Thursday, November 21, 2013

Þórsmörk (Iceland)

In a season characteristically marked by constant rains and cold, we'd been graced with unseasonably good weather thus far on our trip. Even our day on the glacier was gloriously sunny. Conditions changed drastically and rapidly on our way to Þórsmörk.

In a country where babies are left unattended in prams outside in the winter because "it's good for them," the strongly-worded recommendation to leave your 4WD rental in Hvolsvöllur and take the bus into Þórsmörk sounded ominous. With good reason. The "bus" is an all-terrain beast with giant wheels, and the track into the region is on the volcanic rocks of a shifting, wide bed of the river Krossá. There are many fast-flowing streams to cross, where it's difficult to see the bottom even in the best conditions. Heavy snow was falling by the time we reached the first ford. As the weather continued to deteriorate, the bus driver had to frequently stop to wipe the windshield. Several times Rich had to get out to help him find the quickly disappearing track, directing him so the bus would avoid what the pre-recorded tour guide cheerfully informed us were "large patches of quicksand" over the speakers. The last river crossing made even the stoic bus driver balk. He called ahead as if to ask, "Are you sure we should be coming out in this weather?" Evidently, he received an affirmative. He waved Rich back in, attached seals to prevent water coming up the exhaust, and slowly drove across the 60 feet of swift, black waters.

Not far on the other side, we were surprised to find the cabins at our destination were warm and pleasantly situated at the foot of the mountains. The Þórsmörk region (literally, "Thor's Woods") is famous in Iceland for its hiking. We still had a couple of hours of daylight left so we bundled up and headed out in search of the short loop to the nearest summit. Mistakenly trusting in the older footprints of an American couple, we went off the trail, discovered our own way up the brushy slope to the top, and turned back round. When we met the friendly honeymooners later, we had to forgive them. Especially when our host at the cabins opened a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of genuine cava (!) for us all to toast their nuptials.

Despite its remote location, the trek from Laugavegur to Landmannalaugar is one of the most popular in Iceland. We didn't have the 3 or 4 days to do the whole thing, but Þórsmörk is situated along a picturesque portion of it. After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we each put on another 4 or 5 layers and walked out again into the cold. The long loop began meandering through the valley framed by ridges lined with squat, snow-covered trees. The silent, icy landscape made me feel like I was walking into Narnia still in the grip of the White Witch's power. The trail opened out onto the wide river bed where glacier-fed streams made rivulets in the volcanic rock, and we saw our first set of arctic fox tracks. Eventually we found the turn off and started the climb up the mountains.

Sign-posting is notoriously sparse and curiously ambiguous in Iceland. The trail wound its way up very narrow ridges, which were made more treacherous by the thick layer of fresh powder. I really missed the crampons from our glacier hike! By dint of climbing, scrambling, and some honest-to-God hugging of the mountain, we managed to make it to the top. And boy, was the view worth it! Vast snow fields that would make a snowboarder weep opened onto grand vistas of majestic mountaintops, like something out of Lord of the Rings… and we had it all completely to ourselves. Truly, some of the most breath-taking sights we have ever seen.

Coming around the mountains and back down to the valley was no easy feat either. It was one long game of hunt for the trail marker in the deep snow. The traverses were even narrower, all of our concentration fixed on putting one foot in front of the other to feel for the ledge. I never looked behind me, counting on the small sounds Rich was making to assure me he was still back there. If I turned and lost my balance, I could pitch headlong into the steep drop off on our right and land broken on the rocks below. A tourist hiking in the region disappeared the month before and was never found again despite mounting huge search parties. In the isolation, it's easy to imagine how difficult it would be for rescuers to find you before you died of exposure.

We made it through, worn out. Covering about 14 km (~ 8.5 miles) with a rise of 270 m (~ 900 ft) – and the same of a descent – in the deep snow, it was one of the most technical hikes we’ve done. But it was also one of the best! The landscape was stunning, and we would love to go back to do it again… in the summer!  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Hvolsvöllur (Iceland)

The next stops on our parade of Iceland’s ever beautiful waterfalls were Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, both ~ 60 m high. Skógafoss is a sheer drop off onto a flat volcanic bed framed perfectly in an idealized version of a rainbow. The extra fluffy sheep grazing in the surrounding paddocks didn’t seem to take much notice of it though. Seljalandsfoss cascades over a wide ledge in a curtain you can actually walk behind. When the wind picks up, the resulting spray makes for a pretty chilly shock.

