Across the waters of Faxaflói Bay from Reykjavík resides Esjan—the dark, often cloud-covered mountain considered the quintessential Icelandic hike.
Esjan is often visible as we leave Grapevine headquarters, prompting us to say, “We’re going to be on top of that mountain…one day.” Spoken into existence, the intern gang vowed to climb the mountain, and the appointed day could not have been more beautiful—or so we thought.
The uphill and our downfall
Spirits were high as we made our way from the parking lot to the trailhead at 21:00. The weather was about as good as you can get for Iceland—sunny, clear skies, and so warm you almost didn’t need a jacket—and we were very pumped about the hot dogs and hot chocolate we brought along to enjoy at the top.
However, it didn’t take long for our spirits to drop. We majorly underestimated the steepness of the trail—though we probably should have known, as Esja stands 914 metres tall–and even though we like to think we’re decently in shape, Esja made us think otherwise.
Luckily, we had beautiful views of Reykjavík and the promise of some great food and drink to keep us going up the daunting trail. We quickly fell into a groove of joking, complaining, and gasping at the view.
Unfortunately, our luck quickly ran out. As is typical of Icelandic weather, it changes minute-to-minute, and what was once a clear, sunny evening became foggy and cold. Slowly our view dwindled and we could only see our feet and a few rocks in front of us.
Truth be told, we considered giving up a few times. Motivating yourself to continue climbing the steepest path you’ve ever seen at 23:00 when it’s cold, raining, and so foggy you can’t even see the view you came for is very difficult. Still, we trudged on, almost entirely motivated by the promise of hot dogs.
As much as we hated ourselves for this self-inflicted torture, it wasn’t entirely a bust. It provided our little intern group some quality bonding time before three of us depart Iceland for our respective homes. We discussed all topics ranging from grocery stores to jouch memes to goofy songs from our childhoods. Physically we may have been in pain, but our hearts were happy.
Hot dogs and hot chocolate
We never thought a random boulder could bring us joy, but the mid-sized rock with a “steinn” plaque marking the end of our hike was met with much relief and joy. Despite the thick fog, cold winds, and rain, we took out our small Coleman grill and prepared our celebratory feast.
Several failed attempts to boil water later, we each had a cup—or bowl—of hot chocolate, making the weather slightly more bearable. We cooked some famous Icelandic hot dogs—while teaching our Ukrainian intern the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme song—and devoured them before signing the guestbook and making our venture back down the trail at midnight.
We can all say we’ve been to the top of Esjan now, but we still have absolutely no clue what the view is like, as our only vista was thick fog and a Coleman grill.
The downhill and resurrection
We decided—wisely—to take the same path down as we had used on the way up, even though the other half of the loop was more direct. Sitting at the top socked in by fog, the path was unclear, and a midnight tryst through a 900-metre high boulder field seemed like a quick way to get lost.
Despite being cold, damp, and a little crabby that we didn’t get to enjoy any sort of view, the collective mood lightened as we made our way back down the steep southern face of Esjan.
Hiking uphill reveals each person’s endurance and resolve to reach the top. Downhill hiking, on the other hand, shows who is most likely to trip and fall into oblivion—and who is willing to catch them. You can tell a lot about a person’s character while scrambling down a mountain with them in thick fog as darkness looms.
As one of our party members wisely remarked, it’s not about the journey itself, but the friends you make along the way. We were all nodding our agreement to this sentiment when we suddenly dipped below the cloud line and saw the lights of Mosfellsbær and distant Reykjavík. Screw friendship, this is why we came.
The sun had long ago set on a horizon that was still obscured by the hulking frame of Esjan. But the city lights and dark waters of Faxaflói Bay reminded us of why we came to Iceland in the first place, whether we knew it or not: to reconnect with nature, to be reminded of our own insignificance in the vast wilderness, and, yes, to make friends who would, perhaps literally, carry us up a mountain.
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