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An Icelandic Saga: Hrafntinnusker

"I would kill a man for an orange," I thought, as I sat shovelling yet more trail mix into my mouth amid freezing rain and sulphurous mist, somewhere in the volcanic wasteland.

Back home, fresh fruits and veggies are a staple of my diet, but since I'd arrived in Iceland to tackle the Fimmvörðuháls and Laugavegur trails I'd been subsisting on energy bars, dehydrated mountain meals, peanut butter and the aforementioned trail mix.

I was roughly 18kms from the trail's end at Landmannalaugar, and I was ready for a civilized meal, some clean clothes and--oh yeah, a dip in the hot springs that waited at my destination.

I ate another handful of trail mix, stuffed the bag in my jacket, pulled on my toque and my ski gloves, and hoisted my pack back up onto my back.

And then I set off again, into the mist.

I hadn't set an alarm the night before, when I'd passed out in my tent on the shores of the beautiful Alftavatn Lake just as the sun set over the mountains beyond.

I'd hiked 33kms by myself that day, and 25kms with my friends the day before, and that left me with only 24kms to go before Landmannalaugar, and three days to cover the ground.

There was a hut and campground midway between Alftavatn and the end of the trail, on a mountain called Hrafntinnusker (I never figured out how to pronounce it, either), and I figured I could split the remaining distance in two, camp at the midway point, and buy myself a day at the hot springs on the tail end of the hike.

The 12km stretch from Alftavatn to Hrafntinnusker was reportedly the toughest on the trail, with an intense 500m elevation gain and wintry alpine weather year-round, but I was confident I could cover the ground easily, even without an early wakeup call.

I woke in my tent, for the first time, at 0500hrs.

"Just a little longer," I thought. And the next time I opened my eyes, it was 1030.

And rain was beginning to fall.

The campsite had been crowded the night before, but I was the last man standing (or sleeping) that morning. Worse, the weather report tacked up at the hut called for moderate showers that day, and worse weather the day following. It was cold and wet already, and I had to climb a mountain.

I hopped to it.

Hurriedly, I packed up my tent and belongings in the wet, and after a few minutes of confusion trying to find the northward trail head, I set out in light rain over flat ground toward a high ridge of mountains in the distance.

The first three kilometres were quite easy, mostly road or gently undulating trail. Then came a river crossing, which was advertised at the hut as needing to be waded through, but I managed to hop across on rocks without needing to pause to get my water shoes on.

I met a few travellers in this section, including a Frenchman who'd hiked the entire length of the country, north to south, and who warned me there was bad weather waiting for me higher up in the mountains.

Almost immediately thereafter, the trail began to climb, and climb steeply, up the side of that dramatic wall of rock as wind buffeted the trail at my back, and mist swirled forebodingly.

It was beautiful and otherworldly and also damn exhausting, and I was grateful for the many photo opportunities and groups of Canadians coming in the opposite direction, who again spotted my Blue Jays hat and wanted to stop to chat.

That mountain climb was the most gruelling segment of the Laugavegur portion by far. I feel like I gained most of the day's advertised 500m of elevation within about an hour of hiking, and when I got to the top the air was noticeably colder, the wind bitter, and the environment completely alien.

It was rock, bare rock, and volcanic ash and mud. Here and there sprang sulphurous clouds from the ground, billowing along the trail and into the low clouds. The trail flattened out, more or less, though it still rose and fell and circumvented nubby volcanic mounds, and the side of what I assumed was a vast glacier, disappearing into the mist on my right.

I paused up there for the trail mix, which for all of my complaining did restore my spirits (the secret is adding chocolate covered cranberries :) and I set out again over a flatter plateau and some snow, just about everything ash black and featureless.

It was surreal. It was as though you were hiking through the vast tailings piles left over by some impossibly gargantuan alien mining/smelting operation. The land seemed hostile and ruined and like nothing I'd ever seen before.

I hiked for some time, without any real concept of where I was on the trail, and then in the distance the mist cleared a little bit, and could see, unmistakably, a roof in the distance.

It was the hut at Hrafntinnusker, my planned destination for the day. I hurried my pace.

The thing about Iceland, though, is the lack of trees makes for great visibility, and you can often see your destination for miles before you actually reach it.

I still had a couple of kilometres and a steady climb to go before I reached the hut, but I got there eventually, just before 1500hrs, and starving.

I had meant to camp at Hrafntinnusker. But when I got there, I discovered the most desolate, inhospitable, windswept patch of ground awaited for me, and I couldn't conceive of spending more than fifteen minutes there, much less fifteen hours, not in the frigid cold and the weather set only to get worse.

I still had hours before dark, and only twelve more kilometres (mostly downhill) to go. And so, after I ate a frigid lunch devoid again of citrus, I hiked up my pack and continued onward, with the thought of the hot springs providing all the motivation I needed.