An Icelandic Saga: Fimmvörðuháls

"There are parts of this trail where if you make a mistake, you will die," the warden at the Baldvinsskáli hut told us cheerfully.

Then she smiled.

"So don't make a mistake."

My friends Jason, Darren, Krystin and Daulton and I were midway through the first day of what we'd planned to be an epic five-day, 82km backpacking trip across Iceland's desolate, beautiful Fimmvörðuháls and Laugavegur trails.

We'd begun at the southern trailhead in Skogar--home of the famous Skogafoss waterfall featured in Game of Thrones and also seemingly every Iceland commercial, ever--at daybreak that morning, and had hiked about twelve kilometres through stunning and rapidly climbing terrain to reach the hut, about 900m higher than where we started.

Darren was sprawled out on one of the hut's mattresses in front of the heater, warming up as a bitter wind howled outside. The rest of us were mowing down our lunches and contemplating the trip ahead--a hike across the mountain pass between the active Eyjafjallajökull and Katla volcanoes, followed by an 800m elevation drop to our anticipated campsite in Thorsmork, 25kms from Skogar.

It was early afternoon, and it had been a long day already. But we were nowhere near done.

These adventures have become a tradition among a certain group of my friends. In some varying combinations of personnel, we've attacked the Golden Hinde and Black Tusk in British Columbia, my home province, as well as Algonquin and Killarney Provincial Parks in Ontario, where the rest of the group lives.

We'd never done a backpacking trip overseas before, and it was thanks to Jay's meticulous planning and preparation that we'd even made it to the trailhead in the first place.

We'd all arrived in Reykjavik the morning before, and after getting our bearings and sorting out our final supplies, we navigated a convoluted bus system--and some fermented shark meat--to make our way overland to the trailhead, some 155km southeast of the nation's capital on the southern shore.

We slept five to a room in the local hostel that night, snoring like caged rhinoceroses and locking ourselves out of the room whenever we left to pee, and altogether too early the alarm was sounding and we were gathering gear and layering up; outside the temperature was in single digits, and we didn't anticipate it getting much warmer.

Fortunately, our weather forecast called for a bluebird day and sun the day after, before things started to shift to rain and wind later in the week. I was trying not to think too far ahead, but I was glad that I'd invested in good raingear and brought warm winter clothes, particularly after a few hikers we met coming the other direction mentioned hiking through blizzards to get across the trail.

For now, though, we had sun and blue sky as we began the climb, up the side of the Skogafoss waterfall and then alongside maybe twenty more. We stopped to take hundreds of photos, of course, and to marvel at the incredible countryside: no trees, just green grassy hills, the river, and tons of wooly sheep wandering free.

After a few hours of a reasonable, if unrelenting, uphill climb, the grass disappeared and was replaced by empty, rocky volcanic terrain resembling more the surface of the moon than anything on earth. It was here, at 900m and in early afternoon, that we reached the Baldvinsskáli hut and paused for lunch.

Our energy (mostly) restored, we set out on the final push to the mountain pass, a hundred-meter high slog through steep volcanic sand that had us gasping and sweaty by the time we reached the summit.

From here the grade evened out, as the trail followed the pass between the two volcanoes and their resident glaciers. The western volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, is the famous one that erupted in 2010, creating an ash cloud that disrupted air traffic over northern Europe, and as we hiked in its shadow we could see plenty of fresh lava and cinder cones amid the snow and ice.

Then it was like the ground fell away before us, and the descent to Thorsmork presented itself, across a vast and incredibly beautiful vista of glacial peaks and river gorges. We had 800m to drop to the campsite, on a steep and sometimes technical trail, and even with trekking poles the descent was challenging.

Jay's knees, which had been troublesome on our earlier Golden Hinde hike, began to bother him again, while Daulton was developing blisters, and Darren's energy was flagging. But the stunning, otherworldly quality of our surroundings, in perfect late-afternoon light, at least provided some comfort as we pressed forward.

At least until we got to the crux.

I'd read a little bit about this section of trail in my preparation, but only in passing, and seeing it in person really underscored the difference in European and North American attitudes toward hiking, and concepts of personal safety.

The crux was about a 50m stretch of exposed trail, much of it on a knife-edge ridge with steep drops on either side. A fall, plainly, would be fatal; this was the section that our warden had warned us about.

Some in our group are afraid of heights; even if you weren't, the traverse was vertiginous. Slowly, and with teamwork, we ferried ourselves and our gear across the gaps, and when we reached the other side and continued hiking we were shaken, exhausted, and amazed that there weren't more serious accidents there.

From the crux, we had maybe an hour left to hike before we reached the first of three campgrounds at Thorsmork, where the trails branch off into myriad day trails and diversions, and as the daylight disappeared beyond the mountain ridges we took stock of what to do next.

There was allegedly a bar and restaurant at one of the Thorsmork campgrounds, but we lacked the energy to find it, and instead pitched our tents at dusk in the first suitable place we could find, settling for rehydrated meals as daylight disappeared and the temperature steadily dropped.

We'd finished our first day of hiking, but there were four days left ahead of us, and I could tell that our team was bagged. Jay's knees had slowed him considerably, and Daulton's blisters were gruesome. Darren was tapped out. So I wasn't altogether surprised when Jay called a team meeting to suggest changing the plan.

There were plenty of day hikes out of Thorsmork, he explained, and a bus back to Reykjavik whenever we wanted to go. We could entertain ourselves here while we licked our wounds, and see as much of the locale as we could without heavy packs on our back.

I knew that the change in plans made sense for our group. But personally, I had no appetite for abandoning the Laugavegur. I'd enjoyed our first day on the trail immensely, both the incredible natural beauty and the challenge the hike presented.

I'd invested so much money in this trip, and so much time and effort over the last year in preparing myself for the hike, physically and mentally, and I knew I would regret it if I didn't see it through.

I knew I'd miss my friends, and it would be much tougher to complete the job without them, but I just couldn't see myself packing it in yet.

So while the rest of the team stayed up to plan and recuperate, I hit the sack early and set an alarm, trying to wrap my head around the task that lay ahead of me, the 57kms of unfamiliar terrain I would be hiking by myself, to reach the fabled hot springs at Landmannalaugar sometime within the next three or four days.

I won't lie; I was a little bit scared.