Challenge Accepted: Hiking Esja in Winter

Challenge Accepted: Hiking Esja in Winter

Jessica Peng
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Esja, the light of my life, and the fire of my loins. Having been to Iceland twice before, I’ve always seen Mount Esja from downtown Reykjavik. Along with the calming ocean, it’s an otherworldly and awe-inspiring backdrop for the city.

Only about a 50 minute drive from downtown, it’s a popular destination for day trips. Esja is mysterious, grand, and sublime, especially for someone like me who has spent most of my life in big cities. Over the weekend I finally got a chance to see this beauty up close and personal when I went for a winter hike with my friend Camille.

The challenge

Most people choose to hike Esja in the summertime, which is a wise thing to do, because it’s much more challenging in winter. The volcanic mountain range is usually covered with snow, and the hiking routes are icy and slippery. However, it is doable if you are well prepared. You’ll need your hiking boots, crampons, trekking poles, warm clothes and a traveling companion.

“Little balls of snow perched on bare branches, and it looked like a land of popcorn and cotton candy.”

I was two-fifths prepared because I only had the last two items on the checklist—warm clothes and a friend—but I was unafraid. There are three different mountain paths and four forest paths, and we chose a mountain path that would eventually lead to Steinn—a stone at about 587 metres above sea level. The whole hike would take two to three hours, and off we went.

A new world

Stepping on the snow path felt like stepping into a brand new world, far away from noises and civilization. The cold and refreshing air poured into my lungs like an ice cold bucket of water dumped on my head. I felt more alive than ever.

“The cold and refreshing air poured into my lungs like an ice cold bucket of water dumped on my head.”

On part of the hiking trail there were half-frozen streams, with bubbling water trapped under a thin layer of ice. Not everything is frozen in winter, you just need a pair of attentive and observant eyes to notice. Little balls of snow perched on bare branches, and it looked like a land of popcorn and cotton candy. The winter sunlight was crystal clear, illuminating the city of Reykjavík. You could also see the soft lines of other mountains on the horizon. It was all so poetic.

Battle with ice

When we hit Þvergil, about 140 metres above sea level, my hiking shoes started failing me. There wasn’t enough traction with all the snow and ice, and it was getting steeper. My hiking shoes had been great for all my previous trips, so I thought I’d be okay without a pair of proper hiking boots. As it turned out, I felt like a toddler learning how to walk all over again, while trying my best not to fall. Eventually we decided to come back down, as we didn’t want to risk our lives. So if you want to hike Esja in winter, make sure you’re well-prepared!

Even though we didn’t reach our original destination of Steinn, the snow-covered Esja was charming, and the hike soothing. It was a much-needed cleansing for my soul. I have been obsessed with Esja for so long, and it is indeed one hell of a beauty.