admired the view of the yawning chasm to our west, and the dramatic Mordasjokul icefall before we broke out rain jackets and continued on our way. Passing into the shadow of the peaks, there was a vaguely anthropomorphic figure in the rock at the top, looking almost like a Norse god peering down at us from the ridge. While the dark storm clouds swept in over the ridge, I could almost believe Odin was watching us from on high, and was displeased as we trespassed in his domainxvii. Unrelatedlyxviii, at this point a fair bit of gastronomic distress re-manifested itself, adding a bit more urgency to the rest of the hike.
Glacial Valley, Kate and I and the Mountains, Glacier’s Path, Odin watches, Shadows on the Mountainside
The dark clouds blotted out the last of the evening sunxix as we rounded the northernmost point of the trail, and began our descent down the eastern rim. The bright, endless vistas of the first half of the hike gave way to dense landscapes shrouded in clouds along the way backxx. After a brief tangent following a broken trail sign, we finally began our long descent in earnest. We were all pretty beat at this point, and much of the return trip was much more grim than the ebullinet startxxi. While the others were slightly disappointed that we didn’t get the benefit of the full scope of the scenery, I think that the fog and cloud-enshrouded landscapes were beautiful. When there was a break in the clouds, and we came to the edge of the seemingly endless Skaftafelsjokull glacier stretching out below us, it was like a revelation. It seemed fitting to view this vast and impenetrable land through a literal atmosphere that was as much a veil as its figurative counterpart.
Hiking down, Storm and Boulders, Rock Ptarmigan, Skaftafellsjokull in the mist
We slowly and somewhat unsurely made our way down to the coastal plain, leaving the highlands behind us, like passing out of Narnia, Terebithia, Shangri-la. I came across a rock ptarmigan on the way back, though never caught sight of the illusive arctic fox I’d hoped to find. When we finally trudged into camp, dinner had been ready for some time, so after warming up in the car, we ate and promptly went to bed. I was feeling a bit worse for wear internally, from the effects of Questionable Sandwiches and Other Intestinal Tribulationsxxii, but sleep found pretty easy purchase and I was invigorated mentally. Nothing else for the rest of the trip would come close to that experience.
i Made somewhat longer and more arduous by somewhat acute intestinal distress which I blame to a goodly degree on a combination of eating a fair deal of food the evening before, and eating the questionable sandwich provided as part of the tour. There are no trees on glaciers, if you get my drift. Not that that stopped one poor lady, who apparently just couldn’t make it back. We all averted our eyes as best we could.
ii I took this opportunity to seek intestinal relief. Not that you needed to know that detail, but it will become important later on.
iii My first was a mysteriously slimy cheese sandwich on the morning’s glacier hike.
iv I should point out that this park is somewhat remote, and therefore I should have questioned the intestinal-disrupting capacity of a salmon sandwich of questionable age and provenance. The chocolate-licorice combination surely did not help.
v Which, even among such national delicacies as fermented shark and singed sheep’s head, seemed a bit odd to me.
vii It’s what I picture hiking in Ireland or northern Britain to be, except surrounded by glaciers. A bright verdant island in an unending white mass.
viii though there are no technically difficult sections where one has to scramble or physically climb surfaces
ix What we found mildly strenuous the day before would seem like a walk through a manicured garden park by the end of what was to come.
x Remember the “black death” from previous posts?
xi This is one of the many reasons I sometimes carry a flask on hikes. It’s all jokes about alcohol until you run out of potable water, or you have a cut to disinfect, or need to start an emergency fire, etc, and then suddenly the guy who brought the high proof stuff is smart. That and, you know, it’s awesome to take a shot of Icelandic paint-stripper at the culmination of your destination hike to say to the high reaches of the world, “not only have I conquered your heights, but I will now subject myself to the worst liquid your country has to offer as a symbolic Whitman-esque barbaric yawp . “
xii Except in certain acute conditions, water-borne illnesses rarely become symptomatic the same day as infection. That’s why they’re often hard to determine in terms of epidemiological studies of exposure through contact recreation.
xiii Including new species, Redwing (bird) and Haresbell (wildflower)
xiv Insert LOST joke here.
xv Ahead of us to the north were the near vertical slopes of a pair of two green peaks, defing the icy vastness of the ice cap. To our west was the deep ravine of one of the glaciers, and its curving valley, to the northwest the grim and violent Morsarjokul icefall, to the northeast was the long curving path of the trail along the base of a ridgeline, and to the south, the long slope of green spreading out to the horizon. I know some of you have seen vistas I can scarcely imagine, but I have looked out from Half-Dome on the Yosemite valley, on the expanse of Zion from Angel’s Landing, etc etc. Nothing I had experienced up this point starts to compare with the scale and impressiveness of this spot. It was an odd mix of despair at one’s complete and utter insignificance, and overwhelming and ungraspable elation, as if the whole of the landscape was flowing into you past the point of bursting.
xvi If you read my account of our Half Dome hike in Yosemite, you’ll recall we have had bad experiences/luck with attracting foul weather while on top of high, exposed places.
xvii Feel free to blame this blasphemy on the Brennivin. Certainly wouldn’t be the first blasphemy so attributed.
xviii Unrelatedly unless Odin, like Montezuma, was seeking revenge…
xix Leading to an internal Spartan moment…I thought to myself, “what if the clouds blot out the sun?”..then, realizing the similarity to the mythical threat by the Persians at Thermopylae re: arrows, my immediate mental response was “..then we will hike in the shade..”. This was much funnier and less geeky in my head.
xx Also, increasing intestinal discomfort focusing on the posterior end of the digestive system. Again, I will reiterate, there were no trees here. Just wide open spaces.
xxi A lesser man may have described it as a torturous death march, but I’m a glass half full kind of guy. My colon disagreed.
xxii Which, by the by, would be a great punk/prog rock band name. But by the time we finally descended in the dark to the base camp, the bathroom was like Valhalla.