Monday, August 25, 2014

Iceland Traverse Full Report

I posted pictures previously, but I've been meaning to do a full trip report, along with some information for others intending to do do JLey's route (or make up their own).

I thought Iceland was amazing, and I would recommend it, but I don't think I enjoyed it quite as much as other hikers seem to have. The downsides are that JLey's route includes a lot of roadwalking. The majority of that is near-deserted two-tracks, but there's a non-neglible amount of walking on pavement (near Mývatn) and the dirt/gravel roads from the Jökulheimar hut to Landmannalaguar are endless, monotonous, and quite busy towards the end.  Iceland is a very popular tourist destination these days, so some sections are crowded, and despite a currency collapse during the global financial crisis, it's still very expensive. Maybe not Switzerland expensive, but more expensive than the US for sure. Also there is zero non-bird wildlife. The upside is, duh, that Iceland has some beautiful scenery that you won't really find anywhere else on Earth.

Resupply and Logistics
Food is at least 150% of US prices in Iceland, even at the cheapest grocery store (Bónus). So you probably want to bring a bunch of food with you. If you declare this food at customs, they'll charge you for everything over 3kg. If you're not declaring anything, just walk through the green zone like in every other European airport and no one will say anything to you.

When you get to Reykjavik, you can send your resupply food packages (any half-ass box or labeled bag will do) via the same bus system (Reyjkavik Excursions) that drops you off from the airport, meaning you won't even have to carry your stupidly heavy extra bag full of food all the way to your hotel. (Stay at a hostel in Reykjavik so they'll store that extra bag for you--the campground charges such a ridiculous rate for storage that I buried mine in the botanical garden instead.) I used the Post Office to mail one of my boxes, but in hindsight I wouldn't bother with that since the bus system works fine, has discounted rates for boxes after the first (3000/1500), and the pickup spots generally have better hours than the PO.

From north to south, you can send boxes to:
Mývatn/Reyjkalid (has a full-service grocery store)
Nyídalur (no food available for purchase)
Lanmannalaugar (expensive snacks, pastas/ramen available for purchase)
Þórsmörk (fewer, more expensive snacks available for purchase, possibly more 2km off route)
and the finish at Skógar, I assume (expensive snacks, pastas/ramen available for purchase, decent restaurants)

If you contact Justin "Trauma" Lichter, he'll give you free .jpegs of the route made from some sort of CD. The software is apparently awful and only lets you print small sections, but he Photoshopped them all together. Unfortunately, I found the scale to be far too detailed to be useful. I essentially did not use his detailed maps at all; his overview maps were quite useful, however. Paper maps are also available all over Iceland, though quite expensive. The best store I found was the Eymundson bookstore in the center of Reykjavik. They have the 1:200K for the whole country, as well as 1:100K for a few places along the route. (The 1:100K's exist for the whole country, I just couldn't find them in a store. The Mál og Menning brand maps are superior to the Ferdakort brand in terms of information. None are waterproof or tear resistant.) We also found good smaller 1:100K maps for the local region at the information center in Húsavík and the ranger's office in Nyidalur. I love looking at maps, so I bought practically all the ones we came across, but this was unnecessary, because there are free GPS maps available. If you use a standalone GPS device, you're on your own, but for an android smartphone, download BackcountryNavigator (the full edition is $12) and use the 4UMaps baselayer maps of Europe. Download all of the route ahead of time so it's viewable without reception, and get a USB battery backup to re-charge your phone since GPS drains batteries rapidly. This was my first time using my smarthphone for backcountry navigation, and I was impressed with how easy and (mostly) free it was. (Backcountry Navigator doesn't exist for iPhone. You can try the MOBAC desktop app to create a map, and the Galileo iPhone app to load it as your GPS baselayer.)

