Day 57 : Snæfellstofa visitor centre – Hafursá river / Hallormsstaður NP (27.4 km / 17 mi)
Day 58 : Hafursá river / Hallormsstaður NP – Stóra-Sandfell (21.5 km / 13.4 mi)
Day 59 : Stóra-Sandfell – Eyvindará river / Route 953 (31.5 km / 19.6 mi)
Day 60 : Eyvindará river / Route 953 – Mjóifjörður (26.7 km / 16.6 mi)
Day 61 : Mjóifjörður – Egilsstaðir (34.3 km / 21.3 mi)
Total walking days: 5
Total km: 141.4 km / 87.9 mi
Average km per day: 28.3 km / 17.6 mi
Overall total km : 1786.9 km / 1110.3 mi
After all the walking I had done, I felt I had accumulated a reasonable amount of competence. I had hiked in different countries, followed trails through forests and to summits, over sand, up to volcanoes and across scores of rock. I had hiked and encountered bears and fields of snow, obliterating the trail I was supposed to follow. I had hiked in areas that showed no tracks at all, using GPS and maps to find my own way.
I had survived it all.
I thought I had picked up a fair bit of skill to deal with different situations in the outdoors along the way. But I didn’t realise that, in all honesty, I know nothing about nature, about mountains. I never grew up around mountains. I don’t know how they breathe, how they work, how they are build. I don’t know how they should be approached or how to get across them. I certainly didn’t know how dangerous they are. Until I tried to pass one on my way to the East Fjords, and almost thought I wasn’t going to make it out alive.
My plan had been to approach the East Fjords from Seyðisfjörður. But first I had to get there. On the map I saw the roads from Snæfellstofa meander around numerous mountain ranges before reaching the small town, so I decided to do something a little different. I wanted to cut some corners by simply going straight over the two mountains that stood in my way, rather than going around. Which, obviously, was a very naive plan, rationalised by someone who clearly has no idea about mountains.
On my way to the first mountain I hiked through Hallormsstaður national park, Iceland’s oldest forest. It was a breath of fresh air, feeling such life around me. I strolled past the milky lake of Lagarfljót and passed the most pristine campsite on a picturesque pebble beach while lovely little trails meandered throughout the small forest. I longed to be around trees, and I had a difficult time leaving. It was a tiny bit of heaven, yet I passed through way too quick, breaking my heart a little bit.
The first mountain I crossed was Höttur. I approached from a southwest direction, the official route to the top, although there was no actual trail to follow. The mountain wasn’t very high at 1,106 m, and it wasn’t technical, but it did challenge me. I was pulling myself up on some steep sections, holding on to big rocks so I wouldn’t slide back down, navigated a field of giant rocks, afraid to cause an avalanche, then hiked across the barren top plateau for hours.
When I thought I had almost made it across, I found myself stuck behind a river flowing through a deep canyon right in the middle. My intention was to ford the river but I couldn’t. I was forced to follow the river north in order to descend the mountain safely.
Somehow, I managed to walk over twenty kilometres across this one mountain. It certainly didn’t amount to twenty kilometres when I looked on the map. The hike across had taken far too long. I realised mountains were different from what I thought they were. They were unreliable. They were their own beings and did their own thing.
Going over the mountain had certainly not been the fast route. Even though I safely made it to the other side, the terrain had been treacherous at times and I didn’t have the experience to know if I was walking into a dangerous situation. Realising that put me on edge. I wasn’t keen on doing an unmarked hiking route across a mountain again.
Until the next mountain, that was.
The next day I followed the road to Mjóifjörður. The sun shone despite the cold and the windy road, passing small waterfalls and several lakes, enticed me to go further. I was looking forward to the day ahead: I had never seen a fjord before.
When the road lowered itself into a view of the fjord, the scale of the panorama revealing itself before me was imposing. A meandering road heading down towards the light, calm, contrasting water, while mountains hugged me from both sides. Impenetrable, black and white snow covered cliffs lined the tops, almost leaning into the fjord. It was a menacing and impressive sight.
Seyðisfjörður was situated at the next fjord north, and the pass from Mjóifjörður over the mountain range was straight up from where the water started. But there was no trail. I had studied the map once more and realised the route was in fact another unmarked hiking path. I had wanted to avoid this situation but now that I was here, I had little choice.
It wasn’t until several days later that I got my hands on the physical East Fjords hiking map, which featured my chosen route as nr 59. The accompanying text explained it to be an old mail carrier path with remains of a telephone line from 1907. The route officially starts at Fjörður farmstead at Mjóifjörður, leads through the valley of Króardalur, over the pass at Króardalsskarð (990m) and down towards Fjarðarsel power plant museum, which sits close to Seyðisfjörður. The route was described as ‘rather difficult and steep’.
As I overlooked the fjord from above I decided to take advantage of being at a higher elevation already. Rather than follow the road down to the fjord and then head right up the mountain again, I would cut across and meet the trail somewhere along the way, finding my own route along the mountain slope.
When I began my ascend I knew I was taking a gamble. I was aware it looked like I could meet the route from where I was, but in reality I knew I could get stuck anywhere along the way. There were numerous vertical gaps of rock housing streams and waterfalls, and I knew it was impossible to judge the gradient of the slopes as they kept changing while I walked, constantly growing steeper or gentler than expected. I realised I’d been right about one thing: there were many more obstacles than I could’ve imagined. I really didn’t know mountains.
As I zigzagged up and down narrow sheep trails and sections of exposed rock, I decided to aim towards a set of small cliffs in the centre of the ascend. If I managed to climb on top, I would reach a flatter section and it would be easier to walk across to the trail.
