For this trip we wanted get off the beaten track a bit more and came up with the plan of a walk from the Halaskjol Hut to Landmannalaugar via lake Alftavatn. This would mean we would actually walk part of the Laugavegur Hiking Trail in reverse during the last two days, but as we enjoyed the walk so much in 2011 this was not an issue. The main attraction however was the fact that in the early stages of the walk we would pass through some truly wild landscapes, seeing few other hikers.
Once the trek was completed we would then spend a few days in Landmannalaugar hill bagging, before hiring a vehicle for the last four days and headed up to the Skaftafell area to explore and climb a few hills there.
The bus ride to Landmannalaugar passing the volcano Hekla was again an enjoyable if somewhat bumpy ride. Once in Landmannalaugar we had a three hour wait to catch the next bus to the Holaskjol hut.
The fact we could not get a direct bus to Holaskjol and had to wait in Landmannalaugar was quite handy. Not wanting to carry nine days food all in one go we left four days worth in the container near the campsite. This storage container is certainly worth knowing about and currently anyone is able to leave spare food or kit there. We took the precaution of padlocking the food bag to one of the steel beams, but others simply left parcels or bags with names on and there did not seem to be any issues. You can also buy some basic if somewhat expensive supplies from the little Mountain Mall bus that lives on site during the summer. It even sells beer!
Like last time we booked our bus tickets via the Rykjavik City campsite. The campsite reception will do this for you and it is the same price whether you book via them or directly with the bus company. The reception staffed 24 hours a day and they are extremely helpful and friendly. You can also buy your gas here.
Once on the bus to Holaskjol we soon found out there was a bit of a problem with our planning because the bus stopped off at the Elgja canyon to give travellers the opportunity to walk a couple of Ks down to a scenic waterfall. Unfortunately I had not noticed this was a scheduled stop when planning the trip at home and it meant that we would not reach the Holaskjol hut camping area until well after 7.00 pm. As we had planned to walk to the next hut along the trail this evening it affected our plans somewhat. Despite being a dull grey day the waterfall was worth seeing though.
After getting dropped of at the Holaskjol campsite/hut we all felt pretty knackered after the last two days travelling and coupled with the nice welcome by the warden decided to spend the night there. This meant that we would be adding an extra 6.5 km to the already long 24km day we had planned to the Strutor hut. On the other hand it was not too much of an issue as we were outside of the National Park for the first part of the trek and could wild camp when we felt we had done enough.
Holaskjol to Holmsarbotnar
Next morning I was up just after 6.00am photographing the waterfall about ten minutes away above the campsite.
With the sound of the waterfall reverberating in the narrow canyon and the low dawn light casting long shadows across the moss covered rocks it was a lovely place to be at this hour. On the walls of the canyon water droplets hung like pearls and I wished I had woken Moira to come up here with me. I knew of course we would be walking this way later, but the light of a rising sun is so transient the scene would be lost long before we returned.
By the time I got back to the tents everyone was already up grabbing a brew and packing the kit ready for the off. Once away we headed past the waterfall again and then onto an old lava field alongside the Syori-Ofaera river. This undulating trail would eventually take us to a river crossing before swinging away from the river and leading us to the small lake of Alftovotn.
Weather wise despite the heavy rain of previous days things were looking pretty good and it was warm and sunny for the most part. Occasionally a damp sluggish mist would drift along the valley, veiling the mountains and giving the landscape a silent and somewhat eerie feel.
It wasn't a problem though and we soon reached a place where the river cut across our path.
The river at the crossing point was fairly wide and while it only looked to be thigh deep at most, it was running very fast. Worryingly some thirty metres or so downstream the sound of a pretty substantial waterfall could be heard. Graham had a walk along the riverbank and confirmed it would probably be the end of anyone who lost their footing and got swept away. If the fall didn't finish you the narrow canyon the river was forced through certainly would.
Looking upstream the river was hemmed in by steep cliffs so the choices were limited. Having recovered more bodies than I care to remember from various rivers and streams in the UK, I have to admit that crossing rivers in situations such as this makes me somewhat apprehensive.
