Hvannadalshnúkur – 6592ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: June 25, 2010
Matthew and Eric Gilbertson
June 21 – June 29, 2010
520 miles bicycled
10 miles hiked
126,000 calories burned
The trailhead for the tallest mountain in Iceland is easy to get to by car, but we found that it’s actually a lot of work to reach it by bicycle. If you have a car, the drive to Hvannadalshnúkur’s trailhead at Skaftafell National Park is a cinch, but the “12-16 hour” round-trip glacier hike to the summit is a significant endeavor. But if you’re on a bicycle instead of a car, we found that the 380km ride from Keflavik through brutal weather and rough roads makes the hike seem like a stroll along the beach.
We naïvely flew into Keflavik International Airport (if you fly into Reykjavik you land here) on June 21st with our bikes after a four-hour flight from Halifax. It’s nice how easy it is to get to Iceland from the East Coast. Once we landed it was exciting to see everything suddenly written in Icelandic, which seemed so foreign to us. Luckily everyone spoke excellent English. The immigration officer was a little confused at first because we came on a one-way flight to Iceland and were going to leave on a one-way flight to Finland in a week. “Let me see your flight back to the US,” he requested. “I haven’t bought my return flight yet because we’re going to buy it later on in the summer when we know where we’ll be,” I answered. He frowned at first but after seeing the bike box he seemed to relax a little and let us pass. “Welcome to Iceland,” he said.
The most stunning aspect of the scenery was the lack of trees. Eric and I suspected that stealth camping might be difficult. But it was only 8am and we had a whole day of biking to find a good spot.
The most annoying part of the journey was putting the bikes back together. The bike boxes had been handled violently along the way and had some major rips. But luckily I had used a rope to tie together all the components inside the box so nothing would fall out. I learned this the hard way when the TSA inconveniently lost my seatpost on the way to Alaska in 2008. We spent about an hour and a half putting the bikes back together.
This time we were going to try four panniers instead of the BOB trailers we had towed through western Canada. This would save us about 25 pounds and eliminate a few moving parts. We had a rack on the front and the back. Since we had glacier gear and boots our bikes were heavily loaded down and steering felt like maneuvering a big slow boat. We couldn’t quite fit everything in the four panniers so we each had a big 70L drybag with backpack straps and hipstrap that we strapped to the back rack. This backpack turned out to be extremely convenient the entire trip because we could put it on and carry our day hiking gear when we were climbing mountains. With 2L of water and three days of food the net weight of our bikes was probably 125lbs.
A couple of other long-distance cyclists had arrived on the same flight and were assembling their bikes next to us. They seemed surprised that we had so much gear. Their plan was to bike around the island and stay in hotels each night. I thought to myself, it would really lighten your load if you didn’t need to carry food or camping gear and instead just carried a big fat credit card in your pocket so you could eat at restaurants and stay at hotels every night. To us it felt much more fulfilling to be less connected with civilization. Eric and I knew that there would be plenty of nice little “stealth” campgrounds along our route, awaiting our business.
This was the first real developed country we had been to besides the US and Canada, so at first it was strange riding through downtown Keflavik and seeing nice buildings and nice cars all around. We went to the gas station and filled up our fuel bottle for our MSR XGK International Stove. “Gotta love that stove,” I said to Eric. It is one of the few stoves that can burn unleaded and diesel, among many other types of fuels, making it super-convenient for international travel, where Coleman Fuel might be scarce.
We already had three days of food so we hit the road and headed east. For a moment I felt like a dog free from its leash. I wanted to go faster and faster. This was our first day of cycling and I was hungry for the miles. But then at that moment Iceland decided that it was time to properly introduce itself to us. It started drizzling and a headwind picked up. About five miles later I heard that agonizing whoosh of air from my back tire that indicated I already had a flat. Having a flat tire can really destroy your momentum. I threw my bike to the ground in disgust and hastily put in a new tube. The rain was getting harder.
