An Iceland Expedition (part 10) : Get Your GPS Out! The Adventure of Hiking Without a Trail in Lónsöræfi, walking from Höfn to Snæfell

Route
Day 48 : Höfn – beyond Skútafoss (29.1 km / 18.1 mi)
Day 49 : beyond Skútafoss – Jökulsá í Lóni river footbridge (25.5 km / 15.8 mi)
Day 50 : Jökulsá í Lóni river footbridge – Mulaskali (22.4 km / 13.9 mi)
Day 51 : Mulaskali hut – Egilssel hut (13.5 km / 8.4 mi)
Day 52 : Egilssel hut – Keldúa river (26.6 km / 16.5 mi)
Day 53 : Keldúa river – Snæfell (25.7 km / 16 mi)

Total walking days: 6
Total km: 142.8 km / 88.7 mi
Average km per day: 23.8 km / 14.8 mi

Overall total km : 1575.9 km / 979.2 mi

It was almost 5 pm but I unplugged my electronics, arranged everything into clear plastic bags and hoisted my heavy pack onto my back, leaving Höfn’s camping ground in the pouring rain.

Even though it was late and the weather bad, I was happy to get going again. I had one more day of walking along the ring road and then I would enter Lónsöræfi, a remote hiking area that I didn’t really know anything about, at all. But that’s why I was looking forward to it.

I was going to walk the Lónsöræfi – Snæfell trail, and I had only just found out that this area doesn’t actually have any underfoot paths to follow. Meaning you need a GPS and a map and do your own navigation. Meaning you are about to enter a real adventure.

I had never hiked anywhere in the world without a trail, especially in such a remote area with little other hikers, so I was sensibly nervous about it. Nevertheless, I had been too cheap to purchase a proper paper map (plus I was adverse to carrying the weight), but I was armed with screenshots of decent-enough maps I had found online, the GPS on my phone and my Spot tracking device in case something did go wrong. I was ready.

I reached the entry point to this area the following day, taking the 9713 road along the Jökulsá í Lóni river, towards Hvannagil, where most day hikers do a little loop back to the ring road and the Skafafell farm.

But the road was picturesque. Trees and bushes dotted around, and a panoramic view of the meandering river. The day slowly turned sunnier and warmer. I passed charming bungalows until I reached Hvannagil and the turned into a dirt track passing through a landscape that I described in my journal as a ‘red moon.’

I went up and down through a succession of trees and scree slopes and perfect camping spots in the grass until I walked along the rocks of the Jökulsá í Lóni river, trying to avoid the many streams until finally reaching the footbridge, marking the end of civilisation and the start of the real hiking paths.

The footbridge sat at higher elevation and crossed the extensive glacier river. Unfortunately, I had no idea where the track I was following had gone. Maybe it simply finished here.

I was soon stopped by a clear river that blocked my way, as it sprang from solid rocks in between two mountains and fed into Jökulsá í Lóni further on. Once I crossed that river, I could climb up the mountain and reach the foot bridge. I walked up and down the river to find a suitable spot to cross but the water was frightfully fierce, bouncing and spewing along. I didn’t dare cross.

My only other option to reach the bridge wasn’t as straight forward. From where I was standing, it appeared I had backtrack and cross three rivers instead, of which two actually came from the river that I would be crossing again on the bridge.

The water was brown as well, making it impossible to see how deep they reached and where I was placing my foot next. But it wasn’t until I started wading through that I realised that wasn’t the worst thing. The rivers were so cold that I collapsed in plain agony every time I reached the other side, the frigid water so intense and unlike anything I had ever felt before. It was excruciating.

After crossing the last river I bushwhacked my way up to the footbridge. I stood on a little beach and pulled myself up on bushes growing from the steep incline next to me, slowly advancing to the top. It was certainly not the way I was supposed to go, but it got me to my goal.

To my utter confusion though, once I reached the top, I saw trail markers heading in an eastbound direction. I wondered if it was a trail I should’ve followed, or if it led somewhere entirely different. If only I’d bothered to buy a proper map, I would’ve known where they lead to.

I camped at the footbridge that night. Although I had hoped to reach the first hut at Mulaskali by then, it’s good I stayed put and didn’t try. The distance to the hut was much longer than I thought, and it would take me over eight hours to hike the 12 km the following day.

On the morning of the hike to Mulaskali, another storm set in. The wind was so strong that I struggled to hold my phone and take a picture. I cowered as I walked, but to my surprise, I was still following a marked trail.

