Iceland January 2013: Landmannalaugar

When I woke up, I was convinced my alarm was about to go off and I was about to have to crawl out of a nice cosy bed. I was delighted, therefore, to discover it was only 2.58am and I had hours still to sleep.

I woke up ten minutes before my alarm, got up, pottered around, enjoying the fact that my bag was already packed for the day and went downstairs to make hot chocolate. There was still no sign of a kettle in the kitchen so I found a pan and was in the middle of filling it with water when Evelyn appeared, demanding to know what I was doing. There was hot water in the dispenser, didn’t I know? But she would make me some hot milk. In fact, instead of making it with my little Highlights sachet, she’d use Swiss Miss powder. She whisked my little flask away and I sat down to try and eat some breakfast. I’d actually already had some cereal for breakfast up in my room but as I had breakfast waved at me downstairs, I thought I’d better eat something. A slice of bread and butter (and the in-flight magazine was right, Icelandic butter does taste different) and some orange juice (almost undrinkable) while chatting a little bit to a German girl from Stuttgart. Evelyn brought back my flask full of hot chocolate and I dived back upstairs to pull on my outer layers, throw the flask in my bag and hurry downstairs to be waiting for my pick-up at 8.

It wasn’t until about 8.28. By then I was getting a bit twitchy. Car after car went past, then jeeps of various sizes but finally one pulled in by the door – a big silver Nissan Patrol with tyres almost as big as me. I hopped in. I was first and as the other two were coming together, would I mind please sitting in the front seat? Not at all. My guide introduced himself but it was an Icelandic name, of course, and I managed to completely miss what it actually was so hereon in he will be called “the guide”. Of course, then I made an idiot of myself by forgetting that we drive on the wrong side. I got the car door open to find the guide holding open the door on the other side and telling me he’d rather be the one driving. Sheepishly, I explained “English cars” as he asked if I was Australian or English.

With our other couple (Adrian & Melissa from New York), we set off. I’d brought my GPS and I switched it on as we left the town centre. It was dark for a long time. The guide wasn’t sure we’d make it to Landmannalaugar. A friend of his went yesterday and after being stuck in wet snow for four hours had had to turn back. He told us we had the option of trying for Landmannalaugar bearing in mind there was only a 75% chance we’d make it and only a 50% chance we’d get back without help or we could go to Þórsmörk instead, have a nice drive up the river valley, drive right to the edge of Eyjafjallajökull, stop at the EFJ museum and go for a swim in Iceland’s oldest pool.

We headed up towards the Ring Road as usual, down to Hveragerði (Icelandic peppers got mentioned but not the bananas) and to the little shop and petrol station where I spent a night looking for the Northern Lights a year ago. While we waited for the guide to return, I chatted to Adrian who said he and Melissa would rather try to get to Landmannalaugar. I was in agreement and off we went, up the 28 towards the Highlands.

As we approached Hekla (now 13 years since last eruption; overdue), our guide pointed out the farm where he’d grown up. He saw Hekla erupt in 1980 while he was out making hay and recommends that if you ever get a chance to see an eruption, to go for it. Five or ten minutes later, we’d passed the last farm and the tarmac road ran out. A little further on, we came across another jeep, full of men taking photos of Hekla. We stopped alongside it and our guide talked in Icelandic for ages with one of them, finally reporting back as we set off “Not such good news”. All he meant was that the others were not going to Landmannalaugar but they’d swapped phone numbers and he appeared to have found them on the radio so it was “nice to know they’re in the neighbourhood in case of problems”.

It was beginning to look snowy – you could see the snow increasing mile by mile. Half an hour later we stopped on top of a dam that looked like it was on another planet so he could let some air out of our huge tyres, ready to head onto the snow. The three of us tourists ambled around taking photos for five minutes and then we were off, properly into the wilderness.