We saw on the map a shorter-looking road that passed through Grindavik (“vik” means bay) so we went for it. As we turned south an ugly 20km/h headwind full of rain pushed against us. It was too warm to wear a rain jacket without sweating so we just got soaked. Yuck. Welcome to Iceland.
Eventually the road turned to gravel. Great. We were getting farther and farther from Reykjavik, where most people live, and we were on what we called a “billy-bob road” so it was no surprise that the condition was bad. But back on Alaska’s Dalton Highway in 2008 we had biked through 500 miles of what we thought was the toughest gravel road and our bikes had worked perfectly so we thought Icelandic gravel would probably be no big deal. Unfortunately though the road became softer and softer and a few times we even had to walk the bikes. Surely, we thought, the road should improve once we meet up with a main road again.
Since there weren’t any trees it was very tough to locate the nearest AAA-approved stealth campsite. But we eventually found a big sheep pasture and pushed the bikes far off the road, avoiding deep crevices, lava tunnels, and mounds of bizarre gray moss until we found a good spot.
The next day we had fun trying to pronounce the strange new Icelandic characters. We passed through towns like Strandarkirkja, Þorlákshöfn, Hvolsvöllur, and lake Hlíðarvatn. Quick guide: ‘Þ’ and ‘ð’ are pronounced kind of like ‘th,’ while ‘hv’ is like ‘kw,’ and ‘j’ is always like a ‘y.’ When we found out we were on the road “Þjóðvegur” we tried to see who could come up with the smoothest pronounciation but I bet a local could probably still tell we were foreigners.
We stopped at a picnic table in Hvolsvöllur for lunch. A fierce southeast headwind had been lashing us all morning. We had alternated drafting but were still worn out. We hoped that at least the wind would still be there in a few days so we could get a tailwind on the way back. (It didn’t.) While we sat down a gardener dude came over to us and started speaking Icelandic. We asked politely if he spoke English. Turns out he moved to Iceland from Germany twenty years ago. We talked with him about the recent volcanic eruption that had been all over the news. He said that the volcano was no longer erupting but it had dropped quite a bit of black ash in town. He was hopeful that the ash would act as a fertilizer and help his grass grow. He pointed out the location of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on our map, about 30 miles away. Good, we thought, we would pass right by it. We secretly hoped we could see a little lava along the way.
A few miles out of town we came upon some of the destruction that the volcano had wrought. The huge volume of erupting lava had flowed onto the glacier and instantly turned the ice into water. Flash floods had raced down the Markarfljót river and torn out two or three massive bridges on our road, the primary southern highway linking the east and west halves of Iceland. Luckily, that had been more than two months ago and road crews had already repaired most of the road. We just had to ride through a little bit of soft gravel.
Now we were getting into the mountainous region of Iceland. Our road, the “Ring Road,” stayed between the mountains and ocean and fortunately remained almost completely flat. But the closer the mountains squeezed us to the ocean the more ferocious the wind became. At times we were battling a 20 mph headwind. There wasn’t a tree or hill around to block the wind so we just kept pushing through it. We hoped that once we turned northeast at Vik we might get a little tailwind.
At least the scenery was spectacular. To our right, off in the distance beyond bright green hayfields, was the North Atlantic. To our left, somewhere high up in the clouds, was the volcano. 800ft cliffs towered above us with dozens of waterfalls. The biggest waterfall we passed by was Seljalandsfoss, about 200ft tall. A bright green radius of vegetation grew within its spray. If that waterfall were in the US there would at least be a state park dedicated to it. In Iceland waterfalls were so common that this one was merely a picnic ground. The Icelandic word for “waterfall” is the monosyllabic word “foss” which is so much less cumbersome to pronounce than “waterfall” probably because they’re so common in Iceland.