A thigh deep river may not look much, but anything fast flowing above mid-calf height carries a fair bit of risk and I certainly don't subscribe to any of the macho crap I hear about people crossing chest deep glacial rivers, getting swept away and then battling their way to the other side. The fact is once you lose your footing with a backpack on in fast flowing cold, or glacial water you are unlikely to recover and get back on your feet. Even once the pack is jettisoned the pressure of the water will soon carry you away and with water this cold you will within a few seconds be in serious trouble.
These concerns aside we made the judgement that we could get over safely and with backpack straps loosened and poles lengthened we set off. As expected the water was bitterly cold and the current strong, but with minds focussed by the nearby rumble of falling water we all soon reached the other side. Despite only taking a few minutes my feet and calf muscles were extremely painful and within a few minutes I felt physically sick ,dizzy and very cold. Nobody else seemed to suffer as bad as this and I wondered if I was just being a wimp. Later in the day Graham would also suffer with this problem, which we thought might be as a result of peripheral shutdown in the lower legs. On the other hand apart from the pain the ladies did not experience anything like as bad, I put this down to their already icy hearts ;o) Moving on it took the better part of twenty minutes walking before I warmed up and felt ok.
Fortunately by this time the mist had lifted again and we enjoyed a pleasant walk to the small lake of Altavotn (not to be confused with the lake of Alftavatn) where there is a small mountain hut.
The hut is in a wonderful setting somewhat reminiscent of the North Pennines and has only recently been refurbished. The similarity with a UK mountain hut it has to be said ends with the setting. In contrast you have to pay a charge for using this hut which had all the mod cons of outside flushing toilet, cooker, stove, fire extinguisher, wine glasses and crockery. It was also clean and tidy and although we never saw them, the guitar on the table coupled with the fresh food and beer suggested someone was currently staying there.
After a short break we set off and just as the mist started to creep down the hillsides we came to a 4x4 track. This was followed until we met a wide flood plain surrounded by green steep sided mountains and dotted with a few sheep. Here we left the track at right angles and it was at this point we started having problems in trying to locate two tarns the route was supposed to pass between. Typically at the worst possible moment the mist came down completely and we were forced to use a compass bearing. We paced out five hundred metres and eventually met another river to cross. The river fitted the map, but even with the mist we should have spotted the tarns by now. Worried we were off course we were loath to cross the river and decided to carry out a reccy upstream. Nothing found we used the GPS to double check our position. This showed we were definitely where we thought we were and clearing visibility saw Graham doing a Merekat impression on the only bit of high ground - a ten-foot high lava hillock. No tarns were visible, but on the far side of the floodplain we could see the stream we needed to get to entering from the higher ground. This fitted with the map and we took another bearing just in case the mist came in again. It did not help of course that we have had a lifetime of working with 1:50 maps and using the Icelandic 1:100 maps meant that everything was, as you would expect, twice as far away and took twice as long to get to. This caught us out several times especially when we were able to make the map fit when it really didn't.
The river crossing was cold, but fortunately not too deep or fast flowing and once we got dried we were soon striding out across the flood plain under a clearing sky. The sky to the south it has to be said still looked threatening, but by the time the clouds got to our valley they seemed to dissipate. Enjoying the increasingly far-reaching views we were soon able to see where the path left the valley next to the stream.
Time was flying by and after a short rest and a bite to eat we started the climb out of the valley. With the increase in elevation we could now see why we had problems finding the tarns. Winter floods had swept over the braided floodplain and had filled in the hollows where the tarns were with stones and volcanic debris. Close into the edge of the floodplain where it met the lower part of the mountain we could now see another track that was not marked on the map. Had we know it existed it would have been an easy wander. As it was we had wasted the better part of an hour in trying to find the tarns and in negotiating a trackless way across. Still at least we knew our navigation was up to it.
Despite the minor difficulties we were in good spirits and happy the sun was shining. Later this became something of a mixed blessing and as we made our way up the hill the sun beat down relentlessly forcing us to stop regularly for a breather and to take on fluids. As the hill flattened out and with jagged peaks blocking our way, the path soon swung away from the Syori-Ofaera River. As the sound of the river receded the heat seemed to multiply even more and after an increasingly hot and sweaty slog over ground that offered absolutely no shade whatsoever, we eventually came to a col.
The view ahead was affected by heat haze, but we stood for a while in the breeze trying to take in the scale of it all. It is not enough to say it was wild, breathtaking, or awe inspiring - or for that matter, any of a number of words one might be tempted to use. It was of course all those things, but it was also desolate, unforgiving and intimidating. It made us feel small and insignificant and reinforced the fact that this landscape needs respect.
We loved it though and were soon heading into a long steep sided valley where the Syori-Ofaera River reappeared on our right. To the left an undulating wall of snow braided black mountains rose and fell for several kilometres, their lower slopes littered with large black boulders. Ahead the Torfajokull volcano and its satellites blocked the view. It was hard to make progress there was so much to see.
The faint path initially stayed well above the river but after several kilometres the mountains on the left forced us down into the valley bottom. At times it was wet and boggy especially where melting snow from the mountains flowed into the river. A couple of these streams had to be waded, but eventually the river turned north and we peeled away heading towards another low col we assumed would lead us onto the Holmsarbotnar flood plain.
We never reached the col and instead the terrain forced us rightwards and we drifted up and down a series of low energy sapping hills. There was no true path as such, but the line of least resistance eventually led us to a signpost. This was the first one we had seen all day and we spent a few minutes hovering around it like moths to a light.
The place names all pointed pretty much in the directions we expected them to and heading in the direction of Struttsskali we made our way across the hillside to where the ground dropped away.
Here we were rewarded with an elevated view of the Holmsarbotnar floodplain. Clearly there was much more water than normal with over a third of it being taken up by a large lake into which a multi braided wide glacial river flowed. There was no clear sign of a track but at the base of Torfajokull we could see steam rising from the hot springs at Strutslaug. Keeping high to avoid the flooded bits we made our way towards them. It was just after 7.00 pm and our spirits were lifted somewhat by the thought of something to eat and a soak in the hot springs. We even entertained the thought of camping if it was possible.
The springs were a lot farther away than we appreciated (that scale thing again) but as we got nearer we noticed someone had already pitched a tent. Getting to within a hundred metres or so, a low rumble could be heard and as we got closer we realised a substantial fast flowing milky white glacial river blocked our path. It had eroded a deep channel, which would explain why we had not seen it from a distance. It was impossible to cross at this point and we stared forlornly at the other side conscious of the fact the whole area on our side of the river was made up of boulders and there was certainly nowhere comfortable to get the tents up. In contrast the other side of the river was lush grass and soft moss.
To say we were disappointed is an understatement. It was now after 8.00pm and thinking we would soon be setting up tents I had not bothered having anything to eat or drink for ages. It was a daft thing to do in hindsight but at least this could be put right easily so we had a decent break. Working our way downstream for several hundred metres Graham spotted a likely crossing point. It was not ideal being around 75m wide but it at least offered the respite of several gravel banks where we could get the feeling back into our feet.
Again within a few paces of setting off I was gasping with pain in my feet and cramp in my calf muscles. It was agony and sad as it may sound I was heartened by the fact the others were complaining too - even the ice ladies. We had to make several detours and backtrack on one bit where the water was too deep, but eventually we all made it across. This time it was Graham's turn to suffer and as the cold blood was released from frozen legs he sat there grey faced, feeling sick and shivering with cold.
The temperature had also dropped significantly and as we were now so far downstream it was not worth turning back to the hot springs, instead continued heading across the plain towards the track which would we hoped would lead us more easily towards the Strutor mountain hut.
Despite going at a steady pace and having regular breaks it was clear that the long day had taken its toll and we were moving at a snails pace. It was time to find a camping spot. Another river crossing made the decision for us and despite being an easy one there was nowhere to camp on the black volcanic slope on other side. Instead we pitched close to the river with a crossing first thing in the morning to look forward to.
Looking at our watches after setting up the tents we were shocked to discover it was actually 10.00pm. We had been on the go for nearly 14 hours.
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