After a long day, we relaxed at a farmstay in the tiny village of Hvolsvöllur. A couple of sheepdogs ran up eagerly to check us out. Shaggy Icelandic horses (a special breed with a couple of gaits different from normal horses) munched contentedly in the pasture. The sheds were covered with turf, and a propeller plane rested in a nearby field. Clouds moving in made our chances of seeing the northern lights unlikely, but the owner was friendly and chatty. He was enthusiastic over the local pizzeria and what must've seemed an exotic delicacy to him - jalapeño poppers! His recommendation was spot on... although Rich had reached his limit for daring for the day and stubbornly opted out of any combination with bananas as a pizza topping.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sólheimajökull (Iceland)

We were deeply disappointed when our heli-hike onto Franz Josef got aborted at the last minute due to developing poor conditions in New Zealand. So when I started looking into glacier hikes in Iceland, with its notoriously unpredictable weather, the foremost question I had for the tour operator was: what's the cancellation policy? The reaction I got was at first a little perplexed, and then slightly amused. She assured me that the trip is a go, like 98% of the time, summer or winter. At which point I realized I had just underestimated the Icelanders' ability to deal with... the ice.

About 2.5 hours south and east of Reykjavík lies Sólheimajökull. It is one of the glacier tongues of the larger ice cap covering the volcano Katla. Truly, one wonders if George R.R. Martin was thinking of Iceland when he came up with the phrase "A Song of Fire and Ice" ...and they do film Game of Thrones in the country. The landscape was full of postcard-like beauty. Underneath blue skies, the dark moraine deposited by the retreating glacier contrasted with the green, moss-covered ridges of the valley. The view was reflected perfectly in the still clarity of the lagoon formed from the melt waters.

We donned a very unflattering ensemble of safety gear - nothing like a climbing harness on top of snow pants to really make one's bottom look huge - to get onto the ice. It was my first time in crampons, and after a brief tutorial and a little practice, I was surprised at how secure the spiky additions to my boots made me feel on the treacherous ground. Maybe I should be wearing them all the time in the mountains! ...even if the wide stance and deliberate, lurching steps you adopt recall a knight in armor or a cowboy in spurs. We covered quite a bit of ground and altitude in them.

On top of the ice, the science of the place made it fascinating besides beautiful. Fairy light snowflakes compacted over hundreds and thousands of years to form the ice below us, the air forced out by the compression creating the strange blue ice color. Black volcanic cones and little peaks appear at intervals on the ice layer. These "witch hats" were created by a hole or depression with a tiny stone or fragment in the bottom. Over centuries, the little blockage diverted the flow of melt waters around it until nothing but compacted ash below it is left in a roughly conical shape. There was also evidence of man-made experiments on the ice. A couple of skeletal structures were set up as markers on the ice, where researchers could survey and measure the movement and conditions of the glacier. Sólheimajökull is retreating so rapidly (gee, thanks, global warming, you shouldn't have!) that you can actually watch it in time-lapse photography in the critically-acclaimed documentary Chasing Ice.

Another aspect of geology contributed to the sense of adventure on the hike. On this island where nature regularly trounces man, just as we were getting comfortable on the ice, we were reminded of our proximity to Eyjafjallajökull. Maybe that name rings a bell? (Probably not because Icelandic words are a jumble in your head and a gargle in your mouth.) Eyja was that volcano that erupted in 2010 whose devastation increased when the ash clouds got into the atmosphere and halted most of the air traffic to/from Europe for several weeks. On Sólheimajökull, it's the volcano next door. And Katla, on whose ice cap we were linked, is an even bigger volcano. Which historically erupts a few years after Eyja. On an order of several magnitudes greater. And one of the most likely routes of flash flooding (from the eruption liquefying the ice cap above it) was the glacier we were standing on! So... do you feel lucky, punk?

