“I hope you guys brought a lot of sunblock, otherwise you are not going up there” said the guide as he carefully looked us over. Me and my friend had just arrived at his hut at 5:30 in the morning feeling a bit tired after the long drive from Reykjavik to Skaftafell National Park the day before.
Part of the drive was, by the way, through the massive ash cloud from the Mt. Eyjafjallajokull eruption. Incidentally, we had been involved in clearing ash from farmsteads just a few days earlier.
Our mission: Scale the four peaks collectively know as Hrútfjallstindar situated in the Vatnajokull glacier, just west of west of Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur, Iceland´s highest peak. The highest of Hrutfjallstindar peaks reaches 1.875 meters. You could perhaps translate the name to English to something like “Ram Mountain Peaks” but that sounds a bit silly actually so let´s not!
These peaks are majestic but they are rarely scaled as people usually go for the their much better know neighbour even if the peaks are in plain sight from Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur on a clear day. To be fair, Hrutfjallstindar Peaks are a tougher proposition that Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur although the way is shorter. It takes about 8-10 times to reach the peaks and the total travel time is probably about 11-15 hours depending on your fitness or conditions. As you are up on a hardcore glacier you will require safety lines, ice ax and crampons. The elevation gain is probably about 1.750 meters. The rub is that there is some climbing involved which is not really a part of the regular hike to Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur.
I will repeat my warning from before: Never, ever go up on an Icelandic glacier without bringing and using proper safety gear and clothing. Also, always use the services of experienced companies such as Icelandic Mountain Guides which are in my experience totally the best. I am not affiliated with them in any way but I have used their services for Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur and of course Hrútfjallstindar Peaks.
Anyway, I was a bit surprised to get a question about sunblock. I had filled my bag with warm clothes, staying true the rule of three layers of wool or fleece and I even brought my prized woolen sweater as an extra fourth layer but such an article had saved my half frozen bacon on the hike up to Mt. Hvannadalshnjúkur three years earlier. I had worried about sweeping cold winds, snowstorms, murderous crevices, slippery slopes and my fear of heights which I hoped would not be a problem. But sunblock? Not really.
I rummaged through my back-pack and discovered that indeed I had the good sense of bringing the said crucial ointment. I triumphantly showed this to the guide who ordered us to cover ourselves in the stuff. “Lay it on thick and keep it fresh” he ordered. And we got going.
The route of to Mt. Hrutfjallstindar goes something like this:
From the Skaftafell National Park drive up to the creeping glacier called Svínafellsjökull (literally: Pig Mountain Glacier!) and park your car there. Then you walk right next to another creeping glacier called Skaftafellsjökull underneath the ominous looking cliffs of Illuklettar (Evil Rocks). Then you go up the slopes of Hafrafell hill. When you reach the top you get an awesome view of the massive creeping glacier Skaftafellsjokull. From there you head up a ridge until you reach the not so uplifting name of Sveltiskarð (or “Starving Pass”). Then you walk up the last leg up to the peaks. On the peaks you get an unparalleled view across the Vatnajokull glacier with such stunning features as Mt. Hvannadalshnjúkur, Svínafellsjökull and the ridge Tindaborg (or Peak City) if you want to translate those strange Icelandic names.
The warning about sunblock was pertinent. The sun beat down like a hammer throughout the day and sunlight was reflected and amplified on the ice. So going up there without sunblock would probably have resulted in first or second degree burns.
But thanks to all that sticky sunblock that didn´t happen. The only thing that I wished I had done differently is that I didn´t bring shorts to my glacial excursion. I was wearing a T-shirt up to 1.100 meters but I was sweating like crazy in my fleece pants and I am sure you are all thanking me for sharing that with you. But all in all, it was just one of those magical days that you experience just a few times in your lifetime.
The glacier itself was almost totally free of snow, it was just the bare rock hard ice. Sometimes, our crampons didn´t even penetrate it sufficiently. But man it was it fantastic up there. We found pools of absolutely clear water and our guide told us that this water would be useless for consumption in the long term as it contains little or no minerals.
In the distance we saw the ash plume from the raging Eyfjafjallajokull eruption being swept away to the south-east by the high altitude winds.
In the air we saw a large number of jet streams as air traffic was directed to the north over Iceland. We made our way across impossibly narrow ridges covered in ice. We met a group of people who taunted us for being slow up and down the peaks. We laughed it off and had lunch in the white wonderland, drinking cocoa and chewing on extremely high calorie snacks.
I´m no great mountaineer but I being on an Icelandic glacier in great weather is simply out of this world. The sheer purity of it cleanses the soul and clears the mind.
Written by Jón Heiðar Þorsteinsson