The Icelandic Department of Tourism's marketing campaign seemed tailor-made for me. From knowing nothing about this country, to suddenly seeing advertisements everywhere, I was captivated. Doesn't even look real I thought to myself as I studied the bus-shelter posters of a magical landscape that looked like something out of Middle Earth. Or Photoshop.
I started obsessing over my own #mystopover
I crave the remote places, and Iceland is full of them. I was already going to Europe that summer, could I pull off a few day stopover in Iceland? Would it even be worthwhile? My research would lead me to a single photo taken on the Fimmvörðuháls Pass, a modest 25km trek between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.
I was struck dumb by the beauty of what I saw.
Hiking the Fimmvörðuháls would take me across some of the newest landscapes on earth. Eyjafjallajökull had erupted in 2010. Steam still rises from the craters and the snows are scattered with black volcanic ash.
And it is only 25km -- completely doable over a long weekend.
It was settled. I booked my flight to Reykjavik at a bargain price for only being three-weeks away. Now I had to actually prepare for the hike.
HD close-up footage from Fredrik Holm of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption set to the haunting music of Sigur Rós.
The only problem: I was alone. I had never done a solo hike before, did I dare do one in Iceland with only a few scant weeks of preparation?
Reports on the Fimmvörðuháls hike vary greatly.
Before my departure, I'll read accounts describing the hike as everything from extreme to moderate and all things in between. Annoyingly, there is no consensus, and I don't know who or what to believe. Later on, when I'm actually on the Fimmvörðuháls, I'll run into a young German hiker completing the linear hike from the opposite direction in Thorsmork. He's fresh off the snowy difficult parts and loaded down with more gear than seems wise for 25Km. You don't have walking poles or waterproof boots? He'll ask incredulously.
Um, no. No, I do not.
Looking me over with wide eyes set in a face reddened from wind and cold, he will warn me that my footwear and choice of clothes are inadequate. That I should reconsider going on.
Yikes. Did I make a huge mistake?
Nervously I go on, lost in new insecure thoughts when not even 15-minutes later I run into a middle-aged woman from Japan, another solo hiker. We stop to briefly exchange the common hiker pleasantries and swap information. How is the weather up there? How much longer? When I ask for her opinion on my preparedness, she casually shrugs and tells me I'll be just fine. It's beautiful she says. Just enjoy it.
Basically what I'm trying to say is -- take everything you read with a grain of salt -- including this.
My personal assessment of the Fimmvörðuháls Pass is that if you've brought the right gear -- and you don't need much of it -- if you stay on the trail, if you follow common sense -- anyone who can walk and is in reasonable shape can complete the hike. Just don't be an idiot. Don't force rescue crews into the grim job of recovering your mangled corpse because you decided to go off-trail and fell through the ice to be swept away by the turbid waters.
Yes, you can do it.
I firmly believe that human beings are borne to this; we have a nagging inclination inside of us to get out there and explore and we ignore that feeling to our peril.
You can even complete this hike in one day if you keep a quick pace and don't stop too often. But to really enjoy it -- and this is a place that begs to be enjoyed -- take two days. If you have the time, consider adding a few more days to complete the 92-km Laugavegur hike that connects with the Fimmvörðuháls Pass. When I was there, the Laugavegur was still covered in snow and the bus service wasn't running yet to the trailhead. I briefly considered risking it before realizing how stupid that would be.
The start of the Fimmvörðuháls Pass is at the famous Skógafoss waterfall.
You have no doubt seen pictures of it by now. Bus service from Reykjavik will take you right to the trailhead. I had arrived late that evening on the last bus, tired from a full day touring the Golden Circle and other sights. It's a 3-hour journey that stops briefly at some other beautiful landmarks and I was too enchanted by the views to nap. The bus driver would caution all of us several times to stay on the trail, to call emergency services if required (it's free), and most of all to stay on the trails.
People have died here he warns. What looks like solid earth and ice can be a deceptive illusion hiding a silently raging glacier river underneath. Please don't take chances.
Your phones will work to connect with emergency services -- we would rather rescue you alive than mount a search and retrieve of your body.
Suddenly I felt less sure of myself. Less sure of attempting the Fimmvörðuháls Pass all alone. There is a pervasive feeling of desolation and loneliness that follows me through Iceland. I cannot quite put my finger on why. There is an eerie quality to the jagged black rocks and alien-green moss that covers everything. This incongruous landscape strikes me as the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
It's late when we finally arrive at Skógafoss, but this is the land of the midnight sun. Night doesn't fall this time of year, the sky just changes colour and gets dimmer. Streaks of gold and pink across a sky that seems to have been temporarily covered up in dark blue cellophane add to the eerie feeling I cannot shake.