I attempted to follow the Kombar hiking path to Mulaskali, but I soon had to find an alternative route. The trail carved into a steep incline up the side of a scree mountain slope until the thin track was hardly noticeable. By now, the wind was so strong that I feared I’d get blown off the side of the mountain. I turned back at once.

Instead I found a dirt road that lead most of the way to the hut. The downside was that it followed the exposed top of the mountain, and the wind was so powerful that I often stood still, bracing myself, unable to move in any direction.

I felt like I was stuck in a wind tunnel of some sort, keeping me hostage in that particular position and I would have to throw myself off to the side somewhere, somehow, to get out of its tireless hold.

With the wind, the biting cold took hold of me. I struggled. My teeth started chattering and I lost so much body warmth that I feared I was borderline hypothermic. I started to debate whether I should set up my tent somewhere to stay safe and get warm again, and I wondered if I would ever make it to the hut at all.

At last I threw myself against a weak slope, the best shelter I could find, and put on every layer of clothing I had. I forced myself to eat something and when I continued the trail I began to run the best I could. I was happily amazed when I swiftly began to warm up.

Just in time as well, because I was about to hit some of the best views I would see in Iceland. First the clouds parted and sun lit discreet sections of the mountain ranges around me, boasting a large rainbow before the sky darkened and closed in on me once again.

The road meandered and I passed tiny lakes huddling together, while the few rays of sun, bursting through the gloom of thick clouds, highlighted colourful peaks. It was magical. Despite the rain and the haunting darkness, the views right before Mulaskali were unreal.

I was surprised when I actually made it to the hut. I had been very close to giving up and setting up my tent somewhere along the way. It took a scary scramble to lower myself down a thinning trail on a gravelly slope, but I made it at last.

I had expected to see no one, but Mulaskali was busy. I stayed out of the hut and set up my tent in between some bushes. A caretaker told me part of the group staying there had had to be rescued a few days earlier, when they got lost in thick fog. This area wasn’t to be taken lightly.

I was happy I didn’t have to rely on reaching mountain huts every day to get to safety, instead carrying my own tent. It feels like a safe way to tackle a hike like this.

The following day the wind was still strong but its intensity had faded a little and it was easier to handle. I followed the sharp slopes along the river north, fighting my way up and down some precarious sections. The going was slow.

The trail continued up on an exposed mountain range of endless rock to the next hut, Egilssel. This is where the trail officially ended. I would have to find my way on my own from now.

I navigated through a swamp and set up camp a little further along. It was freezing cold again. The following day the real adventure would begin. It was slightly unnerving but a thrilling prospect.

The next day I soon found out how disorienting it is to hike a mountainous area without a trail. I would look at my map and point the GPS in the direction I thought I needed to go. Over that mountain, it would inadvertently direct me. And then I would go, hike up a little, pull myself up on some big rocks, trying to find the best route to ascend and without realising I’d have changed my direction altogether. I kept checking my phone to make sure I was going to the right place. My GPS proved absolutely invaluable.

But it was fun. I began the day by climbing up some rocky slopes with great views until I hit a boring section of undulating plains of rock. I forded a fast flowing river with lots of waterfalls and walked next to a secession of lakes, staying at higher elevation so I could jump over the countless snowmelt streams.

Without a trail, the hike turned into an arduous traverse over moss and rock, which demanded a constant focus on where I was going to place my feet next.

I looked at some sheep hurrying along ahead of me. I’d been going with my mantra ‘It’s okay, I can do this’, but it seemed obsolete. I decided then and there to change it to ‘If sheep can do it, I can do it’. Which isn’t entirely true. While sheep look like fluff balls on tiny little stick legs, they can tackle some challenging terrain. And the sheep I saw, were running along a lot faster than I was.

My mantra kept me going, somewhat, until I finally stood high on a mountain range and overlooked the next hut, Geldingafell. Right next to it I saw a torrential glacial river bursting out of its banks. Officially, this was the point where the trail went up a glacier and the hike continued in the snow, until getting back on solid ground to reach Mt Snæfell.

However, I didn’t carry snow gear, and the route wasn’t well-trodden enough to have a safe trail to follow over the glacier. I was supposed to cross that river and continue on dry land instead. I was horrified. I hadn’t expected a river like this. Where did it come from? How had I not heard about this terrifying beast before?

I studied it from up high and I was petrified. Was there a bridge? I couldn’t see from where I was standing. I followed the route of the murky water as it dug into a thin canyon until the water spilled out into a meandering mass of fast flowing streams on the other side. I was never going to ford this river.