Speaking of smartphones, the other app to use is 112, the Iceland Search and Rescue app. JLey and others went into a physical office in Reykjavik, but this is outdated. Download the app, register your trip, update them periodically along the way when you get reception, or text for help if needed. (Obviously some sliver of reception is required, so this isn't foolproof, but I definitely got reception in some surprisingly remote places. You should also get an Icelandic SIM card, which are available all over the place. I bought a Síminn card at a convenience store, and they have an app that doesn't require too much understanding of the Icelandic language to buy more data or airtime.)

I think you should treat Iceland like a very cold and rainy thru-hike. I only wore shorts for a few hours, and often wore both Patagonia Guide softshell pants and Montbell waterproof pants over them. (I hate "waterproof/breathable" material and have carried neither a wp/b jacket nor pants on my thru-hikes, but you need it in Iceland.) I also had two pairs of wp/b gloves, two fleece tops, a Marmot Precip Ion windshirt, and a Montbell wp/b jacket. Two fleece tops was overkill, as were warm socks, but I needed everything else.

Nano and I both bought Enlightened Equipment Prodigy quilts. I have used a down bag in very rainy conditions without problems before, but there really isn't anywhere to dry your bag, and it's never sunny enough to dry your down, so the sense of security of a synthetic bag was nice. Once you're out of the wind and rain, Iceland isn't that cold, so I got a 30-degree bag, and I was pleased with the feel of the Climashield Apex insulation.

Most people seem to think you need a sturdy free-standing tent for Iceland. I'm not really convinced this is necessary. Yes, the winds are strong, but I have slept in my Henry Shires Contrail for 200+ nights, and I think it would have been fine. Of course a non-free-standing tent means you have to stake it down, and stakes don't want to stay in volcanic soil, but I though there were always plenty of rocks to use in lieu of stakes. Nano and I used my 2001-model REI Half Dome Plus 2. Sure, we had to keep walking until we found a boulder to hide behind, but I think we could have pitched it completely un-sheltered parallel to the wind if we absolutely had to. Thirteen years old and still kicking, though it's time to re-seal the seams.

The Route
Day 1-M July 7
We started from Húsavík, because the actual northernmost point of Iceland was a little harder to get to. We flew to Akureryi on an early morning flight, then caught a bus to Húsavík, but would have had to wait another day to get another bus further east/north, and nobody would stop when we tried hitching, so we decided to just start our route in Húsavík. The road out of Húsavík was under construction, being widened and improved, (either getting ready to be paved, or at the very least going from narrow dirt to wide graded gravel) so the walking was not optimal. You leave the main road and follow an uneventful two-track east past the Saeluhus hut.
The start
Day 2-Tu July 8
We reached the canyon in the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park and walked south along the river to the giant spectacular waterfall Dettifoss.

Day 3-W July 9
Walked dirt road then busy paved road into the village of Mývatn. Saw a few pretty things like hot pots and a geothermal plant with colorful cooling pools on the way. World Cup, veggie burger, and a grocery store, plus beautiful camping at Bjarg campsite on the lakeshore.

Day 4-Th July 10
Walked the very busy tourist hiker trails just east of the paved road for the first few km out of town. Some of the tourist sites were pretty lame: the lava arch Dimmuborgir is a joke, but the caldera Hverfell was neat, and extremely windy at the top. Walked paved road until taking the dirt track form the south side of the lake. Met three Norwegians all doing the N-S traverse. Their packs were gigantic. Camped south of Sellandafjall.
Duck in Mývatn
Day 5-F Jul 11
We passed three huts on the route today. Technically this was road-walking, but we only saw one superjeep--the track was very windy over some gnarly lava. Ended up in the Dyngjufalladalur valley, which had no non-silty water, and the wind was absolutely raging. There was nowhere to set up our tent, so we kept walking for several extra hours until we found a boulder to shelter behind.
The superjeep
Silty water

Day 6-Sa Jul 12
We were on the F910 road practically all day today. It was closed to vehicles because of snow, but was easy flat walking. Wide gravel road with low rolling hills of gravel/lava to the sides. Early night to get rest after long previous day.
The F910 road

