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Iceland 10 May – 20 May 2010

(This article I wrote was published in Estonian travel magazine „Go“ 3/2010)

The reason for going to Iceland was obvious – it was the only country in Europe where I hadn’t yet reached the highest peak (Hvannadalshnùkur, 2110m). I had already compiled the group at the end of the previous year and bought the flight tickets in February.

Naturally, we had no way of knowing in advance that volcanic activity begins on the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. We had discussed the idea that after successfully reaching the highest peak we could in fact also climb another famous volcano in Iceland – Hekla. And we also knew from recent history that Hekla tends to erupt in roughly every ten years, and the last eruption was in 2000, which is exactly ten years ago… We also knew that snow on top of Hekla has recently started to melt faster, which is another sign that hot magma has risen very close to the earth’s crust.

In any case, we saw the news of Fimmvörðuhàls’s eruptions as a bonus, because there aren’t many people who get the opportunity to watch an active volcano at work. Our only concern was disturbed air traffic. Last year, we weren’t able to climb the highest peak of Iceland mainly due to bad weather. Therefore, cutting our already short trip (9 days in Iceland) by an additional number of days due to disturbances in air traffic is not a particularly appealing prospect, because this would considerably reduce our chances of having weather conditions suitable for reaching the peak.

Fortunately, our delay in Stockholm airport amounted to no more than 13 hours (instead of 6 hours, we waited for the flight for 19 hours), and early in the morning of 11 May we touched down in Keflavik airport, shortly after seeing our first ash clouds above regular clouds. On the next day we were already packed in a rented car and heading towards Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland (and the rest of Europe). Because the highest point of the country is located on the southernmost edge of the glacier.

There is one big highway in Island – No. 1, and for the most part it is paved. After the eruption, the locals had dug trenches through the road in four or five places in order to save the bridges on a stretch of road, but by the time of our visit the water level had dropped considerably and the road had been restored. This road took us south from Fimmvörðuhàls to the popular Skògafoss waterfall, which is about 9 km away from the erupting crater. The weather was clouded and for a while we saw pretty much nothing, but luckily the clouds cleared slightly in an hour and we got our first snapshots of the ash cloud rising towards the sky. Then we headed on towards Vatnajökull, and although Icelandic weather forecasts promised an extremely windy and rainy day, we pitched our tent at the beginning of the track and packed our equipment into small backpacks in order to be prepared.

When we stuck our noses out of the tent at 4 a.m. in the morning of 13 May, we saw that we had done the right thing – the wind outside was moderate in Icelandic terms, there were just a few clouds in the sky and a couple of dozen cars and buses had made their way to the parking lot at the beginning of the track. Climbing on glaciers and reaching the top of Hvannadalshnùkur are very popular activities among locals and tourists alike. On that day it seemed that the window for reaching the peak has opened for just one day and all local guides tried to seize this opportunity to make money. There were probably around 200 people hoping to reach the peak that day, and about 160 of them made it.

The track begins at about 30 m above sea level, which means that there is over 2000 metres to climb. According to the guides it is 24 km to the peak and back, and it takes 12-16 hours to cover the distance. Climbers should have the following equipment with them: a rope, harnesses, crampons, ice axes, helmets and also a couple of ice drills, just in case.

The track ascends to about 800 m altitude through a terrain of volcanic rocks, at which point climbers are attached to each other by a rope. This is followed by a fairly gradual ascent up to 1850 m altitude, and then the most tedious part begins – 3 km along a flat glacier until you reach the foot of the glacier’s peak. This is where you can finally attach crampons to the boots, because the last 250 metres of ascent would be quite difficult without them on. I experienced this to some extent, because I had forgot my crampons on a rock when I was attaching myself by a rope and so we (me and my fellow sufferer Aare Hommik) approached the peak with one crampon each.

There was quite a party at the peak, because the weather was rather calm and everybody stayed up there longer than usual. Therefore, we were able to celebrate the culmination of my ventures at the highest peaks of European countries together with about a hundred climbers. A lot of pictures were taken, and we had to explain to other climbers that it’s no worth screaming „Yeeeaaah!“ or „Woohoo!“, while taking a picture, as the sound is not captured anyway. Since our suggestion did not exactly find a lot of followers, we felt compelled to take a sample picture without making any sound.

The ascent to the top took us a little over 8 hours; we stayed at the peak for about 40 minutes and the descent took exactly 4 hours. So, the total time spent on the track was 13 hours. By the way, I collected my crampons nicely from the stone on our way down. Great.

After successfully climbing the highest peak of Iceland I thought that I had already experienced the highlight of this trip. I was wrong.

During the next three days we circled the island and, among other things, we went to Iceland’s  north-eastern most point right next to the Polar Circle, and  visited a couple of world-famous geysers and the powerful Gullfoss waterfall. Iceland’s inland views are actually quite monotonously volcanic and without any vegetation at all. It’s definitely an amazing place for all kinds of volcanologists, geologists and geophysicists but an ordinary mountaineer cannot unfortunately tell a difference between a rock and an unusual rock. That’s why we soon drove back to Eyjafjallajökull. We thought that we hadn’t got good enough ash photos of Fimmvörðuhàls yet.

In the meantime, the area surrounding Skògafoss had been covered with a lot more ash than before and people living in the nearby towns were busy washing ash from the walls and roofs of their houses, our car on highway no. 1 threw up an impressive dust cloud and water in the surrounding rivers had turned rather gray.