Once we reached the 100-mile mark it was time to start searching for a “campground.” The nice thing about miles instead of kilometers is that 100 miles is a good amount to ride in a day and it also feels psychologically fulfilling to reach such a nice round number. 100km on the other hand is pretty whimpy. I guess you could aim for 160km, but that number is pretty inelegant and would leave a bad taste in your mouth at the end of the day. So we always relaxed a little when cracked the 100-mile mark and decided it was time to be in campsite-finding mode. Thankfully at the century mark today we came across our first grove of trees of the day near another spectacular waterfall at Skógar. When nobody was looking we plunged our bikes into the neat rows of human-planted bushes/trees and vanished from the world’s radar. We were unfindable once again.
A centimeter-thick layer of black volcanic ash covered everything. Luckily the ash had fallen at the beginning of the growing season so the plants would have the rest of the summer to recover.
The next day the landscape became even more spectacular. We passed by ranch after ranch and soon reached the southern cape of Iceland, at Vik. We walked on the black sandy beach and headed to the nearest Kjar Vall for some groceries. Not a whole lot was happening in downtown Vik (population ~300) on this bleak rainy June day. The temp was only about 55 degrees, but we figured that’s probably as warm as it ever gets around here.
A young blond-haired kid, probably thirteen, came out of the store to get his bike. “Nice mountain bike,” I said slowly and clearly to him, not knowing if he spoke English. “Thanks, yes I like this bike,” he said like a native English speaker. I was surprised. He was the first local we had really spoken to and his English was impeccable. We started talking about soccer and we asked him if the US was still in the World Cup. “Yes,” he answered, “but probably not for much longer.” We laughed. I was impressed that a young kid here in the boondocks of Iceland would speak such fluent English and be that up-to-date on current events in soccer.
East of Vik we began heading into a vast expanse of nothing. Twenty-five miles of pancake-flat terrain spread out in front of us with dark purple lupines as far as we could see. Far to the north we could see the lower reaches of a glacier protruding from the clouds. It looked like the whole area had been created by some epic lava flow thousands of years ago. We had never seen anything like it.
Pretty soon we reached our favorite village of the trip, good old Kirkjubæjarklaustur, population 160. We rehearsed our pronunciations for miles before we got into town. The town had a couple of gas stations, a grocery store, apartments, churches, city hall—a surprising amount of infrastructure for such a small town. We grabbed a liter of Mjúkís Súkkulaði ice cream at the grocery store and replenished some calories. From the pronounciation, we guessed that “Súkkulaði” had something to do with chocolate, but we could only hope that “Mjúkís” didn’t have anything to do with “mucous.”
As soon as we left town, Iceland decided it was time to teach us another lesson in respect. A digital weather sign next to the road that read “Vindur: NA7” indicated that the wind would be coming from the northeast at 7km/hr for the next stretch of road. At first I thought “wow, that’s pretty cool they would have technology like that,” but then I realized with dismay that we wanted to head northwest so we would have a headwind. Argh. The wind picked up and a cold rain began to fall. Double argh.
It’s amazing how something as simple as the wind can shape your morale when you’re cycling. If you’ve got a strong tailwind on level ground you might be able to push 25mph. Sheer exhilaration. But a strong headwind could keep you below 10mph. Plain drudgery. Just a simple 180 degree difference in the wind direction or your own direction can mean the difference between pleasure and pain. It seems so arbitrary. On a bike you pay as much attention to the wind as a sailor.
Sprinkle some cold rain into a headwind and it’s no longer fun to be on a bicycle. But there was nothing else we could do but ride. We were pedaling through the desolate Skeiðarasandur, a 30-mile wide, Kansas-flat sand plain. Through the rain we could see about three miles around us and there wasn’t a feature in sight. Not a tree, a boulder, a house, a plant, just black sand and gray lichen. We saw one car every ten minutes. Our odometer read 105 miles but there wasn’t a campsite in sight. True, probably nobody would care if we camped a hundred feet from the road, but we preferred more secluded campsites, especially for wind protection. We needed to keep moving.
