I had anticipated a baptism of fire sooner or later on my 40-day march across the Highlands. It was inevitable. After ten days of walking in fair weather and without obstacles, the improbable prospect that I might traverse the country unscathed began to appear more likely, and I greeted this realisation with mixed feelings of relief and disappointment.
From the very beginning, I had looked upon the area of wasteland that spreads across the outskirts of Vatnajökull between Askja and Nýidalur with apprehension. I feared the sandstorms frequently vomited onto the plains by the glacial winds; I dreaded crossing Rjúpnabrekkukvísl, the first major river on my course; and I was uncertain about the availability of clean water in the area. I did not expect the biggest threat to show up even sooner.
The Hiker’s Dilemma
It is July 19, and I am on my way to put Askja and the base camp of Drekagil behind me. The whole of the previous day was spent resting and taking care of routine things – washing overused clothing, rearranging the backpack with newly received supplies and preparing maps and itineraries for the days ahead. In the evening I enjoyed a few drinks in the company of a Danish family and then went to sleep early.
However, in spite of the apparent peacefulness, the hours had been marked by an ongoing inner struggle about what course to take. According to my original plan, I was to leave along the jeep trail, just a few kilometres on the beaten track to avoid the grim Dyngjufjöll massif, and then make my way due southwest. But in a casual conversation with the land-wardens another option emerged, whereby I would cut across the mountains, rather than bypass them, seeking a tortuous and steep passage along the rim of the Askja caldera. I had initially ruled this out as unfeasible. “It’s a difficult way,” they warned me, “and one point in particular is very dangerous. Most hikers prefer not to face it, and keep their course at a lower altitude rather than along the rim.” On the one hand I could choose a challenging and spectacular path, riddled with difficulties and potential delays. On the other hand, the dull yet reassuring safety of the road. Torn by the choice at hand, I decide to let the weather make the final call.
The skies offer no clear response. It is dry when I wake up at 6:00, but still somewhat humid. Overall, conditions seem favourable, except for a few clouds assembling in the hazy air above. The wind has changed – it’s now blowing from the south – and “that could mean sandstorms,” I am told. No accurate forecast will be available until the evening. Without any definitive guidance, I am left alone with my decision. I summon up all my resolve, and before I have a chance to start worrying about the darkness accumulating above, I see the camp of Drekagil becoming smaller in the distance and finally disappearing from sight. I am climbing up, on my way to the rim and the passage across the mountains.
As I reach 1300 metres, the depth of Lake Askja reveals itself in the concavity beneath, but there is no blue today – instead, it appears as leaden and heavy as a static plate of stainless steel. The skies above are no different; the clouds have suffocated all light and a surreal dimness is upon the land. The weather has worsened at an appalling rate – even swifter than this morning’s hints suggested. It drizzles, and the altitude exposes me to the lashes of the wind.
The scenary is intensely dramatic. The great Vatnajökull glacier is close by to the south, majestic and imposing in its whiteness, and the stern summits of the Kverkfjöll massif tower above a black desert battered by the storms – sand is seen whirling in the distance, as foretold by the morning wind. In the opposite direction, the Askja caldera can be viewed in its entirety. Seen from here, it is a dazzling spectacle of golden and scarlet rock, steep walls, and inaccessible fumaroles, encircling the uterine lake like a mausoleum.
Treading this ground easily becomes an adrenaline-pumping experience on the brink of a precipice with the constant threat of a hopeless tumble towards the water. As the altitude keeps rising, so does the sense of challenge – almost defiance – like ascending to the apex of a forbidden mystery. By now, and despite the adverse conditions, excitement and inebriation are inflating my confidence. Without a second thought, I carry on along the rim.
It Feels Good To Be Alive
I believe that accidents never occur by pure chance, even when walking on difficult ground. It is not a matter of fatality or misfortune. Rather, accidents happen when there is a deficiency in focus and attention, a lack of due care, and an abundance of fear and arrogance – two sides of the same sin. I find this somewhat encouraging, and a good argument against those who claim that mixing solitude and wilderness implicitly asks for trouble. However, this does not avoid the crude truth of human error which makes mistakes inevitable; a concept that I should perhaps repeat to myself more often.
