On the second morning of my early-season trek from Stafafell to Snæfell, voices woke me up from sleep. I looked around the room, confused. The voices were growing clearer and more distinct and there was no mistaking that I was not alone. And there was also no mistaking that it was well past 6 a.m. – the time I had set my alarm on: I must have overslept, and probably for long.
The previous day I pushed some thirty kilometres in haste. I was forced to take a painful detour after I realised that I had left my Windstopper jacket somewhere at the starting point, after more than an hour’s walk. Now, I seemed to be paying toll for the effort and the high mileage: I would even have stayed in my sleeping bag, if not for the fact that the door to the hut was flung open. Before I had time to react, I found myself face to face with a curious visitor wishing me a good morning. I tried to respond, but only a strained mumble seemed to come out of my mouth: My unexpected guest sent me a pitying smile and left me alone again.
Finally on my feet, it was already past eleven in the lovely mountain hut of Múlaskáli in Lónsöræfi, the celebrated nature reserve in South-East Iceland. I was finally back to my faculties, which enabled me to understand what was going on. Nothing particularly dramatic – two Swiss men were being shown around by an Icelandic guide, the same who paid me a visit just a few minutes earlier. I tried again to establish an interaction, while munching my breakfast. It is the sort of conversation one would think doomed from the very beginning. I am an embarrassing example of poor linguistic integration, speaking little or no Icelandic even after years of residence in the country; the guide, on the other hand, could barely introduce himself in English. In spite of the premises, however, things surprisingly moved pretty smoothly, and before long we were caught in a stimulating discussion about the (relatively scarce) popularity of the outdoors in Iceland.
How is it possible – my interlocutor wondered – that a cabin like Múlaskáli, located in such a unique spot, remains half empty all through July? How could things be changed? Maybe by building new huts, provided with more facilities and perhaps a basic restaurant, as you see in the Alps? Not an easy matter to cope with – and especially not right after waking up. Personally, I do not disdain sausages and alcoholic beverages, but if I may advance an opinion, I am not sure that the problem lies uniquely in the services made available in the mountain huts. Better marked trails, for example, could also contribute to increase the popularity of some walks, such as the one between Stafafell and Snæfell – this, at least, has been remarked upon by several foreign hikers I interviewed, who drew comparisons with continental Europe.
Whatever reasons and explanations can be found, it is a fact that once you have seen Lónsöræfi it is difficult to resist its charm, and not to wonder why it does not represent a primary destination on more travellers’ and trekkers’ agendas.
Set right on the Eastern border to the Vatnajökull Glacier, Lónsöræfi is a vast volcanic area of colourful hills, broad rivers, gashing waterfalls, and lush vegetation, encircled by sharp and snow-clad peaks, and often threaded by herds of reindeers. I may have been particularly lucky to be there in warm and mostly bright weather, and in the peace and stillness of the early season, but it is not an overstatement to say that the Stafafell- Snæfell trek has immediately become one of my favourites.
Most travellers skip the initial part of the walk, exploiting the jeep track that leads all the way to Múlaskáli – a big mistake, at least if you have enough days at hand. The scenarios offered on this first leg are terrific enough to deserve their good share of time. After skirting some crimson-red rhyolitic formations, the trail stretches along the deep gorge ploughed by the river Jökulsá, winding among fragrant thickets, large patches of moss, and sheer cliffs towering above the roaring waters underneath. This is the only chance for cover on the trail, before the growing altitude in the next stages of the journey expose you to the blowing winds and the naked immensity of the surroundings.
The farm at Stafafell, hosting both a youth hostel and campsite in the summertime, makes for an ideal starting point, as long as you do not demand the highest hygienic standards imaginable. Ideally located by the main road, the hostel is run by Bergsveinn, who proudly considers himself to “still [be] a communist, or rather a hippie,” and his brother. A short conversation with them confirms that the uniqueness of the Icelandic countryside does not dwell only in its geography, but also in its people. In the early hours of the night, our chat hit disparate subjects such as the world emergency for water, insurance policies, Kurt Vonnegut and his views of Hungarians, and Reykjavik’s gas stations – as well as a few packets of cigarettes: It was well worth the detour for picking up a forgotten sweater the day after.
It is late when I am finally ready to leave Múlaskáli and set out for the second leg of the journey. This is the first long walk of the year, sort of a preparation for the summer’s harder endeavours. A smell of hangover and thoughts of the city still follow me as a permanent hindrance – this is what I put forward, anyhow, as a comfortable self-justification for today’s five-hour delay.