Skógafoss waterfall is worth visiting even if you don't plan to hike the Fimmvörðuháls Pass.
It is a massive thing, and you can walk right up to it. At this time there are a couple dozen tents scattered across the lawn. There is a hostel here too and I spend some time in the warmth of the cafeteria over a hearty meal of fresh Arctic char and boiled new potatoes. Eventually, I find my own spot outside and pitch my one-man tent. A group of lucky American children are playing by the falls, the parents absent, but otherwise everyone else has gone to bed. Then the kids disappear too, leaving me to my solitude with the relentless pounding of Skogafoss. I spend some time alone watching the falls, mesmerized. The constant drizzle of mist eventually makes me too cold and I force myself into my tent to sleep.
When I wake up late the next day, most people have left already.
But I don't care. First I eat at the only other local restaurant: a double cheeseburger and fries. My food for the hike itself is the homemade beef jerky and dehydrated beef and lamb stew I had brought from home. Reluctantly packing up my gear I walk up the steep staircase that hugs the falls to the very top where the hike officially begins.
It is a beautiful and hot day. Clouds pass in and out across the sky but mostly the sun is bright and constant; hot, I quickly strip down to tights and a tank top. The first part of the 25 km (13 miles) Fimmvörðuháls trek takes you alongside the winding Skógá river which consists of countless waterfalls (well 25 actually) and the glacier water is safe to drink.
Iceland's glacier water is the cleanest and best-tasting water I have ever had.
Everything is cheerfully bright green and covered in moss. There are no trees, just the moss, wild grasses, and colourful springtime wildflowers. I know that shortly I will be crossing between the glaciers and that the weather can turn on a dime here. I know that people have tragically died as a direct consequence of that fickleness, but right now it just feels idyllic and serene. I pass by a couple of day-hikers starting later than I did and also people coming from the other direction in Thorsmork.
Most of the time though, I will remain alone. It feels so remote even though technically I'm not that far away from civilization.
And just like that, without any preamble or warning: things do change.
You know instinctively when you're getting close to the actual "Pass" portion of the Fimmvörðuháls Pass. The very air itself changes, feels colder. The bright green landscape becomes more barren. I add warm layers over my inadequate clothing. You can feel in your bones the increasing cold and wind which comes right off the frozen glaciers that loom in the distance on either side. The sky turns grey. The clouds become denser and full of ominous weather.
I've reached the final waterfall, it's a big one.
I stop here for a rest. This is the last bit of stretch where you can access the river for water. Above me is snow strewn with black ash that can be melted for drinking water if I run out, which I will.
I decide to make coffee and take a break here. I never sacrifice coffee to save on weight.
I sit on a rock and take in the increasing desolation; the still-unmelted snows holding on to the sheltered hallows of the gorge below me and the hills above.
I could veer off path, lost in the fog; I could fall in. My body could be swept away as far as where I first started the trek at Skógafoss. I play that image in my mind several times.
The climb up to the final peak past the last waterfall changes the landscape abruptly, like a record player coming to a screeching halt.
This is what the moon must look like. I'm all alone in the windiest place on earth and the fog sets in before I even realize the weather is changing around me. I put on a wool toque and mittens. The wildflowers are gone; the bright green moss is sparse and jarring against the bare, black rocks that stretch across a vast, cracked plateau. Up here I'm reminded again of the bus drivers words as massive gaps, sloping a meter deep reveal the rushing water underneath the deceptive ice and snow.
The trail is well marked but the posts are unobtrusive and blend in with the rugged landscape.
Eventually, even the black rocks give way to a landscape utterly covered in snow. I stop to put my gaiters on, searching for the hut where I will spend the night.
The Fimmvörðuháls Pass speaks of the gap between the two glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull and the jagged peaks surrounding you covered in ice and snow will clearly announce your location. You can see the glaciers around you on every side. Snow swirls all around them from the strong winds. The sky is bleached of all colour. Black volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption covers everything.
This place is so desolate. So quiet. How is it possible for a landscape to change this drastically in what? 15 km?
I look up and suddenly see the hut, it emerges like a mirage. I'm looking forward to eating. To putting on fresh wool socks.
My late start means I'm also the last person to reach the hut and claim my thin mattress upstairs. I melt some of the ashy snow and rehydrate a bowl of stew, eating silently, enjoying the feeling of dry socks and warm woollen sleeping clothes. I fall into friendly conversations with the various characters from around the world sharing the small space. There are only 8 of us tonight.
Later on in the season, this place will be packed and getting a bed impossible. I am lucky to be so early. The ranger has not even taken up residence.