The first bit was driving along a narrow embankment alongside the lake created by the dam. It was narrow and I was very aware that there was a very very cold (half frozen) lake to our left. Next we were up and onto the bit that, in the summer, had looked like the surface of the moon. Now it was a big white nothingness. It was spectacular. We had to pause a couple of times to look at the road ahead – well, at the white nothingness ahead. There was no road. But the guide had a big chunky satnav and that was showing a road and we were following it very nicely. We came across a road sign, normally two metres high apparently, now with the pole invisible and nothing but the triangular sign itself sticking out of the snow. We also stopped to check that some tracks in the snow were definitely arctic fox – yes, they were.

We followed the power lines (laid in 1973/74 before the days of superjeeps and handy machinery) across a bumpy white nothingness. It had been scary at first, seeing how much the guide pulled the wheel around but you got used to it surprisingly quickly. In the summer this had been a big black lavaflow, with odd-shaped rocks sticking up all over the place. The rocks were still visible but mostly it was just snow. And once again, I kept feeling like Landmannalaugar had to be just around the next bend. I sort of half-recognised places, like the terrifying descent where we’d come across some rescue ATVs last time which I thought was five minutes away from the place. The last 50km crawled. The last 2k were slowest. In my guidebook it says:

“In good conditions, skilled drivers might be able to nurse a conventional vehicle to the ford at Landmannalaugar, the passengers then hitching a ride across with something more sturdy but you’re not advised to try.”

In summer, this ford is no obstacle at all. If you really can’t drive through it, it’s all of about 500 yards from the centre and there’s a footbridge over it. In winter, you can’t follow the road all the way to the ford because it hugs the bottom edge of the mountain and it’s too steep to drive across in snow. We had to cross a river that just wasn’t there in the summer. Once we’d got out of the river (easier said than done, even in a superjeep) something seemed wrong. We crept along at 3km/hr (I was watching the satnav) while the guide kept sticking his head out the window and stopping and reversing and trying again. I had no idea what the problem was. I’d have just driven straight across. Probably a good thing it wasn’t me driving. Eventually, after he’d flicked two green switches several times, we gave up trying to cross the mysteriously scary snowfield and headed into the river. This was all of half a mile away. I was starting to think of saying “It’s right there, we can walk” and then thought better of it. There’s a very cold river at least a foot deep and moving at quite a speed, the snow is two feet deep and half a mile is quite a distance to run if a storm suddenly blows up.

Eventually we made it. It seemed the problem had been quicksand in the river and an unexpected swamp underneath the snow. The guide opted to stay in the car, since he’s been to Landmannalaugar and been in the pool many times. The rest of us abandoned car and fled down to the hut. It wasn’t really open but the front section was, so we could shelter inside to get changed. Remembering how slippery the boardwalk had been in summer, I put my yaktrax on my boots and decided the best thing to do was to put my thermals on over my swimming stuff, put on my coat and my boots and scurry down to the platform with my towel. Getting there was a bit tricky – the snow was thick but where people had trodden in it fairly recently it had opened up in huge deep holes. I made my way down to the waterside like a crazy person, pulled off the warm clothes, wished I’d brought a drybag down to the water, swore at my boots as I had to take them off one at a time to get the thermals off but put them back on before my feet could freeze. I left them right on the steps by the river and jumped in.

It was amazing. It was so warm and so blissful. Filthy but blissful. I drifted upriver towards the hot spring itself, which is take-your-skin-off hot. But you get used to it very quickly and you soon realise it’s only the top of the water that’s warm. If you’re sitting in the water, your feet start to get chilly so you have to float. I had no intention of getting my hair wet – it takes forever to dry and I had ridiculous visions of it getting wet, freezing and then snapping off. So I had plaited it and went in the water with my hat on and the plaits tucked up inside it. Looked ridiculous but it worked. I even had the water to myself for a few minutes before the Americans made it across and in.

The guide had told us we’d made good time and we could have an hour, an hour and a half in the water. I hadn’t brought my watch in with me so I had no idea how long I’d been in but I wanted to get out because 1) the idea of having to get out and stand in the rain (oh yes, the rain, it was raining) and get dried and/or changed was unappealing and therefore better over and done with and 2) I wanted to take some photos of Landmannalaugar in the snow.

