Laugavegurinn Trek (Part One)

Well, we survived the nasty weather in Landmannalaugar and started our trek a day and a half late. Saturday morning was still grey and drizzly, but the forecast was improving, and it was then or never. With limited time left in Iceland, we decided to complete the 34-mile trek in three days rather than four.

This meant that we tackled what would normally be the first two days of the trek on our first day. We hiked from Landmannalaugar to Alftavatn for a total of 15 miles. Despite the spotty weather, the hike was phenomenal. What did I say about misery being easily forgotten? All the horrid weather of the previous days was quickly minimized as I gaped at the scenery. Within the first hour I was convinced the trek was worth the wait.

We started by hiking through moss-covered lava rocks which varied from rough-and-porous basalt to smooth-as-glass obsidian. Shortly after we started, we caught glimpses of the colorful rhyolite mountains soon to dominate the trail. Rhyolite creates beautiful mountains in the most surreal hues. The colorful, slightly rounded shapes reminded me of the Badlands a bit, though the two areas were formed very differently. The play of shadows caused by the gloomy clouds occasionally penetrated by the timid sun made these gorgeous behemoths all the more striking.

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Rhyolite mountains

Interspersed among the rhyolite mountains were areas of geothermal activity. There were hot springs and fumaroles aplenty, engulfing the mountains in steamy otherworldliness. The smell of hard-boiled eggs that accompanies sulfur hung in the air as well.

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Steam and snow

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Hot springs and glaciers

Just when it seemed that these colorful mountains were ubiquitous, the landscape changed again. We began to see large patches of snow, and soon we had to walk across some of these patches. They varied from blindingly white to ashy grey. It was evident they were melting in places, so I was sure to tread carefully, especially around the edges. None of the snowy patches were particularly steep or treacherous, however. Crampons were not necessary.

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A little while later we found ourselves squelching through the gookiest toothpaste-colored mud as we trekked upward. Day one was our most difficult not only in length but in elevation gain and loss as well. We started by going up and up and up (my preference, actually), and then we went steeply down.

Once we got to the beginning of the steep down section, the landscape had changed once more. The sheer variety of ecosystems on this trek was mind-blowing. At the top of our descent, we got a view of sharp black peaks covered with the most fluorescent green vegetation. I honestly didn’t think such a color existed in nature. The jagged peaks were so dramatic. Mike thought the valley below looked incomplete without dinosaurs roaming about. He said it looked like the valley in The Land Before Time.

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The downward section was poorly graded and was torture for my knees despite the trekking poles I used like crutches. 15 miles is a lot to walk in one day, and you’d be surprised how little biking up mountains prepares you to hike in them. Cross training is fairly useless with these two pursuits. Good biking shape does not translate to good hiking shape. When we finally reached the bottom of the giant descent, I was hobbling a bit. We could see our campsite at Alftavatn in the distance (bandit camping is strictly forbidden in the area), but we still had to limp two more miles before we could collapse for the evening.

When we did arrive, my everything hurt. Knees, arches, calves, shoulders, you name it. After all, we were carrying about 45 pounds in each of our packs. The Hilleberg might be the best tent for surviving Iceland’s weather, but it’s no lightweight backpacking tent. That cargo alone weighed upwards of ten pounds, which I carried since Mike had several camera lenses with him.

Nevertheless, we made it to the camp, which was right next to a lake amongst those rugged black and bright green peaks. We supped on hot dogs with cronions (crispy onions), Tabasco sauce, and ketchup (my preferred Icelandic toppings). Mike is also a huge fan of the Icelandic mustard, but he didn’t bring it with on this trip.

With day one complete (on the third day since we left Reykjavik), we were wiped out but pleased. The trek seemed worth the wait. The weather over the next two days was slated to improve, and with that good news, my spirits soared. As is common amongst Type II Fun Syndrome sufferers, I forgot my discomfort of the previous days and relished the physical exhaustion. Somehow that pain made the accomplishment more sweet. No pain, no gain, right?

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