Suddenly my fuel tank became empty. I couldn’t pedal another rotation. I started shivering. I needed some quick energy. I’m not quite sure how, but cycling has the ability to physically drain you deeper than any other activity. I’ve found that when I’m backpacking my energy slowly fades out and eventually a little alarm goes off that says “ok, it’s time to eat,” and then you stop and eat and feel better. I always feel like I’ve got a little bit left when I’m backpacking or running, no matter how hungry I am. But when I’m cycling, by the time my body says “stop and eat” I’m completely spent. It’s like I’ve hit a brick wall. Maybe it’s related to momentum—as long as you’ve got a little energy left you want to keep your bike cruising because it takes a lot of work to get it back up to speed. When you’re hiking, on the other hand, you can stop whenever you want because you’re moving slowly anyhow.
I attacked my hunger with two Clif bars and my last-resort Gu packet. Within ten minutes the furnace was roaring once again and I was hungry for more miles. It’s amazing how efficiently the body can perform when you need it to.
Fifteen miles later we made it to the abandoned farm at Sandfell in Skaftafell National Park which marked the trailhead of our route up Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland’s high point. We had printed off the SummitPost description of the route which had gotten us to this point, but unfortunately we were on our own now because the webpage did not include a route description. The only thing we had to work with was a painting of the mountain at the trailhead on which someone had hand-drawn the route (see P6260055.JPG). The image wasn’t too helpful but we photographed it in case we needed to refer to it during the climb tomorrow. Luckily we were armed with the GPS track of another person who had climbed the route, which turned out to be helpful.
But the first priority was sleep. We found a good boulder and pitched the tent behind it. We had cycled 200km and were zapped. I looked at my watch and, holy mackerel, it was midnight. The daylight at this latitude had been extremely forgiving.
After a not-so-alpine start at 10am we reactivated our walking muscles. It had been four days since we had walked more than 100ft. The fog grew dense as we climbed but nice tall cairns marked the route. We hadn’t seen any other people yet but knew that plenty of guiding services take people up the mountain, and it was possible that we were behind one. A sign at the trailhead (see P6260057.JPG) had recommended hiring a guide for their expertise in avoiding “fissures” but we felt pretty comfortable in our skills from Denali. It also advised that each rope team should have 5-6 people, but we didn’t see anyone else around so it would just be the two of us.
We had 30m of rope between us and each had a small ice axe. We each had a deadman anchor in case someone fell in, which isn’t as effective as a picket, but is much nicer to carry on a bike. We had brought the minimum gear to keep us safe, but we felt we could still be safe. We carried it in our handy bright yellow drybags. After a few hours of climbing we suited up and started walking on the glacier. A nice packed trail led the way.
We wound around some pretty impressive crevasses. A few times the route crossed a thinning snowbridge that we were skeptical would even hold our weight. While I crossed Eric would hold his ice axe and be ready to self arrest at a moment’s notice. The threat of falling in here was much more real than it had been on Denali. It was getting late in the season and the route was melting away. Without the footprints of a dozen people in front of us we might have turned around.
We reached the edge of the danger zone and thick clouds immediately rolled in. Pretty soon we could only see about fifty feet, it was white in every direction. But from the route drawing we photographed at the trailhead it looked like it was mostly level to the top from here. At that point we suddenly heard some talking coming towards us. It was an eight-person guided group returning from the top. They were roped up about six feet apart and looked like a giant centipede. To us it seemed ridiculous that they would be roped so close together, because if one person fell in the last person would have very little time to self arrest. But from what we had seen on Denali this seemed to be the European way.
As they got close their guide gave us a few tips: “careful, the ice will be very soft on the way down” (we thought: yes thanks, we know that, but we slept in this morning because we got to sleep at 1am and had an epic day yesterday), and “you should tie a knot in the middle of your rope so it catches if you fall in” (we thought: that might be a good idea, but that could make it tougher to climb out). We thanked him for the suggestions and continued hiking. He probably thought we were dufuses. But he was also probably jealous that we could move twice as fast as him because we weren’t towing six old people behind us.
Eric and I were dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, little boots, and mini crampons. By contrast the clients all wore thick pants and jackets along with winter boots. “Geez, you’d think they’d hot in all that,” I told Eric.