Since the wind blew from the north, we decided to approach Fimmvörðuhàls from that direction. The plan was to drive from the west around the glacier until the foot of the volcano and spend the night there if possible, and climb a bit higher on the next day to get closer to the volcano. Seemed like a good plan.

We drove along the river base, where until recently melting water coming from Eyjafjallajökull’s glaciers had been rushing with a destructive force towards the ocean, covering a width of several hundred metres. This had now been replaced by flat black lava fields on the banks of the river, which was still flowing fast but had at least receded to its normal level. Several huge bulldozers were working on the ash field, and large dumpers drove hundreds of times back and forth to the mountain side nearby to bring heaps of volcanic gravel for protective bastions.   We noticed a sign warning us that there’s a lot of ash coming from the sky and the road is flooded by rivers at several places, and after a brief moment of hesitation, we passed the warning sign and went on.

As expected, we soon had to drive right through small rivers and the road was becoming increasingly narrow and uneven. We stopped the car near a Toyota Hilux which was parked on the road side, covered with a thick layer of ash, and tried to guess what it was doing there.  The sky was filled with jet black clouds around the foot of the volcano, and after yet another loud roar coming from the volcano it seemed that getting closer to it would not be the wisest thing to do at the moment. Nevertheless, we continued driving until we reached a river, which was obviously too deep for our Suzuki Grand Vitara. We had made it to the beginning of the glacier where on the first days of the eruption the bulk of the water mass charged towards the base of the valley.

We climbed a bit higher along the moraine berm and took some digital and mental pictures of the dark sky. After capturing the jet black ash cloud and bolts of lightning inside it we started descending back to the car and noticed that the slight drizzle is leaving grey raindrop-sized stains on our clothes. This helped us finally make up our minds about not camping there (we were 5 kilometres from the volcano as the crow flies). To make things worse, the dark cloud was getting wider and hanged rather menacingly right above our heads.

And this is when it started to rain heavily for a change. It was raining ash. We jumped to the car quickly and started driving back where we came from. But large blobs of ash on the windscreen didn’t let us get far, since the windscreen wipers cannot be kept working steadily in ash rain. It leaves scratch marks on the windscreen and then there will be no visibility whatsoever. Our solution was as follows. Every time we crossed a river we stopped in the middle of it, and the person sitting on the passenger seat quickly filled a 2-litre bottle without having to stand up from the seat. Then he whacked some water onto the windscreen and got rid of most of the ash. After that it was safe enough to let the windscreen wipers and the car`s own juitces work their magic, and the world was once again as clear as it could possibly be in grey rain in immediate vicinity to the volcano. But this only lasted for about three hundred metres, by which time the ash covered the entire windscreen with an even brown-grey layer, and we had to repeat the entire operation. On a few occasions we managed to drive through the river so that the water splashed onto the windscreen and did all the work for the person with the bottle. We escaped the ash rain in about six kilometres near the abandoned Hilux. Later we heard that there was in fact a larger eruption that night and the ash cloud spread in width as well as length.

That night we slept at a campsite at the foot of Skògafoss, where we were obviously the only campers. The owners didn’t ask us to pay for the night because the locals probably couldn’t imagine that any prissy foreigner would want to camp on and inside this ubiquitous ash.   Our best solution to combat the ash was erecting the tent in front of shower rooms on a wooden terrace protected with a roof. Of course, we had to wipe off the centimetre thick ash layer first.

On the next day we probably got the best shots of the ash cloud heading towards Europe, as the weather was uncharacteristically sunny and the clouds didn’t even cover the entire Eyjafjallajökull. On that day we also drove to the other famous Icelandic volcano, Hekla, and put up the tent in a campsite offering exquisite views to the snowy Hekla as well as the Fimmvörðuhàls ash cloud far away near the horizon.

In the early morning of the following day we drove nearer to Hekla and once again had to ignore a sign forbidding passage. This was because in Icelandic terms, a section of this road is not entirely passable in early spring. But I knew that the road leading to the parking lot at the foot of Hekla turns off the “main road” in just a few kilometres, and hence wasn’t really worried about whether or not the road is passable.

However, it has to be said that the melting snow, which was the result of slowly advancing volcanic activity at the peak of Hekla, had indeed washed away some of the road. On a couple of occasions we had to level the edges of little ditches before driving through, so as not to get stuck. And the final part of the road took us to a snowy slope where the space for making a mistake had diminished to a minimum. It was just enough for us.

The actual process of reaching the peak of Hekla is very easy – for us it took about three and a half hours to get to the peak (current height 1491m) from the car and back. But then again, Hekla is very open to the winds and the ascent is complicated by volcanic ash picked up by this wind slapping fiercely against your face. And, of course, leaving nice dark marks there. Nevertheless, we were very happy, because in all likelihood it soon won’t be possible to climb Hekla at exactly this height. Since Hekla tends to have a calm nature when it erupts, then it tends to grow higher and wider with each eruption.

Flying back to Estonia on May 20, satisfied and happy, we saw from the windows of the plane that the ash cloud had decreased considerably compared to ten days ago. And according to the latest information, on May 23 Fimmvörðuhàls shut its mouth completely. Probably in order for the neighbouring powerful Katla and peaceful (yet regularly active) Hekla to get more attention towards their eruptions.