Day 7-Su Jul 13
Reached the end of the F910 road, and crossed the Skjálfandafljót river on a bridge. Walked slightly fainter roads up to a pass (Gjósta?) then followed 18-inch wooden stakes down the other side toward our resupply in Nyídalur. Crossed a wide braided river, and for the first time saw the mix of green, brown, and snow that I was expecting of Iceland's mountains--we're finally near one of the big ice caps and the resulting glaciers and rivers. There was a cool series of steam vents as we climbed towards the pass to Nyídalur, but we had to keep going for an extra couple hours to find a place to camp.
Finally, mountains

Day 8-M Jul 14
We hit Nyídalur in the morning and got our resupply packages. Unfortunately there is nothing one can buy, so we have our 3 days from our boxes and that's it. But the hut warden was nice and gave us a couple pancakes, a couple juice boxes, and a stale loaf of bread. We met a Frenchman and a Czech couple doing some version of the N-S traverse. The park ranger stationed at Nyídalur told us the Svedja river dug itself a channel a few years ago, so is not crossable until September. Based on this info, we cross-countried south to Hágöngulón lake and crossed its dam, then went south through some truly hellish sharp lava. We camped as soon as we hit the rolling hills to the west.
Razor-sharp lava

Day 9-Tu Jul 15
It rained basically all day today. We first crossed the Sylgja, a glacial river that disappears in a giant field of moss-covered razor sharp lava. After some rolling gravel hills, we hit the F229 road near the (closed) Jökulheimar hut and took it west. We saw approximately a car an hour, and the rain and fog never let up, so there were essentially no views.
Moss-covered lava

Day 10-W Jul 16
More gravel road. There was very little water in this region, it all disappears into the sand too quickly to collect, but we finally found a huge lake a few inches deep. The road was briefly paved near some dams, but then was dirt all the way to Landmannalaugar. The second half of the day there were a ton of cars, approximately two every minute, and they weren't giving us a wide berth. We saw the Tungnaá river that we didn't see at all yesterday, despite being so close. Clearly it was not crossable, which was sad since it looked so much more green on the other side yesterday. But we made it to the  huts and camp at Landmannalaugar after 8PM, and the scenery turned gorgeous. I had a nice soak in a hot spring right in camp.
A place to get water

Arriving in Landmannalaugar

Day 11-Th Jul 17
Did 40km today, from Landmannalaugar to Emstrur. (I'm not saying that number because I think it's big, I'm saying it because it's the only day that we really know how far we walked.) This is most of the Fjallabak trek. There were lots of other hikers, but the views were amazing. The canyon just a few minutes off the trail near the Emstrur hut is not to be missed.
The views

The canyon

Day 12-F Jul 18
It rained. We finished the main part of the Fjallabak trek at Þórsmörk and rested at the hut there for a bit, then headed over the Fimmvörduháls pass. The rain was intense, and the pass never seemed to end. Based I my watch altimeter, I thought we were there way before we actually were. Right at the top it was pretty much a white-out, and we couldn't find the next trail marker. Instead we found a French couple who also didn't know the way, but eventually I found the way to go and we headed on. It was probably the worst weather I've ever encountered in my life. A hut miraculously appeared where we could put on extra layers and warm up a bit, but by then we had already passed the high point so it was all downhill. It didn't stop raining though, so we didn't bother taking any pictures with Skógafoss, the final amazing waterfall.  We got mattresses in the gym of the old Skógar school, now the Hotel Edda.

Day 13-Sa Jul 19
To make it official we walked across the highway and out to the beach. After an amazing AYCE breakfast, of course.
The finish
We caught a bus back to Reykjavik and camped at the campground there. The next day I flew to the Westfjords region for a solo adventure there, and Nano stayed in Reykjavik before flying home. More on my adventure in Westfjords later.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, useful info for my similar hike next month.