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Iceland
July 2003
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At the start of our trek, near Hella, the weather was cool and drizzly. Thankfully, things improved. The group consisted of two Icelandic guides, six people from France, and me. Evenings in the hiking huts were definitely polyglot affairs.
A grim landscape, but strangely compelling.
At the higher elevations, snow is ever-present, even in July. The air temperature, however, was about 50° (10° C), perfect for hiking. The hut at center is where we had spent the previous night, warmed by a propane heater and 100-proof schnapps. Climbing out of this valley, we encountered hurricane-force winds, and had to hunker down behind boulders and wait - forward progress was impossible.
The Icelandic terrain is all volcanic in origin, and expanses of volcanic cinders like this, combined with the complete lack of trees, produce a lunar effect.
The upper reaches of the Markarfljót, near Hungurfit.
For the most part, we didn't follow any established trails, instead heading overland to our next destination. The cinders were often covered with a thin layer of moss, which produces a superb walking surface - firm, but with a little "give."
On our way to the promised hot springs, in the valley below.
The colors of Iceland - white snow, black cinders, rhyolite rocks, light green moss. At lower left, a puff of steam is the tip-off that a hot water bath is close!
We find the hot springs.
The first brave soul, to be followed shortly by the rest of us. In the center, this pool was like a hot bath. Closer to the spring, on the right, it was scalding hot.
Our Icelandic guides "bathing" in the slippery blue mud that lined the pool. The tough part was getting cleaned up afterwards. I still have hiking socks with blue stains.
Near the source of the Markarfljót, a river which, by the time it reaches the North Atlantic, is several kilometers wide. Dormant volcanoes are everywhere.
Typical hiking huts. Each hut was usually equipped with a propane heater, a two-burner propane stove, and some stiff pads for the sleeping platforms, but no running water. We hauled water in 5-gallon buckets from the nearest streams. We got a little dusting of July snow later this night.
With Iceland's abundance of glaciers, finding clean running water is never a problem.
Our first view of the Mýrdal icecap, looming above a volcanic landscape. The icecap is over 30 km in diameter, and is a constant visual presence in this area.
Frédéric, Rémy, and Nadine. The French were usually in several layers of fleece and nylon, while I usually hiked in shorts and a t-shirt. Very mysterious.
Our merry band, stopping to put pants, socks, and boots back on, having just crossed the kilometer-wide flats in the background. Knee-high 40°F (4°C) water calls for sandals, shorts, and a generalized indifference to pain.
The Maellifellssandur, a black volcanic desert, which it took us the better part of a day to hike across. The last time the Katla volcano erupted, in 1980, it melted part of the Mýrdal glacier, and this area was under 10 meters of rushing, icy water.
To the right of center, the perfect cone of the Maellifell volcano, rising above the Maellifellssandur. Our red-roofed hut for the night is barely discernible at lower left, as is the Mýrdal icecap to the far right.
Another stretch of mudflats and icy, meandering watercourses to cross.
Nadine and Rémy stopping on a sun-warmed mudflat to regain sensation in their feet.
Guide Jökull, guide-in-training Rachel, and Hanna, taking a break on the warm mud.
Some icy stream crossings were easier than others. This one threatened to suck down Marion and Jökull, and never let go.
Sunset over Alftavatn.
The river that flows through the Eldgjä. The Eldgjä is the dry-land extension of the mid-Atlantic ridge, and is still spreading. We crossed this river four times, each crossing involving deeper, swifter water, all of it bone-chillingly cold.
The last of our stream crossings, and the most difficult. The water was very swift, up to our hips (most of us stripped to our underwear), and so cold that numbness started setting in about halfway across. Great fun!
At the end of the trek, we emerged on the south-central coast of Iceland, in the little town of Vík í Mýrdal.
Vík í Mýrdal's black sand beach.
The Dyrhólaey peninsula, west of Vík í Mýrdal, with its distinctive pierced rock.
The island of Heimaey, in the Vestmann group, seen from the cone of Eldfell, the volcano that erupted in 1973, rising from a flat field, destroying half the town, and threatening to close off the mouth of the harbor. Thirty years later, parts of the cone are still hot enough to melt your boots if you stand still too long.
The remains of old volcanoes on Heimaey, seen from the top of the most recent.
Fishermen's storage sheds on Heimaey.
A member of the Heimaey fishing fleet, returning home.
Two of the six million puffins who call the Vestmann Islands home. They feature prominently on the menus of local restaurants.
The facade of the Hallgrímskirkja, the main cathedral in Reykjavík, just before sunset. The heroic figure in the foreground is, of course, Leifur Eiriksson, the statue a gift from the U.S. The clock in the tower is correct - it's 11:00 p.m.
The organ in the crisp interior of the Hallgrímskirkja. Very Nordic.
The Háteigskirkja, another prominent Reykjavík landmark, under threatening skies.