An hour later during our final little climb a massive hump of rock and glaciers suddenly materialized out of the fog in front of us. It looked like a gigantic pirate ship emerging silently from a cloud. We climbed out of a sea of clouds and for the first time in Iceland there was blue sky above us. As far as we could see in every direction was a uniform white sea of cloudtops. Undercast! Just a few hundred feet more and we would be on the roof of Iceland. The route steeply crossed a few very suspicious-looking crevasses that we crossed quickly. We even had to jump over one crevasse.
A minute later we were standing on the summit, the roof of the country. We could see nothing but cloud tops for fifty miles in every direction. “Well there’s not a whole lot to see,” I said, “but at least we can see that there aren’t any taller mountains around.” We were pretty darn lucky. If Hvannadalshnúkur had been just 200 feet lower we would be swimming in the sea of clouds, not able to see anything. Up on the summit it was like a little tropical island. The sun blazed down on us without a puff of wind. I’m surprised nobody had planted a palm tree up there yet.
We captured the customary summit pictures: me and Eric posing with and without shirts, me and Eric jumping, and Eric juggling. I even sent a couple of text messages from the top. Too bad we couldn’t just camp on the top, we thought, because it’s way nicer up here than in the rain down below. But we needed to get down before the route melted out any further. It was nice that we had been following a fresh eight-person trail on the way up; hopefully it would still be intact on the way down.
We made it down without any incidents around 8pm. The climb had taken us ten hours, including an hour of fooling around at the top. We knew there wasn’t a boulder to hide behind for the next thirty miles so we decided to camp one more night at the current spot.
In the morning it was time to start heading back to Keflavik. We had given ourselves nine days in Iceland and had four remaining. We were originally hoping to take a different road back, like one of the gravel roads through the rugged interior of the island, but we had discovered that our bikes weren’t well-suited for Icelandic gravel. You would need a good mountain bike to pass through the center of Iceland. So, with a little dismay, we decided that we would take the same road back that we had arrived on. We hoped that at least the headwinds would turn into tailwinds.
A little after Kirkjubæjarklaustur in the late afternoon, or shall we say “K-town,” we picked up the most spectacular tailwind we had ever experienced. We were getting closer and closer to the southern tip of Iceland and it seemed the air really wanted to move from east to west. It was exhilarating. We could comfortably reach 27-28mph. While not pedaling my GPS speedometer read 17mph.
We rode the tailwind like a surfer on a tsunami and by 6pm it was time to find a place to camp. Even though, from a sunlight perspective, it didn’t really matter what time of day we pedaled, we wanted to keep an early-to-bed/early-to-rise schedule in Iceland so we could pass through towns when stores were actually open. So, with a little agony because we didn’t like to waste the tailwind, we pulled off the road and began to look for a campsite. It was a pity that we couldn’t somehow deposit in a bank the tailwind that would surely prevail tonight in order to withdraw it at a later date when we needed it. It was tempting to keep riding the tailwind later into the night but we had just found a potentially awesome place to camp.
We had pulled off the road near an awesome rock formation called Hjörleifshöfði (look it up in a Google image search). It looks like a big grass-covered island in a sea of flat black sand. Tall cliffs guard nearly every side. We figured we could find a sheltered area at the base of a cliff. On the south side we discovered a gigantic natural cave. You could probably have driven a bus into the cave if it weren’t for the boulders in the front. That’s where our bikes came in handy. We pedaled into the cave and officially had a campsite that was protected from rain and wind. It turned out to be our proudest campsite in Iceland. (Here are the coordinates for future travelers: 63.413601,-18.754098).
When we pulled onto the road the next morning we couldn’t believe it. The tailwind had actually intensified overnight. We were in business. As we stood there clouds of black sand came roaring in from the east and sandblasted our bare skin. It felt like taking a shower under water that’s at too high of a pressure. The black clouds cut visibility down to a mile. A few rain drops made the weather downright nasty. Thank goodness we wouldn’t be riding straight into that, we thought.
