Day Two: Fimmvörðuháls to Basar (Thorsmork)

Another sunny morning, after a decidedly damp evening: we’re at the Fimmvörðuháls hut, which sits on a ridge between two glaciers, Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull. I am looking back over the ice and volcanic dust that we crossed last night, exhausted. The sea and the coastal plain are off to the south in the distance; the murmur of the waterfalls that we tracked up here is the only sound. The others are in the hut still.

We arrived at about 3am, the sun just rising from behind the distant peaks to the north. It had been a seven hour slog uphill; a spectacular, arduous walk – one of the hardest day’s (or night’s) walking I’ve ever done. By the end, my legs had just about had enough and crossing the last ice-field (which sloped dangerously into a ravine) was gruelling; the last steep ascent up the black ash to the ridge put a cap on it. Sleep came unsurprisingly easily.

I was glad, after considering doing the walk solo, to have had a guide. Both because Leifur is an interesting character and because – certainly before the staked path on from the footbridge – it would have been easy to get very lost as the route snaked beside gorges and their tributaries.

Some of our group are starting to emerge into the day, cheerfully. It’s almost 10am and we are due to set off soon.

 ***

It’s 4.30pm and I’m sitting in the sun at Basar: it’s like a five star holiday camp compared to Fimmvörðuháls, with families and day trippers wandering around. There are showers and no ash. We got in before 4pm, had some lunch and shook out our gear onto our bunks, in the same hut that I slept in at the end of the Laugavegurinn three years ago – it feels a little like a home-coming. It is very much about doing not very much for the rest of the day, and I certainly feel like I have earned it. I ache in so many places, not least my shoulders: by the end, my pack was feeling very heavy.

We set off at around 10.30am (a leisurely start, but again I think we earned it after our late arrival) and headed a little way eastwards along the ridge before dropping down onto the first of many snow fields. This time at least it was snow, not ice, and it was possible to get a little bite under your boots. Myrdalsjokull was above us, Eyjafjallajökull behind us, and – once we had crested the next, lower ridge – a panoramic view opened up ahead of us. Nearby, still everything was black sand and ash-speckled snow.

Soon the steam plumes from the new lava field were visible, then the lava itself, then the first crater, Magni. We walked on until we had crossed the snow skirt that surrounded it and found ourselves on the still-warm sand. Two of the group decided to forego the climb to the top of what I will insist is the world’s newest mountain, but the rest of us trudged up through the sulphurous steam (which was less rich in the aroma of rotten eggs than in other active geothermal areas, but was still distinctly distinct). Below us the steaming lava field spread away, interrupting forever the previous path. Leifur said that already people had started to cross the field regardless, rather than taking the detour, but to me its craggy, fresh blades looked decidedly uninviting.

At the summit, there were magnificent views down to Thorsmork and back up the route of the Laugavegurinn – I recognised the hooded mountain that had so captivated me three years previously. Below us, was the second, smaller crater, whose lava field stretched down to and over a cliff. Both of these craters appeared before the main show, when the big Eyjafjallajökull crater, under the ice, exploded, throwing up anti-aircraft ash across Europe – today, the glacier just gleamed its innocence above us. I picked up a small, loose rock from the summit: it was still warm; very warm – at least as warm as a charcoal hand warmer. Two years on, at the height of Snowdon, surrounded by snow, in a country where 25°C is very warm for summer at sea level, and the ground was still capable of heating loose stones such that they are uncomfortable to hold. I had a moment of awe and marvel at the power of the thing I was standing on.

We came off the crater to the north: more loose sand and ash, followed by a snow bank, before we rejoined Gunnar and Kristrun further down the trail. We paused on a small crag, from which we let the first of the trail runners pass, before we set about descending a very large and very steep snow bank: its name translates as ‘steep snow slope’. I tottered tentatively down it, grateful for my pole, kicking my heels into the mercifully giving snow, while more trail runners helter-skeltered past me.

At the bottom, the moss was back and then isolated clumps flowers, which multiplied as we descended. We were soon at a small gully, the boundary between the slope and a large plateau, named Morinsheidi, or Morris’s Heath, apparently after an Englishman (we decided that since I’d never heard of an Englishman called Morin – it’s a French name, I think – it must be a corruption of something, and Morris seemed most likely). The other part of the name was also suspect: a flat expanse of moss and rocks is not what springs to mind at the word ‘Heath’…

The gully, complete with lava stacks from an ancient eruption, afforded further views of the lava cascade from 2010, where the molten rock had plunged over a cliff edge and down into the basin of a once deep waterfall. The falls were now only half their original height, crashing down behind the lava that was piled, still steaming, into the ravine. The water re-emerged someway down stream from beneath the new lava, which continued some 300 metres along the river course. My admiration of the view was interrupted by the need to navigate the narrow path across. The descent was made easier by a tethered chain (the first of several that day) and then it was a shallow ridge and a sharp rise.

Then the plateau: rocks and sand and moss. A straight flat path cut across it, until we reached the top of the next descent. I waited there while some of the others continued to the end for the views from the cliff top. I chatted with Leifur, secretly excited by the first appearance of Sea Campion among the clumps of flowers that were now much more common.

The vegetation suddenly became more abundant as the path dropped into something like Alpine grassland, dotted with pink and yellow and purple flowers. It was busier too: families trudged up and runners overtook us on our descent. The path staggered at times but it was largely easy coasting. We met up with Kristrun, who has gone on ahead (she had damaged her leg the previous evening and was still finding the walking tough, so had kept her own steady pace). I went on ahead with her until we came to the last major obstacle: the Kattarhryggur, or Cat’s Spine, a tricky and precipitous ridge above Strakagil. I had been on it before, on my spare day in Basar in 2009, and knew that it was testing of nerves and knees. It didn’t disappoint.

Once past that, there was another rope-assisted corner, then relatively easy coasting until we reached the valley floor of the Krossa and the relative civilisation of the wooded environs of Basar. It was only here that I noticed that the birds had been absent since leaving Skogar. In among the little birch trees were tents and tracks and groups of campers, but we rolled on to the huts and lunch and release from boots and backpacks.

A more complete set of photos is here

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2 Responses to Day Two: Fimmvörðuháls to Basar (Thorsmork)

  1. Hannah says:

    Is the Cat’s SPine the worst part of the hike?

    • adeharvey says:

      Hi Hannah
      Depends how you are with edges: it’s narrow and there is some scrambling (but, this being Iceland, their are guide lines bolted into the rock to help at the worst points) but there are two ridges I know in Britain (one on Snowdon, one on Hellelyn) which are more daunting. For me the ‘worst’ point was the snowfield just below the pass, because with tired legs after a long ascent, the slope down to a cliff edge made me worry about losing my footing (I don’t like ice!) But, the Cat’s Spine is quite exhilarating if you don’t get vertigo; something to get past if you do.

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