I got out. My boots were soaked, partly from the rain and partly from the deep snow I’d run through to get to the water. With the help of my towel, I got the top of the swimsuit off and a thermal top and then coat on and then I wrapped the towel around myself while I considered the problems of the thermal trousers and the wet boots. Then I realised the towel was pretty much windproof and my bare wet legs weren’t really cold. I gathered up the trousers, hung my camera around my neck and wearing a towel-skirt, coat, fleece hat and boots, I fled, trying to follow my own footprints but the snow was going into my boots, which was unpleasant. I made it to the hut without hypothermia, slammed the door behind me and got dressed. Award for best service of the day goes to my softfibre travel towel. Warm, windproof and gets you dry. Back in my multiple layers, I was surprisingly warm and delighted to find I’d packed my waterproof trousers, so I could go and play in the snow for a while before we had to leave. The one problem was that I hadn’t brought any dry shoes or socks. The boots were soaked. For the time being, my socks were still dry so for a few minutes putting the boots back on was ok. I dug out my bottle of hot chocolate. This was about five hours later and it was still hot. Well done Evelyn. Proper bliss. A swim in a hot river in a snow field in the middle of nowhere, followed by warm dry clothes and hot chocolate.

By the time I was ready to go outside the Americans were emerging. They’d taken their bags down to the river but came back in much the same state of dress as I had for all that. I went outside and took photos and tried to ignore the jeep, still sitting there with the engine running, making me feel like we were running late (which we weren’t). To avoid the jeep, I went back down towards the river. Just past the hut but a bit off to the left of the paths I’d take through the snow I found a foot sticking out of the snow – a duck foot, by the looks of what was left, and some tracks that could well have been arctic fox. I did not take a photo. I took photos of the views and the mountains and the snow and then went back up towards the jeep. By now the Americans were coming too so we all hopped back in, damp and warm and happy.

Getting back was easier. We headed straight down the river, followed our tracks back through the wilderness and were back at the Highlands Hotel in no time, having stopped a little way before the dam to partly reinflate the tyres as snow began to give way to lava and gravel. The Highlands Hotel is the last stop before the Highlands road. It used to be a camp for people working at the hydro power station but when it closed, someone bought the camp and turned it into a combined hostel and last stop. It says Hrauneyjar over the door – I prefer that name. It means Lava Islands. The guide stopped there to fully inflate the tyres and for us to get some coffee. Not drinking any coffee, I enjoyed taking off my wet boots and then my wet socks, since they were making wet footprints everywhere and sitting down with space for my feet (a bag and a coat in the front seat of even a superjeep doesn’t leave a lot of space for feet) and then we were off again.

We were taking a slightly different route back. I have no idea at what point we deviated from our original route but suddenly we were on the other side of the river (my GPS says about 8 miles after the Highlands Hotel). We stopped off on the way back to have a quick look at Hjalparfoss, the little twin waterfalls that supply one of the six power stations on that river. It was nice to have it to myself (well, with the two Americans somewhere around) after having a full coachload in the summer but on the other hand, it was starting to get dark by now and my camera’s not a big fan of the dark. The guide thinks it’s a very small waterfall. It’s huge by UK standards and there’s a big chunk of rock in the middle at the top splitting it into two waterfalls. All around it are spectacular horizontal basalt formations before it meanders down to the power station.

From there, we followed the river back to the Ring Road and then it was an hour’s drive back to Reykjavík. I was getting sleepy by then and by the time we reached the outskirts of the city, at least one of the Americans was asleep.

I was dropped off at my door, left my boots downstairs, was permitted to take my coat upstairs since it’s dry and had a shower to wash the river filth off me. It’s a lovely river but it is full of weed and scum and bizarre orangeness today – I thought I had a big bruise on my leg but it turned out to be a patch of something sulphurous from the bottom of the river. Having realised that, I also discovered my hands were bright orange from paddling along the bottom. I vowed not to eat anything until I’d had a chance to wash my hands – not that there was much opportunity to eat until I got back. And eat I did.

Now I am fed and clean and mostly dry and I’ve been drying all the soaking wet stuff on that fantastic radiator ready to go again tomorrow. Glacier hike and ice climbing on Sólheimasjökull, followed by a stop at my favourite waterfall, Skógafoss.

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