Hiking to the Top of the Highest Mountain in Iceland

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To be fair, Iceland hasn´t really got any really high mountains. Highest Mountain in Iceland 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.

Stay safe!

Never go on an Icelandic glacier without being escorted by a professional guide. There are many companies that provide tours to Icelandic mountains and glacers. These include the following companies which are all highly rated on Trip Advisor: Asgard Beyond, Iceland Mountain Guides and Mountaineers of Iceland provide you with experienced guides or tours.

Over 880 Tours available
Walk on
The journey starts really early in the morning and from the very start it is a pretty hard trek

Hiking highest Mountain in Iceland is a tough

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. But should it blow, boy, it is going to be a big one.

Using safety lines while hiking to Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur in Iceland
When you reach the glacial plateau you are well on your way to reach the peak of Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur. Safety lines are mandatory as the glacier is riddled with crevices. If you fall into one and get stuck, well you are in trouble.

Scorching hot killer lurking under the ice

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 “wasteland”.  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.

Peak blown to bits

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. Mad Max would have felt right at home in the aftermath.

Horror stories from the eruption

There was another major eruption in 1727 which went on for a year and was 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.

Mt. Lomagnupur in the far distance on the right
One of my favourite mountains, Mt. Lomagnupur can be seen in the distance on the right.

Want to climb? Better be in shape then

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.

Short break on the glacier
When we were going up the slope we had some bad weather. People took it in stride and enjoyed a  snack.

 

Keep walking people, keep walking

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 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 did not get worse.

Serenity and beauty of the Icelandic glacier
There is nothing quite like the serenity and beauty you find on the top of an Icelandic glacier.

Dude, you are an idiot

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 travel magazine such as this. But I didn´t really get his attention until I yanked at the cord rather harshly. He woke up from his walk induced slumber and rather sheepishly stepped back to give her the leverage she needed to get out of the crevice.

The view from the glacial plateau
The view from the glacial plateau. Note the creeping glacier at the bottom of the valley. It is called Svínafellsjökull glacier. Try to say that really fast after a couple of pints.

Disaster strikes

Then disaster struck. A tourist who was not with our group stepped into a hole 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.

The peak of Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur
The peak of Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur. There it was finally after a long hard trek. Notice the ant-like row of people ascending to the top.

Standing on top of Iceland

Getting up and down the peak is tricky. The guides need to escort people up and down. We had to wait until a guide was available for our group but we finally got up there. We 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.

The view going down from Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur
The view going down from Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur

The way down was pretty rough. 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  tough.  Fortunately, we only had conditions like that for the last kilometer of glacier or so.

Explore Skaftafell

Mt. Hvannadalshnjukur is a part of the fantastic Skaftafell National Park. There is so much to see and do there.

 

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Hiking to the Top of the Highest Mountain in Iceland

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