Ambling the Laugavegur

Its been a busy few months, and post lock down, I am craving some outdoors time. Like everyone else, all of our holidays (Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Madeira, and Russia) have been cancelled this year. However, Iceland is open for business, and I have always wanted to hike the Laugavegur and Fimmvordhals trails. I had never prioritised it before as it looked very over-crowded, but I suspect not this summer.

Iceland is organised. Landing from a very empty BA flight, a nice young lady swabbed my throat, and then rammed the cotton swab so far up my nose I can still feel it hours later. It wasn’t pleasant, but it is a sensible way for the Icelandic government to protect the locals. I treated myself to a cab to town and am staying in a nice hotel (original plans had called for a bus and a dorm bed in a hostel, but I figured I have saved a lot of money this year given the dearth of holidays).

Its been a few years since I have been to Rejkyavik, and I had an excellent day eating hotdogs (worlds best hotdog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – so good that I had two for lunch and went back and had one for dinner) and cinnamon buns (Braud & Co). I interspersed the deliciousness strolling around town and visiting the excellent trio of modern art museumsHafnarhúsKjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn (one ticket gets you entry to all three).

They were excellent as were the buildings housing these museums. I also loved the iconic Hallgrimskirkja.

A long day strolling and eating and then an early night as the bus was at 7am

Day 1 – Skogar to Volcano Huts at Thorsmork (28km, 1000m of climbing)

Up early to get the bus, I was the only person who boarded to Skogar, though there were about 80 people going to Landmannalaugar (some of whom joined my bus as overflow and they got another ride when we reached the refreshment stop at Hvolsvollur). Given most people start the trail at Landmannalaugar and go south I didn’t find it that odd. I asked the bus driver if he had heard the forecast and he said it was all fine. Arriving at Skogar, I also stopped by the camping to check the forecast but there was no one on duty. Oh wel, the weather looked clear so I headed up onto the trail. There were about 100 people in the first 500m looking at the waterfall. And after that blissful solitude

The first 7k of the trail follows the skogar river up through a series of lovely waterfalls. The landscape is vibrantly green and it was a gloomy day with ominous clouds but the rain held off and the worst clouds were behind me. The views were stunning back to the coast, and I passed three day hikers on the way up but that was it

Then, after crossing the skogar on a battered and rickety bridge, it’s a 4.4km mostly flat jeep road to the Baldvinsskali Hur across a wind blasted gravelly volcanic plateau heading to the pass between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. That 4.4k took me almost two hours. For most of the way I was bent over double leaning into the wind, with the gale force winds flicking gravel into my face. Several times I was pushed back and twice I was lifted off my feet. It was quite something. It made the epic winds in Patagonia on the Torres trail feel like a gentle summer breeze. I was in no imminent danger as fortunately there was good visibility, and while cold it wasn’t raining, and there was nowhere I could have taken a dangerous fall. Suffice to say I was delighted when I made it to the hut.

The hut warden (Kerstin from Germany – one of the worlds best wardens), was quite surprised to see me roll in (and more so given I was in shorts) as apparently the trail was closed given the extreme storm warning. We chatted through options and the only sensible plan was to stay the night as there were some sketchy ridge lines further down the trail which could be lethal in an unpredictable gust. Happy to be inside – the winds were so high the walls were shaking – I cooked a hearty lunch, had three coffees and put all the clothes in my pack on to warm up.

A couple of hours later the winds had calmed somewhat and Kerstin had been monitoring the weather. She told me I could keep going if I hoofed it, as the winds would be a little calmer for the next three hours. My alternative was to descend the next day in a forecast which had rain and low visibility. I chucked all my wet gear back on and took off and that was an excellent decision. It was an epic afternoon – windy enough to know you are alive but not dangerous. Passing between the two glaciers was stunning, and made more special by being the only person on the trail. The Magni and Modi craters were glorious and I was treated to a stunning rainbow at the highest point of the trail.

