I'm preoccupied with autumn. It's not so much the orange leaves, or blackberries between thorns; I'm not a fan of 'pumpkin spice'. No, for me, autumn is the inevitable descent into winter's chaos.
We don't get much snow on Islay—a little, rarely, not enough to block the door—but the storms: the ones that steal your boat and rip branches from the trees; the nights of flying trampolines, when the lights go dead, and we have to read with candles. I shouldn't like them, I know, but I watch the Atlantic forecast, in anticipation, waiting for one to hit.
It was my own fault, I’d done it on purpose. 89 days in Fjallabak; it was quarter of a year, the summer, but for me the season felt short. 25 days on, 5 days off, but often I cut my breaks. Did I really need them? Would the place survive without me? The answer to the latter question, disappointingly, was always yes, but I tried not to think of that.
Landmannalaugar wasn't mine, but I wanted it to be. It’s an unflattering perspective; I’m not proud of that. I had no claim on the place – I cleaned its toilets and took the trash; I spoke to people passing through, but I wasn't in charge of them either. I had no business being possessive, and yet…
Fjallabak is full of ghosts. I've heard their stories: the woman that drowned in the lake, the boy that's scared of the dark... someone floating around in the lava field, trying to find their way
back to the hut through an eternal blizzard. But it's not those lost souls that linger in my mind. Marlene — by her own definition a ghost to me now — once explained that, for her, returning to
this place year after year — to these places in my case, connected but strangely far apart — we're surrounded by the shadows of our transient friends.
Echoes of chatter through mouthfuls of toothpaste, or a shared coffee to delay the tasks ahead. It's not just the people, but the place itself — remember when we could only see the roof? When we were here alone and the light came on by itself? The things we fixed are broken again, and the paint is peeling back off.
The Laugavegur is Iceland's most popular multi-day hike for good reason. Starting amongst the colourful rhyolite mountains around Landmannalagar, the trail climbs up into the snow fields and desolate black rock piles around Hrafntinnusker, before descending into lush green moss and the beautiful lake at Álftavatn. Amongst the mountains, there are several rivers to cross around Hvanngil, before the path leads further south across the black sand deserts of Emstrur – where every tiny green plant looks alien against its inhospitable backdrop. Finally, the trail comes to an end in the lush forests of twisted birch trees around Þórsmörk: a valley at the base of two glaciers.
Firstly, apologies that this post reads as one long lecture about all the things to do, not do and be scared of. I'm publishing it to help readers prepare, rather than as inspiration, but I certainly do not mean to put you off. This will be my fourth year working as a warden along the trail and these are the things that I always wish hikers knew before they arrived.
This information is not official, but just from my personal experience. It is not a substitute for talking to the wardens in the Information Office when you arrive, as there are some things which cannot be checked online. The hike is very dependent on the weather and other conditions on the trail.
It's more than half way through our season in Hrafntinnusker and although you might have some romantic notion of it being quiet or even lonely at the top of the mountain, that really couldn't be further from the truth. I'd been craving a little anonymity; somewhere people don't look at me twice and I can ignore them too. Ironically, it's often easier to find solitude in the city.
I had never seen Reykjavik in the sunshine before. The summer has been full of words and I've run out, but here are some photos...
I'm not going to pretend this is the "ultimate guide" or draw you a map as, having worked there for much of the last two summers, I know how important it is that you talk to the wardens at Landmannalagaur and ask for their most current advice. Please refer to the text at the bottom of this page for information you should know before you arrive.
Being flexible with your timing and working around the weather forecast can make the difference between a great hike and a disaster.
The two most reliable online weather predictions are www.vedur.is and http://belgingur.is (often more accurate for Hrafntinnusker). You should familiarise yourself with both of them. It is good to look some days in advance, but things can change quickly and you should not forget to make a final check just before you leave civilisation. Wind and rain are the most changeable factors which I have focused on here, but you should also be aware of general temperatures day/night, the effects of wind chill and decreasing hours of daylight. Fog comes and goes at will and your only real defence against it is a GPS device.
Always speak to the wardens at Landmannalaugar or Langidalur before you start and in each campsite you visit along the way, to ask their advice about weather and conditions. Up-to-date local knowledge is impossible to find online.
About autumn, haust, in the East Fjords...
Over the last six months, this blog has become a hikers' instruction manual. My "warden" job in the highlands is totally immersive — I love it for that — and there is little space in my brain for any other line of thought. Since we left, I've lost my focus; I've been stuck in my head and forgotten how to write my way out. Those of you who only check this site* will be totally unaware that we have moved to the East Fjords.
*I post photos on my facebook page most days.
Skalli is a marked, 15km day hike from Landmannalaugar. The peak is around 1027m, but the path skirts around it on the southern side. Landmannalaugar is at 550m, so the elevation gain is probably something around 460m. Depending on your fitness, pace and ability, you should allow between six and eight hours to complete the loop.
Unless you have a GPS devise (with the route saved into it), it is only advisable to attempt this hike in good weather and later in season — towards the end of July, August and early September — once most of the snow has melted [and you can see the stick markers]. The wardens in the information center can advise you whether conditions are suitable on any given day, so you should always talk to them before you set out. Don't be disappointed if it is not possible for you to do this hike as there are many other amazing day hikes around Landmannalaugar which are less weather dependant.
Please note the the majority of these photos were taken on two incredible days of sunshine. You would be very lucky to experience such weather on a short trip to Landmannalaugar, but it is definitely worth checking the forecast before you arrive and planning your trip around it.
Strútsstígur is an unmarked path; it is not possible to follow indications or footprints. It is also not guaranteed that you will meet staff working in campsites or even other hikers. It is therefore, vitally important that you are experienced at hiking in Iceland, have a GPS and are entirely self-sufficient. I have added some useful information at the bottom of this article.
2018 was my second Summer in the Icelandic Highlands. My job as a warden revolves around the Laugavegur hiking trail and its campsites.
Passing through areas of colourful geothermal activity; across snow plains; over ice bridges; through vast, black lava fields; and finally down into a twisted birch forest with the view out towards two glaciers – all within 56km – it's no surprise that the Laugavegur is Iceland's most famous hiking trail. It's an incredibly beautiful trek, but for every nine people I've met having the time of their lives, there was [at least] one who hated it. Aside from a defeatist attitude or serious lack of physical fitness, the most certain thing to ruin your hike is the lack of adequate gear. Though temperatures are not that much more extreme than many other places in Europe, the wind can get phenomenally strong, and you'd be very lucky to pass a whole day without having to don your waterproofs.
Before catching a bus to Landmannalaugar (or Þórsmörk), please also read these articles I wrote about how to prepare for hiking the Laugavegur trail and how to read the weather forecast. They include everything else you should know.
It had been five months since we first arrived in þórsmörk. There was nobody there then either; it was a privilege. There were swathes of snow in May, some filling gullies and plenty on the mountain tops. We had it on our tents at one point. The spring flowers, a scattering of yellow and purple, have come and long since fallen to the ground. The birch was golden when we came back, and lime green in parts; yellow leaves decorating the paths.
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.
This is dedicated to all the people who helped form this unbelievable summer. Thank-you for sharing this small/enormous part of Iceland with me; I couldn't have imagined it would be this magical.