We turned to the west and it felt like we were wearing jet packs. We estimated that at times we had a 30mph gust of tailwind. For the first time I reached 38mph on flat ground. All you had to do was stand up and make yourself big like a sail. It was the only time we were glad to have all that frontal area on our bike. We barreled into Vik like a runaway freight train. If the wind kept up like that all day we could cover 150 miles. Unfortunately, though, soon after we turned northwest and skirted the cape we found ourselves pushing through a headwind.
Further down the road we reached an area that had been smothered by volcanic ash. Black ash was drifting across the road like snow and cut visibility down to a few hundred feet. During one big gust I had to stop my bike and close my eyes to protect from the ash. My bike and I emerged covered in black. It was pretty cool.
Stealth camping was shaping up to be tricky this evening. We knew that there weren’t any trees for at least the next 40 miles so we would need to find a boulder to hide behind. We decided maybe we could ride up the road towards the volcano that erupted and maybe we’d find something cool. But the road soon turned to genuine, first-sized, Icelandic gravel that was no fun to ride on with our bikes. We turned around, disgusted. We knew there was a campground at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, but that meant we would have to pay. Paying to camp, what an agonizing thought indeed. With no other option we pulled into the official campground, defeated.
At least it was an awesome place. We set up the tent next to a magnificent waterfall that had sliced a narrow gap into the cliff. I could imagine, one thousand years ago, a Viking walking through this meadow and looking with excitement upon this waterfall. I’m sure he would have stood underneath it. Just when we wanted to cook it began to pour. Not a day had gone by yet without us getting soaked. But we found a small cave and cooked inside it. “You can’t get us in here,” I yelled to the rain.
In the evening we waited for someone to come by and collect the ISK 1500 ($8) campground fee but nobody showed up. In the morning I walked around searching for a campground host or ranger but the office was closed. There was no box to put the money in either. “If it’s gonna be this hard to pay them $16 then they must not want it,” I told Eric. We pedaled away and nobody chased after us.
The most critical module of our exit strategy from Iceland was getting another bike box so we could pack our bikes for the flight to Finland. So the goal was to stay in the big city of Reykjavik at a hostel the next night so we could be near bikes stores that would have a bike box.
The closer we got to Reykjavik the crazier the traffic became. Even though there are only 300,000 people in the country the road into the capital is as busy as an interstate. An interstate, that is, without a dang shoulder. Huge double-trailer trucks and extra-wide superjeeps roared by us. I would have taken the roughest billy-bob road over this racetrack except that it was the only road that went in the right direction.
By 5pm we had gotten within spitting distance of Reykjavik and knew that it was going to be slim pickings for stealth campsites if we went any farther. Without a tree or a cliff in sight we headed up a road into a gravel quarry. It didn’t look promising but it was our only shot. We escorted our bikes down a little four wheeler trail and finally came upon a gate. Uh-oh, Eric said, we’re probably not supposed to pass through the gate. But as it turned out the DO NOT ENTER sort of sign was actually facing the other way on the gate, and indicated that we had just emerged from restricted area. “Oh, what do you know, we came from a DO NOT ENTER area,” I said. “Well then what kind of area are we in now? Are we allowed to be in this area?” “I think that as long as we don’t get caught we’re now in a permissible area,” Eric replied.
It turned out to be a half-mile from the end of an active runway but luckily none of the planes flying overhead called the Icelandic authorities on us. We had a pleasant sleep. It turns out that if we had gone a few miles farther we would have probably had to pay $45 each to stay in a hostel.
The next day would be an errand day. We had to find a bike box and pack the bikes, mail our glacier gear home because we wouldn’t need it anymore, buy another five days of food for Finland, locate a place to sleep, and send some emails. It took one sentence to list our errands. In the end it took thirteen hours to accomplish all of them.
We took a bus early the following morning to the Keflavik airport. We had cycled 520 miles over 9 days to climb Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest point in Iceland, but that was only the beginning of summer of adventure. Finland was next…