“So, are you ready?”
“Well, not exactly. But are there alternatives?”
The fifth day, I spend in uttermost solitude after leaving the tourist hub Gullfoss on a Saturday morning. It’s not so surprising that I have picked the habit of posing questions to myself. Perhaps more bizarre is the fact that I even bother to answer. But now it is time for the final climb, the last stage of the journey, something I have been planning, looking forward to – and yet postponing – for the last three years, and finally I am about to see it accomplished.
I have four days of walking behind me, roughly 100 km. Four days to cross from west to east the sector of the highlands contained between the rivers Hvitá and Þjórsá, two of Iceland’s mightiest rivers.
The walk officially started at Gullfoss, which I admired for the first time from a privileged spot on the eastern side. In the traveller’s loneliness, the geography of memories often follows strange courses. Maybe you are hiking known grounds, territories you’ve visited before and should be charged with remembrances. Yet, nothing happens: you remember, of course, but not as a disturbance, you remain anchored to the moment, focused on and enjoying each step you take.
A few days ago, I was there, on the rather anonymous pastures that stretch east from Gullfoss. And then, for some reason, a tight web of associative thoughts could not be prevented from enveloping my attention: a sinuous and insidious chain of memories and reflections dragging me away from the present trail and the fragrant smell of moss that enriched the air. The weather probably did not help: not a single breath of breeze, humid and rainy at night, and warm as is seldom experienced in Iceland.
I constantly waited for a downpour, a sudden storm. A flood. This is not what you hope for when you are alone in the highlands of the interior. I felt it was also me: I was nervous, not at ease.
And then there is Monday, a new week and a heavy set of changes. The wind turned and grew in intensity, becoming a serious obstacle to every footstep. I realized it at once, early in the morning, as I shyly peeped out my tent and saw the clouds running fast across the sky. As it happened, the trail was to raise the day the weather fully hit me, up to a steady 700 metre rise, where the grassy pastures have to leave way to barren and deserted lands.
But the wind and the climb had a reward. In the afternoon, I stared at the green and rough waters of the small lake Rjúpnafellsvatn, the wind had wiped out the last wisp of clouds and blown down the walls of haze, freeing the view of the the great glaciers in the far distance. Even in their mildest form, the highlands of the interior make you taste the authentic flavour of remoteness and forbiddingness, and when the horizon discloses the sight of Vatnajökull and its snow-clad peaks, then you become aware that you are experiencing the country at its very best. No roads nor tracks, not even footprints: only a desert stormed by the winds and an apparently unlimited vastness in every direction. The exhilarating sensation to perhaps be the first person to ever thread the land in that exact point, the first one to ever be following that precise route on the highland.
The next day – the fourth –the wind continued, merciless in its attempts at dissuasion. I followed my own shadow cast on the arid soil, and a strangely bittersweet sensation invaded me: a sense of old-time exploration, when something still actually had yet to be discovered, and gaps in a map had yet to be filled. Eventually, after wading the fast-streaming waters of the river Kisá, the impression that I was following an invisible but clear route across the wild dissolved, melted into the seemingly never-ending sequence of black dunes that lay before my feet. The contours of the territory moved into its most surreal.
It was a bitter disappointment to find a closed hut and only dry rivers when I finally arrived to Setur. Dizzy and thirsty, the search for drinkable water became the dominant headache of the evening – and yet around me I had the scenery of a triumphant sunset above the nearby Hofsjökull glacier and wild oasis of Þjórsárver.
Icelandic topography sometimes presents you names of terrible omen. Kerlingarfjöll – “the mountains of the witch” – is among these. Not surprisingly, the place was dreaded by the inhabitants of Iceland, who carefully avoided it and did not dare to enter it for exploration until the 1850s, in the conviction that the area was infested by supernatural forces of every sort. I was here once before in 2003, when a violent storm with thick rains and 80 km/h winds surprised me on the mountains.