A thick fog has descended on the mountains. I can distinguish the border of the cliff, but little else ahead. However, I do not need to see more to realise that – heedless of all warnings – I have finally come to face the most difficult point on the entire walk, the one I had been so vigorously warned about. There is no doubt now that a narrow passage along the rough surface lies before me: a sheer cliff and a 300m tumble on the right, another cliff and a 200m fall on the left – it feels good to have a choice.
Even in optimal weather and free from all encumbrance, I probably would have hesitated before venturing into this. Today’s weather is far from optimal – the ground is wet and occasionally slippery, the wind strong enough to unbalance me – and I am carrying some twenty kilos on my back. For today, hesitation will mean retreat.
Haste, however, is a short-sighted solution, and before long the remedy reveals itself to be far worse than the ill itself. I do not even take rationality into consideration: instead of retracing my steps and looking for a more convenient spot from which to leave the edge of the rim, I just attempt to descend from where I am, along the steep slope of the cliff. Things happen quickly. I can’t get a solid grip on the friable volcanic rock around, while the backpack itself seems to be pushing me into a lethal dive. Before I realise that what I’m doing is ridiculously stupid and I should turn back, all support gives way. Using all four limbs, I can barely stop myself before the slide-down degenerates into a desperate fall. I am completely stuck. Every small gesture risks losing the uncertain stability and heading for disaster. I decide, against my better judgement, to stare at one stone as it relentlessly gains speed while rolling down the mountain and vanishing in the void. A pang of nausea instantly grips my entrails.
I cannot say how long I spend there, bound to the rock, paralysed by the impossibility of any movement. Nor after how many false starts and failed attempts I finally rescue myself from that nightmare. All I know is that, in a moment of utter despair, I manage to loosen my backpack straps with my teeth, which will prove to be the turning point in resolving the stalemate. As I regain stable ground, I am aching all over, but lacking the right epithets with which to properly insult myself. Smoking a cigarette, however, never felt this good.
Saying that I spend the rest of the day walking my course away from the rim would just be misrepresenting the facts: rather, I literally stumble along the slopes, my body stiffened like wood by physical stress and fear. I make camp that night on a lava field near the lake. I fetch some snowmelt water and prepare a warm meal. As I tend the stove, I am surprised to find myself chuckling and grinning about the day and about my own foolhardy choices. The big scare is blowing over and I am happy to be in one piece.
Onwards to Nýidalur
It was 1907 when German scientists Walter von Knebel and Max Rudloff set out in a small boat to explore the Askja Lake before disappearing without a trace. An expedition to search for them was later organised and led by the widow von Knebel. But it yielded nothing: neither the corpses nor any evidence of what had happened were ever found. A monument, however, was erected on that occasion to commemorate the two perished researchers.
That memorial plaque stands, solitary, at Mývetningahraun, in a clearing at the southwest border of the lake, in the most remote and inaccessible part of Askja. Crimson and smooth is the lava of Mývetningahraun, like clotted blood beneath the threat of the mountains. Even the glowing yellow of my tent cannot stand out with such a vibrant backdrop. A strange and spectral atmosphere hovers in the stillness of the evening, peaceful and disquieting at the same time. No noise is in the air except the echoes of distant voices and sorrows. If Askja is a sanctuary, Mývetningahraun can easily be considered its most sacred altar. As the sharp peaks break into the green and blue mirror of the water, no views can match those offered by this secret alcove.
In the morning, I spend some more time exploring the area and it’s around noon by the time I’m finally ready to leave Mývetningahraun. I make straight for Suðurskarð, the southwesterly pass into and out of Askja. In the end, the baptism of fire has come, and the Highlands have had the chance to reveal their most unforgiving face. I have managed to cross the Dynjufjöll Mountains, and the barren way to Nýidalur is now awaiting me.
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