Suddenly, four tiny specks of people appeared next to the river in the far distance, right where it widened into an array of streams. They seemed dumbfounded, as well. Clearly headed to the hut from the other direction, they needed to cross the river to stay at the hut that night. One of them ran up the river, where it turned into a small canyon, but he soon turned back to the others. I assumed that meant there was no bridge.

I waited. I wanted to see if they would cross. If they would wade through easily or struggle in the current. But they sat down instead. Maybe they were deciding what to do, maybe they were going to rest for a while. I was cold and couldn’t wait. They were too far to approach so I decided to go my own way.

The glacier from which the river spilled was just beyond me. As far as I could see, I had two options. There seemed to be a bridge of snow that appeared over the river, and I could attempt to run over it. If that wasn’t viable, I would get as close to the snow of the glacier as possible and wade through the water there. It seemed like a wide and less tumulus stretch than the exuberant river it soon became.

I descended the mountain, half falling down a slope of sand and snow, too steep to be considered a safe passage down. When I reached the bridge of snow I was delighted to see it did indeed stretch all the way to the other side. I was also petrified. The snow was solid, and the pass was wide enough, but the brown river spewed below the ice in a destructive fashion. If the snow was unstable and I fell in, I would be in serious danger.

My mind raged. I had no idea if crossing a snow bridge was possible. Was this ever even an option? Did people do this? I simply had never heard of hikers passing snow bridges and had no idea if this was something extremely dangerous that should never be attempted. I also had no way of determining whether the snow was strong enough. Still, despite the obvious risks, it appeared a lot less dangerous than actually fording the river itself.

I thought quickly. No. There was no way I would attempt such a thing on my own. It was ridiculous. I didn’t have the guts for something like that. I turned around and continued towards the glacier. Then I stopped. I looked back again. ‘If sheep can do it, I can do it’, I thought. Would sheep cross a bridge of snow? Did they weight about the same I did? Or were they heavier? I had no idea. There were no footprints or paw prints in the snow. If I did run across the snow bridge I would be across in no less than five seconds. It would take a lot, lot longer if I tried to find the safest stretch across the river and wade through.

I turned back to the foot of the bridge, and carefully put my weight on the far end. I stood for a moment, waiting. Nothing happened. No cracks, no sounds of ice collapsing below my feet, just the torrent of water gushing through the tunnel of ice right underneath me.

In a moment, I stopped my thoughts and ran.

I was on the other side. I was on the other side. I made it across. I was exalted. I had run across the snow bridge and made it across. It had been so easy. I almost couldn’t believe it. I had never felt such relief in my life.

For a little while longer that evening and the next day I continued skipping over a bare landscape of rocks, and found myself continuously checking my GPS and adjusting my direction in a grey terrain that never changed. I crossed the same streams over and over again, constantly changing my mind as to on what side I needed to be, driving myself slightly mad.

I walked west until I reached the colossal Eyjabakkajokull glacial tongue and followed it north. This was another long stretch of rocky plains until I hit grass, and was surrounded by countless swamps and sheep, making it seem like mere farmland, rather than the remote land I was really attempting to pass.

By now I was in a hurry. I was behind on schedule and I was hungry. Very hungry. When I organised my resupply I had oddly forgotten how much couscous I needed each day. Surely one box was enough? Seven spoonfuls per day. I remembered counting those before. But when I started making dinners I realised how wrong I had been. I used seven spoonfuls when I first arrived in Iceland, but two months later I needed twelve at the least. Fifteen, preferably. I had been famished ever since leaving Höfn, and dealing with hunger was a constant battle. Hiking with too little nutrition was not a joke.

I walked until I reached a road. A real road. Not long after a camper van passed me. It was almost evening. It was clear the adventure was over. I crossed the bridge to the other side of the Eyjabakkajokull river and stood facing the outstretched plains, the vast, open landscape surrounding Mt Snæfell. It was surrounded by a ring of fog. I’d made it.

Published by

Rosanne Luciana

A Dutch-born London-based hiker who has swapped an East Asian backpacking experience for the opportunity to truly immerse herself into nature, by quite simple, walking.

2 thoughts on “An Iceland Expedition (part 10) : Get Your GPS Out! The Adventure of Hiking Without a Trail in Lónsöræfi, walking from Höfn to Snæfell

    1. Really nice to hear you’re enjoying the blog! I’m happy I’ve been able to cover some lesser-trodden ground as well… It’s too easy to just go to all the well-known places everyone else goes to!

      Liked by 1 person

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