Still, in spite of the ominous aura, Kerlingarfjöll remains a miracle in Icelandic nature, by far one of the most fascinating destinations the country can boast. Remember when – as a child – you used to draw mountains as a stripe of snow-covered pyramids? If you had the imagination to add green, yellow, black and red colours to the shapes, then you would already have a fair picture of what Kerlingarfjöll looks like from a distance. Alpine in look, and still volcanic in genesis, these mountains used to host the only summer ski resort in Iceland, as well as a legendary ski school – one which has left an indelible legacy in the memory of many Icelanders – founded in 1963 by sport-guru Valdimar Örnólfsson.
Even though the skiing facilities had to be definitively shut down late in the 1990s, following the disappearance of the glaciers and of the perpetual snows, Kerlingarfjöll still has a lot to offer to the visitor: the sight of one of the largest and most vibrant areas of geothermal activity in all of Iceland, the possibility of most rewarding one-day and multi-day hikes, and – last but not least – the comfort and warmth provided by the most welcoming and best equipped hut you will encounter in all the Highlands.
Kerlingarfjöll is like a castle, a sorceress’s one, with tall pinnacles, thick and impassable walls, snares and deep moats. A necromantic fortress that steals the horizon.
As my GPS reads slightly more than 1000 m of altitude, the first climb of the day is just at my back: a steep ascent on a stony and unstable ground, but nothing prohibitive. A pungent smell of sulphur already reaches me here, on the outer walls: witchcrafts of the land in the distance. But this is merely the beginning.
Many are the traps set on the way to the core of the mountains, and it does not take long before I pass from a first taste of triumph to desperation. The ravine created by the springs of the river Kisá is deep and inaccessible, much more than I expected by studying the map – the waters run fast almost 200 m underneath my current position, a precipitous fall along sheer, steep climbable walls. I falter. Retreating and arriving at my destination by the flat and undemanding way around the mountains would feel like a defeat – the second one on this trip. Descending into the ravine, on the other hand, looked like madness – the waters are tumultuous, and still partly covered by unstable snow bridges: a web of complications.
Unfortunately, in my present state of mind, madness and recklessness feel like the right policy. Reaching the bottom of the gorge is no problem. The rest is hell. I have to follow the course of the river for a while, jumping and crawling between gigantic stones hurled down here from above, thick snow patches and traits of low water. I hurt myself repeatedly. When I finally get to cross the river, it turns out to be even deeper and more violent than supposed. The stream kicks and pushes me like a skittle. I reach the other side in a state of half shock, my pants soaking wet up to the belt.
When it is time to climb up again, I realise I have put myself in a dangerous position. Exhausted and wet, I am at a slope, which is frightfully steep, the friable soil does not allow a firm grip, and the 17 kilos of my backpack feel like an incumbent threat, ready to catapult me backwards into a hopeless tumble. It is while I wonder why on earth the masochist in me is so often prevailing, that I see a slight sliver of hope: almost a natural stair, not so many metres away from my post, leading up towards less steep ground. I start scrambling my way in that direction, partly sustaining my steps with the trekking poles, partly with the help of my bare hands. I find hold in a huge block of pumice, but the treacherous rock breaks like clay under my grip, falling down the precipice into the water with great roar.
The cigarette I smoke once on top again, finally out of that nightmare, is among the best in many months. I have reached the other side of the ravine, and I am at 1000 m ASL again.
The peaks of Kerlingarfjöll encircle a volcanic plateau, which will astound any observer. Here, earth and water are perennially at work on strange alchemies. For around 5 km it is all an endless sequence of fumaroles, hot springs, bubbling mud, steaming pools, green ice-cold lakes, gorges and ravines continually carved by ever-running waters – painful scars of the land. And the shades and the colours! Anything in the range of orange, lava black, white, emerald green, pale yellow, crimson red… There is a confusing and blurred boundary, beyond which the beauty of nature suddenly becomes horrid. It is a matter of proportion: at a certain stage, the creative powers of the forces of the Earth feel so overwhelming, that the sense of wonder gives way to dread and fear. In Kerlingarfjöll, that subtle border seems often crossed.
