Falling for Fjallabak.

Vondugil
Vondugil

 

We have been working in the huts and campsites along the Laugavegur since July. More and more so, I am drowning in uncertainty as I try to cobble this together. It's taken me weeks just to whittle down the photos. The most colourful are attractive, but I don't want to give you the impression that it's always sunny here; sometimes we don't see blue sky for a week.

 

This three word title... the alliteration I like, but regardless of the shortening days it was not intended as a pun on the American term for autumn. Despite our mother tongue becoming the most wide-spread "global language", the English are still paranoid about loosing it. Living and working here in Iceland, the irony is tangible. This is about Fjallabak; I can barely even pronounce it.

 

Jökulgilsbotn, Landmannalaugar, Fjallabak
Jökulgilsbotn

 

Initially I resented the unforgiving landscape. It was too alien to relax into. I felt like an insect crawling over a child's modelling clay creation. The colours blended together making me dizzy. I didn't want to be squashed; to become an incongruous smear on the perfection. I didn't trust the snow or what was underneath it; I couldn't see the moss. My memories of Þórsmörk, Goðaland and even Álftavatn were all in verdant greens - I had developed a red filter on my vision to counteract the excess. The adjustment was a little painful and often everything just seemed white.

 

Hrafntinnusker in fog, Fjallabak
Hrafntinnusker
Snow bridge near Hrafntinnusker, Laugavegur, Fjallabak
Under a snow bridge near Hrafntinnusker (taken from the entrance)
Hrafntinnusker summit, Fjallabak
View south from Hrafntinnusker summit.
Broken snow bridge, Hrafntinnusker, Laugavegur, Fjallabak
Broken snow bridge, Hrafntinnusker mountain and hut behind.
Íshellar, ice caves, Hrafntinnusker, Fjallabak
Íshellar - once ice caves, now fallen in.

 

Over time, with the sun and ever shrinking white expanses, my eyes and mind became accustomed. My confidence grew in Hrafntinnusker and I began to try and read the remaining snow; was it sagging and cracking or was I beginning to walk on an unsupported overhang? My boots have no grip now, but I could graze a ledge into the bank as I walked, quite naturally if it wasn't too steep. On a sharp gradient I dug my heels into Dan's boot-prints, often slipping and sliding into a snow-surfing crouch. One step forward and often two back, it was always slow progress up-hill.

 

Háskerðingur, Fjallabak
South-west side of Háskerðingur
Háskerðingur, Fjallabak
Summit of Háskerðingur, view to the north-east.

 

This version of summer had felt endless, but the darkness was beginning to creep back. I didn't expect it to bring colour, but the setting sun glowed more brightly with every hour of daylight we lost.

 

Hrafntinnusker, Laugavegur, Fjallabak
Hrafntinnusker (early August)

 

As the highest hut on the Laugavegur, Hrafntinnusker is an unforgiving campsite. We were alone on top of the world. We tried to balance somewhat complicated gas, water and electricity systems, give a sustainable level of help to occasionally miserable hikers and cleaned everything in circles. In sunshine the work was easy, but we needed that energy for wind and rain. 

 

Reykjafjöll, Hrafntinnusker, Fjallabak
View east towards Hábarmur from southern summit of Reykjafjöll
South from Hrafntinnusker, Laugavegur, Fjallabak
View south from Hrafntinnusker

 

Each time we transferred between huts, those parts of the Lagavegur we walked again and again became shorter.  Complacent and spoiled, we began to take detours. I was confident now. Between Hrafntinnusker and Landmannalaugar, half-melted Háalda gave us a view to the West.

 

Háalda, Fjallabak
Háalda
Háalda, Fjallabak
View north from summit of Háalda
horses at Landmannalaugar, Laugavegur, Fjallabak
Landmannalaugar

 

In August, we'd saved some days of holiday for an adventure before the weather turned too cold. Following some trusted advice, we hiked from Landmannalaugar, via Skalli and wound our way down to the valley Jökulgilsbotn (upstream of Jökulgil). 

 

Jökulgilsbotn, Fjallabak
Heading down into Jökulgilsbotn

 

Every rock in Iceland was lava. A friend told me that, but somehow I can't quite process it. I'm still constantly baffled by the changing colours and textures. We were hunting for Grænihryggur (the green ridge), but it seemed overindulgent to be wanting anything more than what greeted us at the bottom of this valley. In the brilliant sunshine, Hatver looked soft; I wanted to reach out and touch it. 

 

Hattur from Hattver, Jökulgil, Landmannalaugar
Hattur from Hattver
Jökulgilsbotn, Fjallabak
Jökulgilsbotn, Hábarmur behind
Jökulgilsbotn from Dalbotn, Fjallabak
Jökulgilsbotn from Dalbotn

 

Crossing the river and climbing up into the mountains, we chose the wrong path and regretted it. Once again I lamented my worn-away boots as I clung, panicking to the unstable rocks above me as my feet failed to catch any purchase. In the space of ten seconds I went from confident to unable to breathe. Everything around me was threatening to fall away and, gulping like a terminal fish, I couldn't move any further up nor down. I'm ashamed to say that Dan had to rescue me, take my bag and pull me up onto the ridge. Temporarily I felt like that bug again.