If that didn't give us enough of a thrill, we also took the opportunity to try out ice climbing. I still really love the idea of climbing, although in practice (indoors, on rock, in canyons, etc.), I am terrible at it. They showed us how to plant our feet (widely, with a hard kick to set the crampon into the ice) and how to use our ice axes (squared up, swinging for an existing depression or ledge to plant it). While my attempt was straight out of one of those "You're Doing It Wrong" articles, and my aching shoulders - bad technique - forced me to quit half the way up, I am married to a monkey. Rich was the first man up to the top! I was consoled by my successful, smooth rappel/abseil down. It's only taken me 4 or 5 times to get that trick. Woohoo!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hveragerði, Skáholt, Geysir, Þingvellir, and Gullfoss (Iceland)

The grand tourist must-do in Iceland is the Golden Circle, hitting up the country's top three in a day or less. You can do it on your own, but after the last couple of self-drive holidays, we realized we enjoy looking at the scenery more than worrying about directions, the next gas station, breaking down on the side of the road, etc. Plus any guidebook or website will tell you it's suicide to drive out into the countryside in the winter (and yes, mid-October is winter in Iceland) with anything less than a Super Jeep, a monster truck version of 4 wheel-drive. So we joined the masses on the migration, but thankfully, in a smaller group than the crowded coach bus packages.

Our first stop was an extra, Hveragerði (sounds not unlike "hurdy gurdy"), one of the hottest geothermal sites in Iceland. The small town has capitalized on the energy, using it to build greenhouses and supplying the country with much needed fresh produce. There are the downsides, too. The guide told us about a family who awoke to find a new hot spring emerge from their living room floor, and the tiny shopping mall has a sad exhibit about the damage caused by the last severe earthquake.

Vatnsleysufoss (aka Faxi) and Skálholt were more extras. The former was our first view of one of the magnificent waterfalls Iceland seems to have in abundance, and the latter was an important religious center/church for hundreds of years and site of the first official school. I was more intrigued by the curious constructions on the side of the waterfall (fish steps to help salmon swimming upstream!) and under the church (patterns of carefully lain turf in the tunnel!).

The Haukadalur valley is home to active hot springs, including Geysir, as in the original source of the word geyser. While it's no longer active, the nearby Strokkur, erupting every 5 minutes or so with a peak height of 40 m (~ 131 ft), gives viewers the satisfying money shot they're looking for.

Our visit to the Bosphorus in Turkey let us take a ferry between continents (Europe and Asia), and our trip to Þingvellir National Park in Iceland ("Þ" is pronounced "th") allowed us to do the land version. The ridge between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates presents interesting views with stark rock cliffs and seams of crystal clear water running though green plains. The location has great historical significance in Iceland as well, being the site of parliament for 800 years, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our final stop and crown jewel in the Golden Circle was Gullfoss. Two tiers of the mighty Hvítá River plummet into what appears to be a crack in the earth. Walking further up the trail (named for Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who campaigned against using the waterfall for hydroelectricity) reveals the curious perpendicular crevice, a field of strange ice crystals forming on the opposite edge, and the thundering waters rushing out into canyon below. We've seen a fair few waterfalls in our travels, and this one gets best in show for eliciting that primal feeling, "BEHOLD! THE AWESOME POWER OF NATURE!" 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Keflavík and Reykjavík (Iceland)

Iceland has had an appeal for some time. Maybe it was passing up on the ridiculous deal Icelandair was doing in college ($300 roundtrip flight + tickets to the Airwaves Music Festival). Maybe it was the PBS show where a traveling Scandinavian chef cooks a gourmet meal in the equivalent of a geothermal puddle. Maybe it was the breathtaking landscapes depicted in a mountain biking magazine. It looked a bit like New Zealand and used to be owned by Denmark - both places we adored. So we headed off to the land of Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men...

The airport in Keflavík is still quite a ways from the capital Reykjavík. A popular option for coming or going is a stopover at the famous Blue Lagoon. A geothermal power plant was erected in 1976, and shortly thereafter, people found that bathing in the surrounding pools of waste water had healing powers. Something like 70% of all visitors to Iceland come to luxuriate in the 37 - 39C (98 - 102 F) lagoon. Luckily, we arrived just as it opened and could enjoy the setting in an almost eerie quiet for the first hour. The contrast of the black lava fields, milky blue water, and mists of rising steam make for an otherworldly sight. There is a cave-like sauna with condensation dripping off the volcanic rock ceiling and a Turkish-style steam bath. You can scoop out the silica mud for do-it-yourself facials from wooden crates around the lagoon, or should your tastes run towards the professional, one of the pools is cordoned off for massages and other spa treatments. The whole experience, though costly even by Icelandic standards, has got to be the best way to unwind from an overnight flight in economy and get over your jet lag!