I apologise in advance as this is an incredibly photo-heavy post.
I have always been a big believer in adventures and pushing yourself to the limit to see just how far you can go and in the summer of 2014 that’s exactly what I did. A small group of us packed our bags and headed to Iceland to hike the popular 55K Laugavegur Trail, sleeping each night in very basic (and rather unglamorous, though tremendously fun) huts on the sides of mountains and volcanoes.
Before this trip, I had never walked with a big rucksack on my back (and rather naughtily hadn’t done any targeted training for this adventure either). Within the first 15 minutes of walking on the first day, I was in agony. My little weak back was not liking its new guest and internally I was struggling immensely. My internal dialogue by this point was quite defeatist and I honestly could not see how I would cope with the rest of the trip, let alone the rest of that day. The first day was a day of ascent, we climbed approximately 530 metres quite rapidly and I would guess this is what contributed to my negative frame of mind – as you’ve seen in previous posts, I hate hills and any kind of ascent. Luckily we stopped for a quick snack break an hour and a half into walking which gave us all a chance to refuel and meant that my now-husband could readjust my rucksack. Everyone could see I was struggling and before I knew it I had the whole of Team Iceland pulling various straps on my rucksack to make it a bit more snug. The fiddling paid off and I felt a lot more comfortable by the time we set back off. The rain had also stopped by this point and we had a mixture of clouds and sunshine as we completed the rest of the first day.
The scenery changed dramatically on this first day, which is typical of Iceland. We started off climbing very steep mossy mountains and soon found ourselves surrounded by hot springs and ice-topped fells. We had to cross lava flows and shallow glacial rivers, and soon enough were crossing our own snowy landscape as we grew closer to our first hut at Hrafntinnusker.
I woke up on day 2 feeling very good indeed. Despite not having the best night sleep (sleeping in the same room as 30 other people in a hut situated on a volcano makes for a very uncomfortable temperature!) I was surprised to find myself feeling really alert and refreshed at 7am when everyone else started rustling their sleeping bags and preparing their breakfasts. Stepping outside the hut for the first time that day was really lovely – we were surrounded by snow-covered mountains and everywhere was so serene and quiet. I am the type of person with a very busy mind, but in that moment I took a deep breath and just absorbed my surroundings – I felt peaceful and so disconnected from back home (it helped that there was no electricity or wifi in the huts as it meant you could really escape the real world).
An hour or so later we were all kitted up and ready to start the next stage of our hike – it was another day of ascents but I felt prepared this time round, especially as I knew there would be some fun descents towards the end of the day. I was feeling very strong mentally and thought that after the previous day I could cope with anything thrown at me. A lot of the time it really is mind over matter.
We started off climbing glaciers and snow covered mountains again, which I soon realised was my favourite kind of landscape as it all looked so magical. Feeling so strong, I was marching ahead with confidence for the majority of the day. We stopped for a few trail-mix breaks to keep energy levels up, and had some hair-raising descents down loose volcanic cliffs which I really enjoyed due to my lack of fear and ability to just run down some instead of carefully watching my footing. We also had our first proper glacial river crossing which wasn’t anywhere near as deep as we had been expecting – in fact, all but one of Team Iceland managed to jump on rocks to cross it, rather than rolling up trousers and putting our river shoes on. We covered ground very quickly on day 2 and before we knew it we could see our next hut beside a beautiful lake about 5K away. At this point we were at the top of a mossy mountain and the sun was shining so it seemed like the perfect time to stop for lunch. Bearing in mind we were carrying our food for the 5 days in our rucksacks (along with sleeping bags, technical clothing, toiletries, emergency supplies, wet kit etc) we had to meticulously plan our meals to provide the highest amount of calories for the lowest amount of weight. Lunch each day was two slices of pumpernickel bread with two slices of cheese, which I must admit was thoroughly delicious and even made me look forward to lunchtime each day.
After our short lunch break, we made our descent and continued the walk for another hour and a half until we reached our hut in Alftavatn mid-afternoon. This hut was significantly better than the previous day as it had showers, so we all spent the afternoon preening ourselves and having a thoroughly good wash before sitting in the sunshine with hot chocolate whilst gazing out at the stunning lake in front of us.
On day 3 we woke up to strong winds and particularly bad rain. The warden of the hut advised us not to start the third day of our adventure as the weather was forecast to grow even worse by lunchtime – and a few trips outside, where it was difficult to even stand up straight, soon proved that we needed to have a relaxing morning and then reassess a little later (especially as we had one of the longest days of the hike ahead of us and the hike is notorious for people dying during bad weather).
