The Top Of Iceland: Climbing Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland’s Highest Peak

The Top Of Iceland: Climbing Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland’s Highest Peak

Josie Gaitens
Photo by
Art Bicnick

It was quite pleasant inside the crevasse, once I realised I wasn’t going to die. The ice inside was smooth and pale green, like sea glass, and gave off an other-worldly glow. I looked down—there was quite a lot of down to look at—and figured it was probably time to start trying to get out. Nice though, crevasses. Peaceful. Certainly far more relaxing than trying to climb a 2000 metre mountain.

It began, as many misadventures begin, with a Facebook message from a colleague. The writer about to embark on a grand adventure had fallen and damaged her knee. Could I fill in and climb Hvannadalshnúkur —Iceland’s tallest mountain—tomorrow?

Hvannadalshnúkur team

Preparing to climb
The next day, we set off towards Hvannadalshnúkur, on the edge of Skaftafell National Park in southeast Iceland. In 2008, Skatafell was combined with surrounding protected areas to create Vatnajökull National Park. Recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is hoped that by recognising the value and importance of Vatnajökull on a national and global scale will protect the area for future generations—so that they, too, can experience falling into a crevasse.

We arrived at Skaftafell at 6pm to meet our guides, Maja and Chris, who made us feel immediately like we were in safe hands. They talked us through what to wear, eat and bring, as well as providing us with equipment—ice axes, crampons, walking poles, and, in my case, sturdier boots.

By the end of the meeting, though, I was terrified. Every year, hundreds of tourists are injured or even killed whilst experiencing Iceland’s nature. But by going with qualified guides, we were taking the best precautions we could against becoming one of these sad statistics.

Hvannadalshnúkur water

Breakfast rock
After half-sleeping through the bright summer night, we congregated at 3am at the base of Hvannadalshnúkur. The climbing group was a seven-strong international bunch aged from mid-twenties to mid-seventies, of mixed ability and climbing experience.

We started out down a rough and gravelly path. At 350m, we stopped to fill our water bottles, and in my case, to apply copious plasters—whilst essential for ankle support and crampon use, my borrowed boots didn’t make for pleasant walking.

The trail steepened until our next stop—a 750m high point referred to as ‘breakfast rock’. We strapped on our crampons, and got roped up. Taking in the already impressive view, I bid farewell to the reassuring path, and we continued onto the snow.

Pure slog
The next 1,000 metres of the ascent was a pure slog. No matter how far we walked, the crest of the hill never seemed to get closer. I hadn’t done any serious snow hiking before and was surprised by how quickly it exhausted me. We also started to encounter crevasses. Chris, leading the group, would stop us while he poked at the snow bridges, sussing out their reliability. When he found a route he would scrape a cross onto any dodgy areas with his walking pole so we could follow safely.

The snow was fairly firm, so our main challenge was the unrelenting ascent. Although the gradient wasn’t impossibly steep, pushing my body upwards for hours on end was unbelievably tiring. Finally, we hit the edge of the plateau—essentially the crater of the snow-capped volcano—and started the trek towards the base of the final summit.

Hvannadalshnúkur view

Cleared to summit
We’d been waiting for a forecast update to see whether we could attempt to reach Hvannadalshnúkur’s summit—bad weather had been due in from the northeast—but at 8:30am we got the all-clear. Southeastern Iceland is well known for its good weather, but even in that area conditions can change rapidly in a moment. The fact that we were blessed with clear skies and fairly light winds for the full 12 hours is not lost on me. In fact, despite regularly slathering on SPF 50 sunscreen, my pale, Celtic skin still turned the colour of a nice ham by the end.

The last push for the summit was tough, with the steep, wind-whipped mound covered in thick snow. The joy of reaching the top of the mountain was eclipsed only by the joy of being able to lie down for a moment. But the winds at the top were strong enough to not want to hang around, and after a celebratory dram we hoisted the Reykjavík Grapevine flag (an extra-large t-shirt that I’ve slept in ever since, cheers guys) and then quickly headed off.

Muffled world
The difficulty of climbing is that when you hit the top you’re technically only halfway done. For much of the descent I was on auto-pilot, trudging through the sun-softened snow, knees buckling every few steps. As clichéd as it sounds, the idea of ‘the mountain of the mind’ began to make perfect sense to me. There’s the point at which your mind thinks your body is done, and then the point at which it can actually go no further. The fight you have with yourself between those two points is where you actually climb the mountain.

“There’s the point at which your mind thinks your body is done, and then the point at which it can actually go no further. Between those two points is where you climb the mountain.”

We continued down, again navigating those ominous cracks in the glacier. I was the second-to-last link in the rope chain and was stepping out across a snowbridge when suddenly the world became closed and muffled. The ropes snapped taut—I’d fallen beneath the snow, far enough for my head to be a couple of feet below the surface. I dug my crampons into the ice and threw my arm over the lip of the crevasse, pulling myself up. Slowly, with all the ungainly beauty of a calf being born, I hauled myself up and flopped back out into the bright day. “I didn’t get a photo of you,” lamented my photographer companion, “because I had to hold the rope.” A truly caring man.

The rewards
The adrenaline of the fall gave me a boost for the final descent of Hvannadalshnúkur. Nevertheless, I was delighted when we reached ground level and I was able to put my wobbly little calf-legs on solid rock. Focussing hard on the lamb burger I intended to eat for dinner, we picked our way back down to the car park, a full 12 hours after we’d set off.

Climbing Hvannadalshnúkur is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I was surprised to find that the difficulty was as much psychological as it was physical. But the sense of achievement is indescribable. I have rarely felt so proud of myself. You better believe I deserved that lamb burger.

Distance from Reykjavík: 326 km
How to get there: Route One South, meet at Skaftafell
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