Time, however, does not really have to be a major concern for the day: it is quite a short way to the next hut, the one at Egilssel, and a mere eight kilometres on marked trails. After running for a while along the riverbank, the path starts climbing up to almost 900 metres above the sea. The verdant and overgrown slopes that conferred a unique flavour on yesterday’s landscapes become just a memory. The surroundings suddenly turn utterly barren. The glacier’s easternmost tongues are drawing nearer, a threatening presence under today’s sullen sky. When I reach the volcanic plateau of Kollumúli, a chilling wind is blowing from the south. Patches of snow since last winter make their appearance. From here, it is possible to distinguish the small but equally welcoming shape of the Egilsel hut, finally looming in the distance: only a few kilometres separate me from today’s destination.
I had been warned that so early in the season (it is still mid June, whereas the Stafafell-Snæfell trek is usually thread only from the second half of July) it might prove difficult to go further than Egilssel. Snowmelt could turn the terrain into a nearly impassable mud. My feet sometimes sink deep into the wet soil, that is true, but the mud is far from impassable. On the contrary, there is still an abundance of snowfields left up here: some are progressively breached by flowing waters; others treacherously conceal gorges and streams underneath their coat.
In these conditions, route-finding skills are required in order to avoid potentially dangerous passages, and even more so now, since no trace of a trail heading to Snæfell can be seen. The weather is warm but slightly windy: the sun covered behind a veil of haze but the visibility good enough to guarantee an easy orientation. The route I find myself on is a very spectacular one, between stretches of nude rocks, frozen lakes, and ever-deeper gorges carved by glacial rivers. Set in a magnificent spot, sufficiently elevated to dominate a vast horizon and just besides quick waters jumping downstream towards Eyjabakkar, the solitary cabin of Geldingafell offers another neat and cosy shelter for the night.
It is not that I expect to be seen by anyone – nevertheless, coming half naked out of the hut in the chill early next morning, wearing only sandals and boxers, does feel quite awkward. An important river has to be waded as a first obstacle of the day, and that explains the bizarre outfit. It is the last stage of the trek, some long 33 kilometres leading all the way to the root of Snæfell, the highest non-glacial summit in the country, by definition the “King” of Icelandic mountains. Like the day before, the weather appears warm, although it is hazy and grey – by noon, however, the veil of clouds is eventually torn away, and the burning sun comes out to irradiate a vivid light on the surrounding landscape.
This is one of the most interesting portions of the whole journey, traversing the immense spaces created by the retreat of the glaciers. The vastness of the plain is encircled by walls of imposing moraines, with sporadic oases of moss and flowing waters to break the monotonous greyness of the gravel that is all around. And there, where the stony ground gives way to the green, is the Icelandic reindeer country par excellence. I see none, however, only a few tracks and a number of wild geese.
Eyjabakkar is a broad stripe of wetlands ploughed by impassable, deep waters. Two options are available for the crossing: either a bridge, lying a bit farther in the North, or the nearby glacial tongue Eyjabakkarjökull. Despite advices received to the contrary, I opt for the latter. It is a walk of only three kilometres on ice, not excessively difficult. The real problem turns out to be in the phase of approach. The ice is disappearing at a very swift rate, feeding fast streams and especially creating dangerous quicksand among the moraines, just before the glacier.
I proceed with extra care, cautiously selecting the route and frequently probing the ground. Nonetheless, a couple of times my legs happened to sink deep into the muddy silt. I am forced to take long detours before being able at last to step onto solid icy ground. In such warm weather, the glacier appears extremely wet, crisscrossed by endless rivulets. The first two kilometres easily pass by, in an almost straight trajectory. It is the increasing number of crevasses – a few of them still hidden in snow – that makes the last part of the crossing more problematic, requiring several deviations and a few leaps.
Quite ironically, I get to feel the most painful effects of the traverse of Eyjabakkarjökull once the glacier itself is already a few kilometres behind me. The reflection of the strong sunlight on the white mantle must have hit my skin quite badly, and for the rest of the day – it is still a good 15 kilometres walk before reaching my destination – I feel miserable, broiling under the sun like a roasted chicken. Despite the terrific and inspiring surroundings, the remnant of the walk gets reduced to a mere exercise in tolerance and endurance, counting the steps one after the other. Until, finally, the hut of Snæfell draws within range of sight.
There is nobody there to welcome me: the hut is still deserted and closed to visitors, even if things should be different by now. In fair weather, however, the option of tenting also has its own appeal – including, for example, the opportunity to enjoy an essential dinner while the glorious midnight sunset unfolds before my eyes. Before I go to sleep, a mirror hanging besides the outdoor toilets gives me the opportunity to check out what colour has been painted on my face. It looks fluorescent like a purple neon light, precisely what I feared.
Tomorrow I will walk some additional 15 kilometres on the jeep track – on top of the 80 I have already covered during the last four days – to reach a more trafficked road, and hopefully get a quick lift to the nearby town of Egilsstaðir. Perhaps some form of regular public transportation could also bring some benefits to the popularity of the remarkable Stafafell-Snæfell trek.
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