Eventually, Team Iceland packed their kit away and set off for the next part of the adventure – fairly close to the starting point was a river crossing which was much deeper than the day before and required a change into river shoes. The hike this day was a lot flatter than what we had experienced in previous days, and much of it felt like a lunar landscape – for most of the day we were walking through a boulder-strewn ash valley, which certainly was not easy and seemed to go on forever.
After a fair few hours of walking we knew our next hut at Emstrur was close, so decided to detour down to the stunning canyon of Markarfljatsgljtifur. Luckily the warden’s warning of treacherous weather did not quite materialise and the wind calmed down enough to make walking a little easier, however the sky was black all day which made the last section of that day seem particularly arduous.
Despite a few niggles and pains in my body, I knew how close we were to the finish and was determined not to give up.
And so we had finally made it to day 4 where we would be hiking from the basic hut at Emstrur to the volcano huts at Thorsmork, which were also home to a sauna and thermal spa pool, plus a restaurant, electricity and wifi! This was the day I was looking forward to the most (and not just because I had the prospect of being reunited with society that night – actually, I really enjoyed being switched off from everything), but looking at the map and the accompanying description of this section of our adventure it sounded the most technical and really fun.
The day started off with another glacial river crossing almost immediately, but again this was one that most of Team Iceland could do without having to change into river shoes if you could find the strategically placed boulders in the water. We then had quite a lot of climbing to do during the first half of the day, which I have to admit I was pretty sick of by this point as each time I thought we had finished the ascents, another mountain just popped up in front of me. My body was also quite tired by this day and required a lot of snack stops to sustain my energy levels. Within two hours of starting the walk, we had clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine – the temperature soon increased too and we were all forced to start stripping various layers from our bodies – this was something we hadn’t expected. The landscape changed dramatically that day, what started off as rather lunar and volcanic as we hiked past Hekla soon progressed into something that felt like an Italian meadow.
This again was one of the longer days of the hike and we were all quite pleased to find a nice area for our pumpernickel and cheese at lunchtime in the sunshine – my husband and his brother even had a nap after eating as none of us were in much of a hurry to move. Our lunch stop was about three quarters of the way through the day so we were all quite pleased knowing that the volcano huts were just a few miles away, we eventually packed up our things and set off on the final stage of the day which took us through what seemed like a wonderful Mediterranean landscape, before arriving at a very steep climb which we were not expecting. This was tough and I noticed myself complaining a lot – I think I was overheating, slightly dehydrated and just generally exhausted by the time we arrived at the foot of this climb, I knew my CamelBak was running out of water and I just wanted to close my eyes and magically arrive at our destination. However, deep down I knew that all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. I made it to the top, and then started a huge descent down to our final glacial river crossing – all throughout the hike the river crossings were more of an inconvenience than anything else, the rivers were freezing and so it was a pain taking shoes and socks off, rolling up trousers etc. Arriving at this crossing I was excited – I knew it would be a chance to cool off a little and also knew that it meant we were only about 5K from the finish. However, it was a lot deeper than I was expecting and the current was very strong – I took my trousers off, changed into some Nike Pro shorts and began to ford the river. Half way through my river fording, my husband realised that there was no way I would make it to the other side without being washed away due to the current, so with the help of him and another Team Iceland member we huddled up and crossed together as a pack. This seemed to be the most effective way of crossing and eventually all of the members of Team Iceland were on safe ground once again. I was really thankful for the river crossing as it woke me up and left me feeling refreshed.
We all had very little left in us at this point and expected the rest of the walk to be easy, however it was incredibly hilly. Even though the hills were causing me much pain and frustration, it really was stunning – this was the first time in a few days that I had seen a tree, and all of a sudden I was walking through forests of pine trees. They smelt wonderful in the burning heat of the day and really made me nostalgic for time on my little Greek Island.
Finally the volcano huts came into view and we somehow managed to muster up the energy to run towards them. It was a very welcome sight indeed, and soon enough we were all sat around a table with a drink, reminiscing on how great the day had been.
On Day 5, Team Iceland decided to split into two groups – two of the group decided to hike the very challenging 19 miles from Thosmork to Skogar, whereas the rest of us chose to head in the direction of the volcanic town of Vik, with a brief stop at the waterfalls in Seljalandsfoss and Skogar too. The weather was absolutely spectacular on day 5 and we all felt remarkably lucky to have blue skies, sunshine, and 19’c weather. It even meant that we could have an ice cream on the beach as we rejoined society.
The next few days were spent back at a townhouse in Reykjavik, exploring the little city and taking part in tourist-friendly activities. I know a lot of people visit Iceland just to stay in the capital, or to do the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle (on a coach, mon dieu!) tour, and whilst those elements were all great, I found my favourite part of the trip was scaling the Icelandic landscape and seeing just how much I could achieve. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested.