From Iceland — How Not To Tackle Iceland’s Rugged Landscape

How Not To Tackle Iceland’s Rugged Landscape

Published July 7, 2014

Photo by
Julia Staples
Liam Harrison

Not long after moving to Reykjavík, I naturally became preoccupied with searching for adventures in the Icelandic countryside. My search led me to Esja, a mountain range around 10km from Reykjavík. The most popular summit, Þverfellshorn, is around 780m high. Feeling like a modern day, small-scale Ingólfur Arnarson, yet with only spurious outdoor hiking experience, I took the bus to Esja.

Giving myself a smug pat on the back for deciding to venture to such a brutally designed and beautiful country, I viewed the approaching mountains as the fortress tall. I dismounted my bright yellow, mechanical stallion at the foot of the mountain and took in the view. Picture the scene: snowy mountains, topped with bare rock, the gallant and heroic knight, outfitted with more than adequate provisions: shabby Doc Martens, piss-poor skinny jeans, thin woolen jumper and a thin tote bag full of camera equipment. My thought process at the time went something like, ‘this hike is well signposted in various languages for tourists, so it must be an easy hike’ and I’m sure that many people who stayed on the marked path for the majority of the journey would actually agree with the statement.

Taking A Turn For The Worse

Esja’s lush, grassy knolls complementing barren, extra-terrestrial crags make for a nice reminder that you’ve left continental Europe (or anywhere generally considered ‘hospitable’) for something quite radically different and even, at risk of hyperbole, menacing. The moderately sloping pathway towards Þverfellshorn is relatively simple, well signposted and certainly a feasible journey for even the leastcommitted of hikers. If only it were that simple.

esja 1

After about 40 minutes, this straightforward pathway appeared to disintegrate and, as the hapless navigator, I made probably my most crucial mistake. Instead of heading toward the obvious route, I turned to the left, making for a precipitous hill lined with jagged rocks. With no knowledge of where I was going other than ‘as high as possible,’ I climbed no pathway of any kind for what seemed to be hours. The route became almost unnavigably foggy, restricting both the beautiful view of the surrounding area and my ability to see anything within two metres of my own face. Further up, I’d completely lost track of my original route.

It’s perhaps now worth mentioning that I’d told no one of my plans to climb Esja and worryingly, I hadn’t seen any fellow hikers in far too long. They were probably far too smart to attempt such a feat in such foul weather. I explored the rock face via my hands and feet as any element of the audacious sense of adventure I felt previously has subsided. I passed ‘Steinn,’ already quite high, a considerable amount of time ago and now, upon staring at a gaping cavern below me, felt considerable amounts of vertigo. The almost-constant rain that had thoroughly saturated my clothes, phone (wet enough to shut itself down) and camera (which wasn’t even functioning by this point) had given away to a soft blizzard, which, unlike the relatively balmy weather below, bit and clung to the skin. It’s hardly worth stating that this trek certainly wasn’t fun anymore.

Climbing To New Heights Of Obscurity

esja 2Upon climbing the canopy of rocks that represented my finale (I believe it was Þverfellshorn) any sense of relief was squashed by the disappointment that I couldn’t actually visualise any results of my efforts for the thick fog that had beset the majority of my journey. However, the fog had created even more worrying conditions. As I fretted to and fro on the slippery canopy of rocks, I barely even noticed that I was plummeting down various metres and metres of terrain. Scrambling ineffectually for a tangible surface seemed futile. After flailing wildly like some sort of crazed exhibitionist, I grasped the rough pebbles with enough force to catch myself. The timing was perfect; a few seconds more would have had me enthusiastically shaking hands with a 30ft drop, and probably my death. I remained immobile for some time until, twisting and hoisting myself, I arrived at some tangible surface.

The dreary situation remained for a couple of hours until the rain partially subsided and I could grasp enough rocky material to descend a number of feet to the less steep areas of the rock face. From there, following a number of further cliff-edge close calls, I managed to somehow get myself to a path; seemingly a needle in a haystack. From here, with clothes sodden, camera full (of water), a similarly washed up ego and a good five to six hours spent climbing and panicking; I trekked back to the start.

And Why Is All This Important?

There’s a tendency to dramatise perilous, vulnerable experiences, and for a lot of people this is probably mild, but the general lesson to learn from my foolish anecdote remains the same. Sheer blood-curdling panic caused by my relative inexperience is relevant to a lot of travellers unused to Iceland’s comparatively caustic weather. I can’t emphasise enough that it is worthy of your respect. Like my quite unfitting urban-wear and the terrible weather, soak up my advice to always carry provisions, dress appropriately, follow any and all instructions and routes (In Iceland, there isn’t a whole lot of them…) and relish an experience of the ‘true Iceland’ the proper way: the sickenly ignorant, tourist-y way that anyone can claim to hate, but also, (and much better) the coming-back-slightly-taller-than-a-pancake-kinda-way.

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