 

waterfall running into Dalbotn, Fjallabak
View down from terrifying ridge - waterfall running into Dalbotn

 

Once we were up in the mountains, it wasn't hard to navigate to Grænihryggur... 

 

Grænihryggur, green ridge, Landmannalaugar, Fjallabak
Grænihryggur (unedited, just a little accidentally over-exposed)

 

Further south, we climbed the peak over Torfajökull and were surprised to notice the black criss-crosses and swirling rings of shadow in the glacier. I had not been so close before.

 

Torfajökull
Torfajökull
Torfajökull
Torfajökull
Hábarmur from Torfajökull
View from Torfajökull, Hábarmur on right

 

We walked back in the rain, around the mountains and under the rocky watchtowers of giants. 

 

Sveinsgil, Fjallabak
Sveinsgil
Halldórsgil
Halldórsgil

 

Slowly the map began to shrink. From Landmannalagaur, I walked in every direction; making the most of my breaks and exploring whenever I had the energy. Drowning in ash from Hekla's eruptions, the north and much of the west was lunar, but black with streaks of moss. Further towards Landmannahellir was lush green and fertile. The east was unimaginably colourful and south faded from rhyolite into black and then snow. I used to tell hikers that various routes were my favourite, but really I had no right to choose.

 

Frostastaðavatn from Námsfjall, Landmannalaugar, Fjallabak
North of Landmannalaugar- Frostastaðavatn from Námsfjall
Stóri Mógilshöfði, Landmannahellir
Stóri Mógilshöfði - on the way to Landmannahellir
Brandsgil from half way up Milli Brandsgilja
East of Landmannalaugar- Brandsgil, Bláhnjúkur and Reykjakollur from half way up Milli Brandsgilja
Barmur
Eastern side of Landmannalaugar- Barmur from Jökulgil
South of Landmannalaugar on the Laugavegur
South of Landmannalaugar on the Laugavegur
Laugavegur, Fjallabak
South of Landmannalaugar on the Laugavegur

 

Through September pools of red, autumn leaves, began to decorate the mountains. The cotton flowers were loosing their wispy petals and Vondugil looked more beautiful by the day. 

 

Vondugil from Suðurnámur
Vondugil from Suðurnámur (early August)
Suðurnámur from Vondugil
Suðurnámur from Vondugil (early August)
Suðurnámur from Vondugil
Suðurnámur from Vondugil (late August)
Suðurnámur from Vondugil
Suðurnámur from Vondugil (early September)
Suðurnámur from Vondugil
Suðurnámur from Vondugil (mid September)
Suðurnámur from Vondugil
Suðurnámur from Vondugil (mid September)
Vondugil from Suðurnámur
Vondugil from Suðurnámur (mid September)

 

Far from the usual throngs of mostly foreign day visitors and more serious hikers, one weekend mid-September brought us a different crowd. Dozens of farmers, their dogs and horses came to do the annual sheep round-up. From my bedroom window, it was the wild west with super-jeeps! Dan went to help while we covered his shift. He came back elated - on the verge of collapse. 

 

Sheep round-up, Landmannalaugar
Sheep round-up, Landmannalaugar
Sheep round-up, Landmannalaugar
Sheep round-up, Landmannalaugar

 

After almost enough weeks to turn us into trolls, we finished our work in Landmannalaugar. The last night that Hrafntinnusker was open, we marched through hideous wind, rain and fog twelve kilometres up the Laugavegur one last time to see our friends and clear our heads. Though only the smallest slivers of snow were left, it was hard to look up from the ground. We were lucky enough to sleep inside and the skies began to clear by lunch time the next day.

 

Hrafntinnusker mountain and hut, Reykjafjöll
Hrafntinnusker mountain and hut, as seen from northern summit of Reykjafjöll.

 

Despite needing to catch the last bus out of Landmannalaugar at six, we still had the magic of Jökulgil in mind. We hiked back over Reykjafjöll and Sauðanef, then slowly down into the valley. Once lush, autumn had swept over these mountains. Traffic-light plant matter flowed over the landscape with blueberries and startling moss. We lingered longer than we should have and, cursing the stones in my wet boots, had to stride and stumble Dan-speed the last ten kilometres.

 

No time for lingering goodbyes; we were gone.

 

Reykjafjöll, Hrafntinnusker
Looking east from Reykjafjöll
Sauðanef
East towards Suðurskalli from Sauðanef
Base of Sauðanef, coming into Jökulgilsbotn - view of Hattur
Base of Sauðanef, coming into Jökulgilsbotn - view of Hattur.

 

I also wrote about summer in the mountains100 days of sunlight - Þórsmörk, Goðaland and Fjallabak.

 

 

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