The hut is a tiny A-frame with a detached, compostable washroom, large kitchen, and an upstairs attic sleeping quarters that everyone shares. There is no running water. The space is very well maintained, clean and dry. It's a cozy place to spend a night. I watch the sky through the window for a time before finally succumbing to sleep.
The next day I sleep in again, relishing having the hut all to myself. I rehydrate more stew for breakfast.
Coffee will never taste as good as it does in the wilderness.
I take my time enjoying it in the hut between two glaciers, nearly the highest point of the Pass.
The next part will prove to be the most difficult as I find myself trudging up and down, up and down, up and down through crunchy snow, slushy snow, muddy snow. An incredible whiteness surrounds you as far as the eye can see towards the glaciers in the distance. As some point on the trail alongside the valleys, I'll see what look like large pools of an intense aquamarine blue, brilliant against the untouched snow that is blindingly white in the sun. Those are glacial cauldrons I remember my Golden Circle tour guide telling me. The ice is so dense that all other colours but blue are absorbed. The concave appearance represents depressions indicating weakness in the ice. You can fall several meters deep inside one of those apparently.
Lovely thought. I wonder if he was being serious? I do not actually know anything practical about glaciers, except to be wary when travelling through them.
Several hours of difficult travel later, I recognize across a snowfield, the two new mountains borne of the 2010 eruption—Magni and Móði— named for two sons of Thor. This must mean I'm close to Thórsmörk and the Goðaland -- the Valley of the Gods.
I'm also close to the end.
The snow and hills feel like forever. I cannot believe I have yet to see another person. My shoes and socks are soaked but still warm thanks to the wool socks.
I look up at yet another snow-covered hill and trudge on.
But this time is the last time.
And again the landscape shifts dramatically and utterly transforms into something new.
Ahead of me stretch mountains, peaks and valleys, a snaking river, and I'm again returned to the startling greenery of Iceland. Snow still clings to the hallows, but I've officially cleared the "pass" portion. Thousands of alpine flowers are scattered across the moss and I am up high above it all.
I've reached the Valley of the Gods and I'm struck dumb by it.
I lack words adequate enough to describe how I feel. It's utterly, devastatingly beautiful. It's otherworldly.
Behind me are the seemingly endless stretches of snow, ahead is an entirely different world.
And the worst part? I cannot take a picture to do its beauty justice. You'll have to take my word on it and go yourself.
The Sketchy Parts, Now With Video
Ahead is a narrow ledge that requires you to cling to a metal chain as you tiptoe across yet more ice and snow; below is a steep drop. Further along in the season, this part is laid bare and easier to traverse. Right now it feels like I'm walking across pure snow that could give way beneath my feet at a soft spot. Regardless it is not too difficult.
A little bit past that comes to the very aptly named Cat's Spine.
The Cat's Spine is an unavoidable narrow ledge with a steep drop on both sides. This is the section I dreaded the most. I'll let this video (not mine) demonstrate what words can't:
You may notice that they chose to use a wide-angle or fish-eye lens to distort the angles of the ledge, but rather than being deceptive, this really just gives you a much more accurate picture of what actually walking across the Cat's Spine will feel and look like. It's narrow. Very narrow in parts. The rock is loose. And it is very windy. I am blessed with sunshine and warm weather but rain or snow could make this very slippery. The chain that is provided to hold onto is basically useless in my estimation and more for psychological comfort.
After this section, you're close to the finish line in Básar where you can either take a bus back to Reykjavik, take a room in the traveller hut, or camp on the grounds.
I take my time. A few groups of day hikers, share parts of the trail with me. It's early spring and the wildflowers are numerous and beautiful.
I ran out of the glacial river water sometime in the snowy fields behind me and had to melt the snow for drinking water. The black volcanic ashes that litter the snowfields are impossible to filter out and impart a bizarre taste that I've grown, not just used to, but to actually enjoy. I run out of water completely at just the right moment, as I reach the hut in Básar. I'm fortunate to arrive well in advance of my bus back to Rekyavik.
The three-hour journey goes quickly. I'm looking forward to dinner back in Reykjavik, my last night in Iceland.
I also feel oddly nostalgic for the Fimmvörðuháls Pass even though I've just barely left it. I know I'll come back here, both to Iceland for further exploration, and the Fimmvörðuháls -- to enjoy its incredibly diverse beauty again.
I'll be back to Iceland again. Hopefully soon. I plan to hike the adjoining, longer (92km) Laugavegur trail. I feel an incredible desire, almost a need, to see the rest of this beautiful country.
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments. And if you have not already, check out my Packing & Gear List in my post about The Practical Matters of Hiking The Fimmvörðuháls Pass where I also go into detail about your accommodation options, the food I brought, and bus schedules.