To be fair, Iceland hasn´t really got any really high mountains. It´s highest peak is Mt. Hvannadalshnjúkur which is “only” 2.110 meters high. This rather lonely and forbidding looking slab of ice is located on the southern tip of Europe´s largest glacier, the Vatnajokull glacier.
I went up there with a large group of people back in June 2007 and it was a pretty tough journey. This was my first real hiking trip on a glacier but since I had been running quite a lot I was confident that I was in good enough shape for it. The main peak protrudes some 200 meters up from the flat glacial plateau which is on a top of a active volcano. Don´t worry though, there are so many active volcanoes in Iceland that one more doesn´t really make any difference.
This volcano has had two major eruptions during historical times. The first one took place in 1362 which devastated the countryside to the degree that an area that was called “Litla Hérað” and “Litte Shire” was renamed as “Öræfi which basically means “desert” or the “ruined land”. This was fitting as it emptied the countryside of people, who either fled or perished and there were decades before people return to live in the much diminished area. It is said that a another peak called Hnappafell which was right next to Hvannadalshhjúkur was blown to bits in this eruption. Geologists believe that the eruption emitted massive amounts of tephra or some 10KM3. This material covered the East and South East of Iceland. From my recent experience of the ash from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption I can tell you that this must have been pretty disgusting. The eruption of 1362 is estimated to be second largest eruption which has taken place in Iceland in the last 10.000 years. The impact of this catastrophic event on the people living in the vicinity and its livestock was probably similar to a nuclear attack.
There was another major eruption in 1727 which went on for a year and was pretty devestating as well. It is estimated that the flood that was ejected from the glacier reached 100.000 m3/sec which is similar to the water volume of the Amazon. There are some horrific stories floating around about people being boiled alive in this flood but these stories sound a bit embellished.
But I digress.
If you are still interested in running the gauntlet of this active volcano below the largest glacier in Europe the trip will involve the following given that you go the more common route called “Sandfellsleið” as opposed to an alternative and tougher route called “Virkisjökusleið”:
- Elevation gain: 2.000 meters
- Distance: 10,5 KM
- Duration of journey: 10-15 hours
The first leg of the hike involves an elevation gain of some 1.000 meters. When you have reached some 1.100 meters above sea level you reach the edge of the glacier. The guides split the groups into safety lines but they are totally mandatory up on the glacier as it can be riddled with crevices. You will also put on your crampon and you will be carrying an ice-ax on your back.
Word of warning: Do not ever, ever, go up on an Icelandic glacier without using a safety line and I would strongly advice against anyone going up on a glacier here without being escorted by a professional guide.
The second leg of the hike is from an height of 1100 meters up to 1.800 meters. This can be a bit of a challenge as it is a bit monotonous. You basically walk non stop up this really steep slope for ages. During my trip two people gave up from exhaustion and had to be escorted down by a guide. The somewhat rough weather we were experiencing wasn´t helping and at one point I was worried that we would suffer the same fate as a group that had to crawl down from the glacier before they reached the peak as the weather turned hellish in a blink of an eye. But the weather held so that was OK.
Finally, you reach the plateu and you will be thrilled to know that now you are walking along the edge of the caldera underneath the ice-sheet. When we had walked some time there a girl in my line stepped in a crevice and sank to her waist. The guy behind her just kept walking towards so the line connecting them didn´t really work to pull her up. I have to admit that the language I used to get him to get the **** back so she wouldn´t sink any further isn´t really appropriate for a family oriented blog such as this.
Then disaster struck. A tourist who not really with our group stepped into a hole or something and twisted his ankle. Two of our guides had to get that guy down and I still think about how difficult it must have been. This meant that when we finally reached the peak we had to wait for ages as the ratio of guides to tourists was pretty messed up.
As the ascent and descent of the peak can be a bit tricky the guides need to escort people up and down. All this translated into a bit of a wait until a guide was available for our group but we finally got up there and stood triumphant on top of Iceland. Unfortunately, the view from the top wasn´t that great since it was a bit foggy. But in theory you can have great view up there which could involve the stunning Hrutfjallstindar peaks which I scaled in 2010 during the infamous Eyjafjokull eruption. More on that later.
The way down was pretty rough but we lucked out as the snow on the glacier hadn´t melted much during the day. Slogging in half melted snow for many kilometers is really tough but I suppose we only had conditions like that for the last kilometer of glacier or so.
A few more things
Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur is a part of the fantastic Skaftafell National Park. There is so much to see and do there so make sure that if you decide to hike up to Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur you make sure you explore Skaftafell as well.
The speed record of going up Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur is held by a guy called Ívar F. Finnbogason but incidentally he is the guide that tooke me and my friend up to the Hrutfjallstindar peaks in 2010. Normally, it will take you some 6 – 9 hours to get to the top but he did it in 2 hours and 53 minutes. The round trip took him 5 hours and 13 minutes but as mentioned earlier it usually takes about 10-15 to go from Sandfell to Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur and then back again. This record was set in 2004 and to my knowledge it hasn´t been broken.
Ívar works for Icelandic Mountain Guides and I would recommend booking a trip with them if you want to hike or climb in the area around Skaftafell on the Vatnajokull Glacier. They sure know what they are doing (I am not affiliated with them in any way btw.)
Written by Jón Heiðar Þorsteinsson
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