There is an abundance of snow left up here – the most in the last ten years, I found out later. I let myself go to an exuberant sense of intoxication: I have just accomplished something terribly dangerous (which – for honesty’s sake – I should not even have dared), after three years of wait I am about to finally defeat these mountains, and I am gazing at one of the most impressive spectacles of Icelandic landscape in a weather-blessed day. Nowhere else in Iceland – not even in the much-celebrated Landmannalaugar – had I the possibility to arrive this close to the heart of geothermal activity.
But the day and the trail are not over yet, and there is still sweat and pain on the road to final achievement. The route I drew from the map and stored in my GPS is proving accurate and comfortable, except for the second massive gorge ploughed by fast-streaming waters. And still more scrambling along slopes of mud and fragile rock, and steep descents on snow mantles suddenly collapsing into the void of a frightening precipice.
It is a chain of challenges – especially to the nerves, as the day is growing late – but that inebriating feeling that captured me before has set loose my boldness and diluted my fears. I let myself go through all this with strange confidence and serenity.
When I reach the pass at the west of Hveradalahnúkur, I know that it is over. My past defeat is avenged: with the blessing of the weather, I have conquered the mountains. The many souls of the highlands seem captured in my smell: the stench of swamp, dust, mud and sulphur have mixed with my own sweat in an exotic blend – I reckon great potentialities for the market. The rest of the trail is like a Wagnerian symphony in footsteps: a swift nosedive towards the base camp of Ásgarður, the sun still warm and high in the sky. Exaltation.
When I arrive at the hut – after 12 hours and 25 km of walking – I find no dreadful “kerling” (frump, witch) greeting me. Rather, it is three girls in their twenties, basically the same age as me, one Polish and two Icelandic – a sign of the times.
“Yes, we run this thing” confirms Magnea, proudly pointing out that the hut is managed by the fairer sex.
Ruffled hair, muddy clothes, hands stained by black grease – the signs of hard work in the outdoors, I am shown around. The whole resort and its facilities (indoor accommodation in different houses, restaurant, campsite, showers and wonderful hot tubs) are powered by a small plant down the river: an old crock from the 1930s.
“We expect it to break down from one day to the other” explains Þóra, who seems to be almost emotionally connected to the power plant, and to enjoy especially the roughness of her summer occupation.
I am guided through the menu. The focus is on traditional Icelandic food. Home-made bread is baked everyday in the hot springs on the plateau up there, five km from here. The more I get entangled in the magic of the place, the less I can believe what I see and hear. And again that bittersweet sensation of old-times something. Here you have one of the most charming places in Iceland, three young women who deliberately bother to make food as their grandparents did, exploiting the energy from a cracking dam and power plant built in the 1930s… and probably, at this very moment, even on a day like this – 20° outside and bright sky above – 80% of Reykjavík population are numbing their brains with such TV anaesthetics as Rockstar: Supernova, or sinking into a nightlife that all too often nears the profundities of a Mexican brothel.
“We are very ambitious” is the crystal-clear explanation I am offered. Of course. Blessed youth.
The night is a joyful one. I start boozing around in the hot tubs. People hand me a can of beer. I feel I am going completely native: what’s more Icelandic than drinking beer inside a pool of hot water? Professional deformation: after all, this paper I keep somewhere at home states that I am an anthropologist. And then it is endless chatting and more drinking until late in the night. It is a diversified socialscape: members of the Icelandic Glaciological Society (lovely people, who still talk of the old days at the ski school with heartfelt and touching passion), a hardcore feminist mountain guide, a German artist in search for inspiration, two volunteers from the rescue team. The necromantic fortress turns out to hold a core of fairy tale.
I spend the next day in Kerlingarfjöll, relaxing, enjoying further nice weather, exploring the highest peaks and the amazing horizons they disclose in a sunny day, and getting lectured about moraines (Magda has come to Iceland from Krakow in the context of a study program in geological sciences).
As soon as I take my seat on the bus that will drive me back to Reykjavík on Friday afternoon, a sudden sense of tearing melancholy assails me. I go through all the stages of the journey – my uneasiness the first days, the heaviness of the weather, the omens in the unnatural stillness and then the warnings in the wind – and I am finally given to understand. As I leave this place, I am not unchanged.