27th June 2015: Hlöðuvík to Hornvik (Höfn) (10km), over Skalakambar (310m) and Atlasgard (327m)
It’s 10.30pm and the sky is overcast, so we have retired to our tents. Alex is shouting muffled trivia questions from his, as others sort themselves for the night, moving packs around sleeping bags, trudging for a last visit to the latrine, or to brush teeth, back to the breeze. It has been a hard day’s walk; apparently only 10km, but it felt like twice that. As a consequence, the original plan – to walk around the bay for another 3km to the campsite at Hornsá has been abandoned and we have landed at Höfn campsite instead. In doing so, we have also opted out of the night walk up onto the cliffs at Hornbjarg, but the low cloud (the tops are buried under a thick grey mat) has made that prospect less appealing in any case.
The daunting start to the day turned out to be much less daunting in the execution, but was still hard going. We started out at 10am, leaving Vid to our only neighbours, two Icelanders who pitched up around 9pm yesterday. Almost immediately, there was a river crossing, so the day began in wading shoes. It was a broad river, very cold, and we crossed on the beach, at the top of the surf line. Boots back on, we skirted a grassy path above the beach until we reached a clutch of houses above a landing place, marked by two traffic signs, arranged one behind the other so that boats can determine the safest way in by aligning them from the water.
Beyond the colourful houses, the path rose to meet a waterfall, crossing just below the last full fall. Then the track snagged its way up to a little flat-bottomed cove, set around a tarn that fed the waterfall; above us, the steep walls of the cove hung like an amphitheatre. Our path snaked up above us to the where the strata bared their teeth in cliffs under hanging snow. But there was a problem: Mark’s leg had given way on the way up to the plateau, making such a climb – any climb – difficult if not excruciating. Alex valiantly offered to walk his own pack up to the ridge with Theo, a 180m climb, before returning alone to take Mark’s. It was a feat of considerable stamina and greater generosity.
Following him, the four of us zig-zagged up a reasonable path until the exposed strata, where things became a little trickier (much trickier for Mark), the path picking its vertiginous way through the rocks to Skalakambar. The last 10m of the climb was over loose gravel and a scramble over the cliff’s lip between two cornices, more a summit than a pass. Over the lip, the wind snapped in and the valley behind Haelavik spread out below us, all white and dark grey blotches as far as the next pass, Atlasgard, off in the distance.
Before the first snow field, we bumped into an American couple who had been on our boat. They were essentially doing our route in reverse – they gave us an optimistic account of what was to come, and we described as best we could how to approach Skalakambar from this side. Then we were off across a long stretch of level snow. A rocky island, more snow, more rocks, all under the rising walls of mountains and ridges; behind us, the sea. Blobs of Lambagras appeared in the rocks between the snow.
Another couple, two Germans, gave us an even more optimistic account of the path ahead, alerting us to an ice bridge, a little off the path, that would save us wet, cold feet: the river here was again wide and fast following, but now its banks were cased in snow. The ice-bridge had seen better days and looked precarious, deeply cracked at both ends, its span simply resting on icy hinges, a keystone. In days, it would be gone, but we knew it had been crossed only an hour before and it was marked with fresh foot prints to prove the point. We took our chances, and no misfortune befell us. Before beginning the gradual climb up to Atlasgard, we stopped for lunch in a sheltered spot by the river and a friendlier pool of ice melt. Hidden from the raking wind, it was idyllic.
The path rose, first on a snow bank, then through rocks and stony heath (the Icelandic kind), crossing a few streams along the way. So gentle was the ascent that, by the time we reached the final rise, there was only a 30m traverse to make through loose gravel, but avoiding the snow that filled the rest of the pass. The views back down to Haelavik were stunning, the rivers lacing the valley floor silvered in the weak sunlight.
The way ahead was a short zig-zagging descent onto a gentle grassy valley floor under the jagged ridge of 667m Darri. This was Rekavik, and the meadow revealed the first orchids, along with clutches of marsh marigold, saxifrages and roseroot too, and a hundred more varieties that I couldn’t identify. The path rolled down towards the sea, closing on the river as we reached its end at a beautifully isolated beach.
Driftwood cluttered the beach and the river’s bank, seagulls and swans bobbed it the bay and Harlequin ducks wave-jumped in the surf near the river’s mouth. The water was much less cold than the day’s earlier crossing and much less forceful too: it felt almost like paddling at the beach and we sat and chatted in the sun, watching the ducks as we rebooted.
It was going well: a reasonable path on the brink of a low cliff passed basalt stacks and a striking basalt wall; stacks stood a little out to sea, clustered with seabirds, safe from the foxes. We could see the camp at Hornsá across Hornvik, below the dragon’s teeth ridge of Hornbjarg and there was talk about curtailing the route, camping at Höfn instead: we had made slow progress and the additional 3-4km did not appeal to some. What happened next sealed the question.
The path took a turn for the worse, descending rapidly, rudely, around a gully, before becoming an undulating, narrow, unreliable ribbon. A couple of landslips made things even more interesting, before the path dropped onto the rocky beach. A large spur from the cliffs above blocked the way, but fortunately two ropes had been suspended, one to haul yourself up, the other to slow your descent: it was actually a lot of fun, especially abseiling down the other side.
Once down, we followed the rocky shore for maybe 100m before a thin path appeared in the turf behind the beach. It followed the coast around, sometimes fraying, sometimes even, until the campsite at Höfn came into view. Above the delta that spreads behind the beach at Hornvik, a sand cloud rose on the wind and drifted; the snow on the mountains behind caught the light of the lowering sun. Across the bay, the peak of Midfell, the emblematic mountain of Hornvik, looked on, but the cloud never shook free from the saw-teeth of Dogunarfell, and I had to fill in the omission from memories of pictures.
The party was very strung out by this point – we had largely given up on keeping in eye contact. Each was keen to arrive and used whatever energy we had remaining to achieve that. The path passed the remains of a 19th century turf house, slumping back into its elements. Then I was there. The campsite.
We discussed with the warden (a rare and reassuring presence on Hornstrandir) where we might best pitch our tents; as we did so an Arctic Fox scampered along the grassy ridge above the warden’s hut and toilet block (there is a flushing toilet at Höfn, and two taps – the water still comes direct from the streams, but it felt very much a modern convenience; there was even a picnic bench, although most people chose to sit on the ground or on the tree trunks littered about). By the time we had set up camp and had begun making dinner, the fox was back again, trotting this way and that between the clutches of tents (there were maybe 15 tents in addition to ours but scattered over a wide area) causing excitement wherever he went.
It is midnight now, and the birds are still singing joyously. Tomorrow should be an easier day – just the one pass to get over – and the weather forecast is good.