Descending was fun down some steep scree slopes, and there was a vertigo inducing (literally stomach in my mouth) chain section to traverse at Heljarkambur. The final descent into the glacial Thorsmork river was a stunning pitted lush green valley – I felt like I was on the set of Vikings. Kerstin was amazing and texted me to check in with me while I was descending. Hut wardens play a very special role in the outdoor community and she was a terrific example of a fantastic warden. I got roundly but gently admonished for my rookie weather error but she absolutely made sure I got down safe from the mountain (she nicknamed me ‘master of storms’ but also ‘ignorer of forecasts’).

I reached Basar campsite at around 6pm and still had another 5k to walk to the campsite I was staying in (which had a restaurant), so it was an easy stroll across the river (traversing a weird bridge on wheels) to get to Husudalar around 7). An epic c30km day, which took 9 hours, with about 7 hours of walking. Dinner was an excellent lamb stew and I retired to my lovely glamping yurt to enjoy clean sheets and listen to the wind howl

Day 2 – Husadalar (Thorsmork) to Hvanngil 30km 700 m of ascent

I woke up at my standard hiker breakfast time of 6am UK, which happened to be 5am Icelandic time. And breakfast wasn’t until 8 – and I definitely wasn’t going to miss a buffet breakfast. And it was raining, so I made a coffee on my stove lay under the cosy duvet reading the papers on my phone. Breakfast was worth waiting for, and I made an extra ham and cheese sandwich for the road.

First river ford of the day

I hit the trail at 9.30 in a break in the weather. It was grey and cloudy but visibility was ok. 3km in and it was time to get the feet wet (and as it turns out the thighs). Fording rivers takes practice and it isn’t super advisable to do it solo, but I have kiwi river experience so I plotted a route from the bank and waded in. The water was glacial – literally – melt from one of the glaciers further east.

After crossing the river the trail more or less followed the Markarflijot river for about 8km which had carved some extraordinary deep gullies. The trail meandered up and down and had some amazing views…. though sadly the glaciers I passed yesterday were mostly obscured. I finally traversed the river about 2k from Botnar hut where there is a foot bridge wedged above a particularly angry section of the river with chains welded to the wall to help you descend.

After taking a deep breath to get across the river, I needed to take a few more as there was a sheer 100m climb up the scree on the other side to get to the plateau where the hut is nestled. I have an Achilles injury so going uphill isn’t as much fun as normal. I reached the top, by which time the rain had decided to resume, so I stumbled towards Botnar looking forward to making coffee and soup to eat with my breakfast sarnie.

I had been warned the hut warden at Botnar wasn’t effusively charming, so wasn’t surprised when he refused to let me in the hut but said I could eat my lunch outside – where there was no shelter in the rain. Oh well! I enjoyed my soup and coffee and chatted to some locals about the trail ahead. They had gotten stuck the day before at Hvanngil as the river was too high to cross but they made it across this morning

The next 10km was like walking on a black sand beach plateau with the odd luminous green peak rising up in the distance. It would have been very surreal if not for the steady stream of brightly attired tour groups coming towards me. I don’t get why anyone would hike in a group – it kinda defeats the purpose for me.

I arrived at the river ford at Blafjallakvisi around 5 and it was in fairly swift flow. Several motor bikers were trying to figure out how to cross. If you haven’t forded a river before, it isn’t to be taken lightly, especially solo and especially after a storm (several hikers apparently die every year in NZ through misjudging river crossings). I picked a line, but was persuaded by a local to try another route – where apparently someone had crossed in the past hour. It was waist deep and the current was really strong, but my tree trunk thighs did the job and I made it across.

Looking back after fording the river
Final footbridge before Hvanngil

One more footbridge and I descended down to the Hvanngil hut where I decided to stay the night. This is apparently one of the quieter huts on the trail and the valley was lovely with the mighty Hvanngilshauser ridge protecting us from the wind. The warden told me the hut had 25 people in that evening, so I decided to pitch my tent down by the old stables about 300m away from the main hut. I had an excellent pitch near the river, a private en-suite, and sole use of the stables where I spread out and enjoyed a three course dinner while listening the rain on the roof.

all my gear exploded into the stables

Day 3 – Hvanngil to Álftavatn 5km, two novels

So I had a bunch of side trips planned for today, but I woke up at 7am to low lying clouds and rain. I made a cup of coffee and listened to the rain and read the Handmaidens tail from cover to cover – at the end of which it had mostly stopped raining.