When I scrambled my way up to the bottom of the rocks, I realised the boulders were in fact way too big to climb over. At the same time, continuing across the bottom was also impossible. It was too steep to pass below, and the rocks were too big and smooth to hold onto for support. After a moment of alarm, I strained to lower myself to my previous position, using hands and knees to slide down to safety.
This was the first time I felt out of my comfort zone. I was all too aware that if I misstepped, I would get hurt. It began to dawn on me that getting over this mountain was not going to be the usual hiking experience. If I was already finding myself in a tricky situation this early on, what was going to happen when I reached the pass?
The ascend continued to take its time, but slowly I ploughed through the low vegetation and rocks until I reached what I had thought was the top, or something close to it. I was standing on a high plateau, overlooking the fjord and the mountain range on the other side, the peaks rigid and high, awe-inspiring and haunting, glaring down at me.
In front of me the mountain also stood high. Contrary to what I’d thought, I was not anywhere near the top. There was a second component to the mountain which rose, solid as rock, before me. Matching the crest on the opposite side, I was looking at black vertical cliffs stretching down the entire length and top section of the mountain range. Impenetrable and terrifying. I was instantly filled with such terror that I started to cry. This wasn’t a hiking path anymore. This was a mountaineering route.
I didn’t know where to get across. Should I head towards the pass according to the original route or find my own way? After a frantic internal debate, I continued towards the pass, finding my way through sodden grass, managing to stay dry until the very last muddy puddle, when I misstepped and felt my shoes slowly fill with the cold water.
When I finally reached the location of the trail I discover that the unmarked route followed defunct telephone lines. It was a relief to have the posts to follow, something to guide the way. Something to take some of my trepidation away.
Nearing the pass, I continued to use hands and feet to lift myself up on some rocky sections. It went against the rule I had made up for myself: if I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I would be able to get down the same way I went up, I wouldn’t proceed. This time I didn’t know if I’d be able to climb down, but I just really hoped I wasn’t going to have to find out.
By now I was so close, I couldn’t bring myself to abort the hike until at least reaching the pass. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Maybe the way down would be an easy walk and I was winding myself up for no real reason at all.
When I checked the elevation markers on my map it looked as though the other side of the mountain was significantly less steep. I hoped it would be like Höttur, where I walked across the undulation roof for hours, before beginning a slow, regular descend.
Slowly the crest grew closer until I finally faced the last stretch up to the pass. I looked up at a steep incline of loose gravel and rock in between menacing black cliffs and witnessed a fear settle deep inside of me. The telephone line posts fell backwards across a section so steep I knew I couldn’t ascend. Instead I decided to climb up to a point a little further on, which appeared more manageable.
Gradually I began the scramble up. It was higher and steeper than I had thought. I kept my body close to the ground and used my hands and knees to ascend the sharp inclines of loose rock towards what seemed like a thin ridge line. It was so steep I had to stop myself from looking down.
When I finally reached the top, I did not see the expected flat expanse extend in front of me. Instead I was standing on the ridge line of a mountain top overlooking steep cliffs tumbling far beneath me. Seyðisfjörður sat far below me, peacefully against the fjord. A beautiful, but paralysing sight. There was no way down.
I looked to where the telephone lines struggled up. Was the pass more approachable there? Could I carefully scramble across the ridge line to reach it? Would it be passable? I couldn’t tell. Everywhere looked steep. What if I got across and found myself in an irreversible situation? What if I managed to reach the pass, descend on the other side but got stuck somewhere along the mountain a little further down? From here, all I could see were snow patches and cliffs. I saw nothing that promised a safe descend.
As I stood there, terrorised by my worst nightmare, the weather turned. At once a piercing cold enwrapped me, the instantly numbing type reserved exclusively for high mountain tops, and a soft rain filled the air around me. I was absolutely petrified.
My mind was racing. Could I make it down the other side? Maybe, maybe not. I simply didn’t know. This path, these conditions, and my lack of mountaineering experience were troubling. I desperately wanted to keep going, reach Seyðisfjörður. I wanted to be brave. But not at the risk of… everything. I began to wonder if my situation was deemed life-threatening enough to warrant pressing the SOS button on my GPS tracker. I wondered if I should try and set up my tent, right there, and wait until I was less afraid.
Was this it? Was this the point where I needed to stop? I didn’t know when the right time had come. When do you decide that you are so out of your comfort zone that you need to stop? How afraid did I need to be until I realised I was too afraid?
While my thoughts raced back and forth, I tried to carefully edge across the top ledge towards the telephone lines, while peeking over the rocks to see if I could actually make it all the way. It was farther than I had hoped. As I stepped along, the rain made the rocks slippery and the cold numbed my limbs. I looked at my hands, I was shaking physically with fear.
This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. This wasn’t the type of situation I wanted to find myself in. I was petrified. I had never been more petrified in my life. I stopped and turned, then crouched and faced the slope I had come from. This was it. I sat down on my butt and made my decision. I felt the ground underneath me and descended down the loose gravel with my hands and feet. Slowly, carefully. I wasn’t going to cross this mountain.
I didn’t reach the bottom of the mountain until the next day. I camped at lower elevation, and scrambled down some frightening rocks to get back to the road. My relief was palpable. I hadn’t managed to get across the mountain, but I was alive.
I still wanted to reach Seyðisfjörður. I decided to walk the fifty plus kilometres around the entire fjord instead. There were roads leading to the far end, both at the top and bottom of the fjords, but the section around the far edge was another hiking trail, there was no road going all the way around.
I walked all day. When I was just a few kilometres shy of the trail, the mountains around me grew so monstrous that I backed out completely. I was wary and I didn’t trust the trail I was headed to. I didn’t want to find myself in another compromising situation.
So I hitchhiked back. My first hitchhike in Iceland. I went back to where I had descended Höttur mountain two days before and walked the remaining stretch to Egilsstaðir.
The East Fjords had defeated me.