Hiking the Laugavegurinn Trail

I recall having responded with “I’m game!” to a suggestion of doing the Laugavegurinn trail while planning for activities while our visit in Iceland. Iceland – a tiny mass of land close to Arctic circle away from mainland Europe and of course the ever infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted in 2010; that disrupted flights over the Atlantic for over a week and making Iceland famous. Ah! dont bother about pronouncing it now! Will have more of it in my later posts.

So Iceland; one definite thing on the list was to hike one among world’s top hiking trail. After the “Im game!” response; I started looking up on internet for information. It did seem that I have signed up for something more than I can chew! But hell! yeah! I would not want to miss this for anything else! The trail goes through what you can describe as epitome of beauty – natural beauty abundant in Iceland that you could at one point say “Im done! This is too good to be true”

The 56 km long trail is the longest in Iceland and most popular; the scenery is top notch – colorful rhyolite mountains, hot springs, thermal vents, hills covered with lush green mosses, ice sheets, enormous ice caps and ice caves, highlands, glacial fed freezing rivers, deep gorges and canyons with maroon and green and gray rock faces, glaciers, lakes, volcanic fields and black sand deserts…

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The rhyolites

It was almost end of summer when I hiked; the weather was more erratic than what it would be. You dont freeze to death; if you keep walking that is 🙂 I was not prepared even a bit in terms of physical fitness and practice. Oh cmon! nothing prepares you for what you go through. There are many reasons to tackle this trail. Mine was nothing fancy; just didn’t want to miss the heaven. The ascent averages to 300-500m through the trail but at Arctic level; its as good as 3000m.

The 56 km can be done in 3 or 4 days. 4 days was what we chose and averages 12 km per day taking around 4-6 hours; depending on the terrain and the weather conditions. The hike seemed good when we started that noon around 12:30. A steep climb immediately after starting from the campsite adjacent to hot spring region of  Landmannalaugar led us through colorful rhyolites and headed uphill past volcanic vents belching out sulfurous streams. As we climbed further; the weather got worse post noon.

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Talking about weather; I can recall exactly when the temperature plummeted on the very first day. It was windy and chilly yeah; but the sun was out and as long as you kept climbing and walking; it felt ok. But 3.5 km away from the next rest hut area of Hrafntinnusker; the weather was not that promising. People behind me started walking faster; though the snow was ankle deep. Soon I was struggling to breathe; the chill wind hitting my face; blizzard and snow storm pushing me away as I fought my way forward carrying the heavy backpack. Worry and pain gave way to fear when I passed a memorial of a 25 year old Israeli hiker died of hypothermia.

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Seemed I was going to be stranded and die of hypothermia if I didn’t pull my feet forward. The boots in thick ice lurched forward; the thermals and the weather proof jacket and trousers long given up. The chill was raising up my feet….so this was Icelands weather in summer; or rather end of summer – demonic! Walking with head down to protect from snow storm hitting my face; I tilt my head to see where my friend was. I could see nothing; thick fog having enveloped everything around. These are the moments when deviating even 15 m means death. I kept following shoe marks on the ice and there saw a faint figure walking; thanks to my friends bright orange backpack cover. But he was over a km away. No sound or gestures requesting him to wait were heard or seen. But it was good I let him go since he had to keep abreast with other hikers if we had to be safe. 3.5 km of hell…thats when I thought if my decision was right.Finally what seemed like a lifetime; I saw the hut. The entrance was all wet; the rains were like unstoppable bullets being pelted. The hut was minimal in facility but the heater was such a blessing. Had just about energy left to change and cook instant noodles. Never has been a simple hot vegetable noodle tasted that great in my life. The dampness, cold, the pain, the lack of smartphone…none of it mattered. The night went by in a sound sleep.

The next day’s hike was 12 km; the first part of trail takes through the snow fields and ice caves. The colors are unbelievably contrasting – the shimmering blue of the ice, the white snow, the muddy stream against the bright green moss and distant black mountains..Wow! The trail crosses lot of small ravines that has steep but short descent and climbs and the snow here lingers through summer. A steep descent for about a km and half and you can see the distant hut of Alftavatn beside a big blue aquarmine lake against jagged mountains. Thats the stay for the day.

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The hike is arduous and challenging but worth every way to get a slice of untamed Icelandic country side. Harsh yet beautiful, unforgiving yet comforting…The third day is a 15 km hike mostly along plain terrain. But as soon as you leave the hut; you come across river crossings. “Its not so cold and not so deep; just shin-deep” is what they say. To be wading across the flowing water with your backpack is not easy; the water is so frigid that you just want to give up and flow away it. You do stand after taking one or two steps; though the freezing water is numbing your legs. You just can’t take another step; its a test of endurance and mind tricks. After you cross; the tingling and numbing sensation and later the pain…but its all worth it.

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The landscape changed dramatically from lush greenery to never ending area of black sands and volcanic rocks; with small shrubs of pink flowers thrown; one could see Myrdalsjokull glacier at the far left as if it merged with the sky.

920150906_155940Towards the last few kms; the wind gained speed and was throwing the sands at us and the force was so strong that it was knocking off the trekkers. Occasionally saw off road jeeps with gigantic wheels ferrying tourists who opted to visit the landscape on wheels than trek. Oh it was so inviting to stop them and ask for a ride. The hut at Emstrur was tiny and the oldest. While checking in; the hut warden recommended not to miss a canyon nearby. I rested for a while and towards evening went in search of wooden plank that directed towards the canyon.

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A short walk way is Markarfljótsgljúfur – a majestic 300 feet deep red and gray walled canyon. Spent some time walking along its rim – so beautiful but treacherous.
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After returning from canyon; spent a lovely 30 min with the hut warden and her black labrador. The lab was a very good singer; while she played the mouth organ; he joined in and sang. A lovely concert in the middle of nowhere to end the night.

We were asked to start as early as possible the next day by the warden since the conditions predicted strong gales at 40m/s. It would get worse by mid morning. So we planned to start at day break and reach the end of hike 16 kms away by noon.

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A deep gorge to be crossed no sooner we started the 4th day hike

We had to keep up time since the bus from the camp leaves at 2 PM and there is no way we could afford to be stranded.

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The last of the river to be crossed was the coldest and the deepest.

My pace slowed a bit due to fatigue and blisters. It was a welcoming change to see green foliages and birchwood after the previous day black sands and volcanic fields. When I thought the trek ended; the sign said 2 km to the hut at Thorsmork. Thats where we had to head to for the bus. There was another plank showing bus stop in a different direction. We were confused but decided to head to the hut.My friend was worried that if the hut is not where the bus would arrive; we have to traverse all the way back and that mean 1 more hour. Given my pace; it would not be possible. So we decided he would leave me at my pace and he would run to the hut as it was anyway a descent. As I walked; I did not find a single creature ahead me or behind me and that got me worried but I relied on the trail wood posts at regular intervals.

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At one junction where there were two trails; I decided to follow the blue marked trail plank when I saw something scribbled on the ground and the earth was fresh. I walked 20 paces back to check what it was and ET (my friend) took care to ensure he communicated to me which way he went 🙂

Reaching the hut meant relief; back to civilization. People were sitting all over; nursing their bruised body and munching on whatever goodies they were left with. The 4 hour journey back to Reykjavik was spent dozing off. But the short 4 day extreme hiking provided with unforgettable experience; where every moment we were reminded this was a place where nature remained very much in charge.

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