Hvanngil from above

I packed up my tent and headed to Álftavatn where my plan was to go and climb Torfatindur as I had an extra day in my schedule due to a cancelled flight. Visibility had worsened by the time I arrived so I pitched my tent and went to the ‘bar restaurant’ optimistically wondering if they sold burgers or pizza. Sadly not – just Mexican chicken soup or vegan curry. The ‘restaurant’ had six tables and at 2pm was full of Icelandic blokes in brightly coloured sweatshirts drinking eye wateringly expensive cans of beer in what felt like a sauna. I beat a retreat to my tent for more tea and read Nadia Hashimi’s the pearl that broke the shell from cover to cover. Not exactly what I had planned to do with my day but an excellent day nonetheless

Day 4 Álftavatn to Landmannalaugar 22km – 800 m of ascent

My bus out was at 3pm and I didn’t want to miss it so I got up at six, had breakfast, and headed out into the mist. In the Álftavatn valley visibility was fine but the clouds were very low and as soon as I began to climb (after fording a river with a useful rope) visibility dropped to about 20m. It was a game of spot the next pole and try not to lose the trail when the poles had succumbed to the wind and were no longer there. Fortunately I have had plenty of practice at mist navigation in NZ and Wales so I didn’t get lost. The smell of sulphur hit when I reached 950m and it was a bit like walking through Mordor in the mist

River ford with a rope
Misty morning

About half way to Hrafntinnusker hut,visibility improved slightly and it was a lovely stroll in and out of the snow on the fells. In the last couple of kilometres I started meeting those leaving the hut who had had a chilly night. Camping there is described (appropriately) as rugged, and over the years campers have built stone walled enclosures for their tents.

The guidebook had said six hours to the hut and it had taken three, so I stopped for a cup of coffee and a muesli bar and enjoyed the view

The scenery after the hut was spectacular. From a high mountain snow plateau to a multicoloured geothermal zone with deep oranges and reds and luminous green moss and a lovely hot spring. It was two hours of hiking bliss where I barely saw anyone. I did stop and chat to two solo chicas – the only ones I saw in three days, one was on her first solo thru hike, the other her second. I really don’t know why more women don’t hike by themselves, it’s much safer than being in the city.

And then the final hour down to Landmannalaugar where the scenery was just as good but there were way too many people for me and landmannalaugar was a zoo with day trippers and buses and campers. Thankfully most of them don’t do the trail.

Arrived at 1pm had a cheese toastie from the mountain mall (three converted green buses) and waited for the bus. Ironically after days of bad weather the sun came out ten minutes before the bus left.

The bus ride was a bumpy two hours back to Hella and then on to Reykjavik (after a gas station stop where I had yet another hotdog)

I am tempted to come back and do it again as it would be spectacular in fine weather, so will be watching the weather next summer (the trail is only really hikeable for a couple of months) and might opportunistically book some late flights

Additional info

  • Book highland bus tickets with Rejkyavik excursions – the hiking pass was £60 and allows you to enter the trail at Skogar (or Thorsmork) and exit at Landmannalaugar (or vice versa). Three hours to Skogar from Rejkayvik, or 4.5 hours to Landmannalaugar. Given the timetable, and the fact that I prefer up hill to downhill, i started in Skogar, but pretty much everyone else ends in Landmannalaugar
  • I stayed in Thorsmork and upgraded to a yurt with sheets for the night – thought i would treat myself. The other two nights I camped in my tent (I took my most robust tent – the hilleberg akto)
  • Gas for your stove can be bought from the https://fjallakofinn.is/ store in town (closes at 6pm). Or the N1 station where the bus stops en route to the trail (Hollsvollur) also sells stove gas if you come in late and take the early bus. If staying in the huts they have pots and pans

4 thoughts on “Ambling the Laugavegur”

  1. Amazing! Thanks for sharing some of beautiful Iceland. I would love to spend some more time over there one day. Xxx

  2. This is so refreshing to read –
    And so different to my world here in Alice springs xx glad you got away from your computer x keep blogging

  3. It’s good to see you on the road again. Your stamina is impressive, and your photos are beautiful despite the bad weather. Looking forward to your next adventure tales!

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