Getting High: Hiking In The Otherworldly Þórsmörk

Getting High: Hiking In The Otherworldly Þórsmörk

The tarmac of Þórsmerkurvegur ends abruptly, a few kilometres inland from Seljalandsfoss, with a sudden bump that rouses the bus’s passengers from their slumber.

The interruption is welcome. It signals that we’re close to our destination: the sequestered, famously beautiful southern region of Þórsmörk. This wild region’s relative inaccessibility is part of its charm; it’s sealed off from casual visitors by several unpredictable, constantly shifting glacial rivers.

We trundle through them slowly, one after the other, observing safely from the high cabin of the monstrous 4×4 bus. The final hurdle is the treacherous Krossá, so-called because it criss-crosses itself across the valley floor. The driver shifts into a low gear and crawls through the deep, silty water. Emerging on the far side, we pass a pair of hikers who’ve wisely chosen to leave their car behind, using a heavy-duty movable footbridge that sits over the river to continue their journey on foot.

The onward road deteriorates into a set of tyre marks across a vast, ashen glacial floodplain. To our right, the peak of Eyjafjallajökull emerges for a moment, hanging improbably high in the swirling clouds. To the left, a range of large, rough mountains appear through a distant sandstorm. We’re just entering Þórsmörk, and it already feels like another world.

Wild life

Our home for the next few days is the Volcano Huts—a speck of civilisation in the dramatic expanse of the landscape. This small cluster of wooden chalets sits on a fenced-off plot of land, sheltered by the Þórsmörk mountain ridge, that also holds a campsite, a restaurant, a shower block, a steaming geothermal hot pot and a small sauna. Full of anticipation, we drop off our bags, pick up a trail map, and head out to start the hike to the nearby 480m peak of Valahnúkur.

The path plunges immediately into some verdant woodland, meandering through a birch forest, crossing several dry stream beds. Soon, we reach the long plateau where the mountain ascent begins. It doesn’t take long to reach the top of Valahnúkur, but as we catch our breath and take in the surrounding mountain view, the weather starts to turn. A fast-moving wall of cloud appears, speeding towards us from the sea and obscuring the grey, river-riddled valley floor. As it’s about to hit, it turns upwards suddenly, encountering the bulge of the Þórsmörk ridge. The wispy clouds—as if they have a mind of their own—curl upwards, wrapping over our heads, and then dive down behind us in a cold embrace of the mountain.

Off road

The pathways are marked on the trail map by their condition. Some are strong lines, meaning they’re well-maintained trails; dotted lines, indicating some level of decay; and red lines, that warn of steepness or difficulty. After descending through a deep white fog and deciding to take a trail that circles the plateau, we descend into a rugged, grassy canyon, green with moss and alive with bees and butterflies. But when the trail terminates at the bank of the swollen Krossá river, we realise we’ve stumbled onto one of the dotted lines.

For the next three hours, we negotiate a completely wild mountainside. It’s a mind-clearing type of hiking that requires focus and creativity—we climb over huge fallen boulders, scramble up and down steep gravel hills, visit gaping caves, and tiptoe carefully down the bank of the gushing Krossá. The only sign of humankind is the occasional waymarker—tiny, broken wooden spikes with peeling red paint, half-hidden amongst the flora and rubble of this perfectly untouched wilderness.

Þórsmörk

On high

The next day, we head out to hike the Tindfjöll circle, the longest route on the map. It begins with a walk up the Krossá valley. The flat grey expanse is unexpectedly colourful up close, with patches of orange moss, white-flowering anjelica and purple Arctic thyme growing amongst the earthy lava pebbles and ashen sand.

After an hour, the path enters a wooded mountainside, and quickly becomes a narrow, winding ledge, etched into the mountainside. We’re soon hundreds metres up on the wooden slope, scaling a variety of obstacles and taking vertigo-inducing scrambles to find the onward route.

Another world

The halfway point is a high, rain-lashed plateau studded with gleaming black pebbles. To our east, the Mýrdalsjökull glacier rears high above a foggy range of textured, pastel-coloured purple bulges and greenish mountains that recede gradually out of sight into the thick mist, and to the west we look down onto the top of Valahnúkur, which seems small, suddenly, from this elevated perspective.

The second half of the circle sees the path skirting the undulating lip of a spectacular canyon. We wind our way along the dizzyingly high cliffs, crossing steep scree banks, pausing at a huge standing rock known as Tröllakirkja (“troll church”). The path vanishes intermittently, subsumed by frozen snow. We kick footholds into the ice to cross the sheer surface, testing with every step in case of water flowing beneath. The near-vertical drop to our right is dizzying and ever-present. The Tindfjöll circle is not for the faint of heart.

Eventually, we descend once more, walking down the peak of a long ridge into a glorious, bright red forest. The lights of the Volcano Huts appear in the distance, and we walk the last stretch looking forward to a long soak, a hot meal, and a final deep and well-earned sleep in this oddly moving and truly unforgettable place.

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Also Read: Blazing Trails—Meet The People Caring For Þórsmörk

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