Where is the Where? Hiking to the Horizon in Iceland
Story and photos by Lea Aschkenas

After booking a trek in Iceland through a company whose website is mostly in Icelandic, the group's planner finds bad karma coming back around on the steep and snowy mountains.

When I was younger and would invite friends of varying fitness levels on hikes and runs and bike rides, I had the bad habit of telling them that we were nearly done when, in fact, we had multiple miles left. Some friends found this funny. Some found it frustrating. One, in particular, found my deception so repulsive that she threw up after finishing a 10K footrace that involved climbing seven hundred stairs, a race I'd convinced her wouldn't feel nearly as long or as strenuous as it sounded.

I learned my lesson after this incident, and ultimately became so conscientious about not downplaying distance or difficulty that as time passed I almost forgot how deceitful I had once been. But then this past June, a full twelve years after the race disaster, it all came back to me along a remote stretch of wilderness in southwest Iceland. It was here, on a two–day trek across tundra and moonscape lava fields and crumbling cliffs skirting steep glaciers, that I finally got my comeuppance.

I went to Iceland with my friends Jean and Rick, a couple I'd met shortly after my duplicitous phase. Having always known me as a trustworthy hiking guide, they left it to my discretion to find a trek and an outfitter in Iceland.

I came across the Utivist hiking club in my guidebook, so I was surprised to discover that the majority of trekking information on their website was only available in Icelandic. But, through a series of emails, I was able to find out the price and date of the trek, as well as the names of the huts where we'd be sleeping. I also learned that on our first day, we'd be doing a night hike—from eight until midnight, when there would still be plenty of light in this land of all night summer sun. On our second day, we'd hike just two hours. What I didn't know, though, was the length of the hike or the conditions of the trail. But I did have a vague memory of one of the Utivist guides emailing me that it wasn't too strenuous and, as friends of mine had done with me in the past, I believed her.

At five on a Friday evening, we met up with our Utivist group at Reykjavík's BSI bus terminal and did our introductions onboard. There was our guide Sylvía who said she didn't speak much English but would get translating help from her friend Kristjana, an outdoorsy white–haired woman who told us she'd been hiking with Utivist for nearly two decades. Karl was a tall soft–spoken Icelander; Nigel, a middle–aged bearded Brit; Sigrún, a short–haired blond Icelandic woman with a sweet, shy smile; and Kate, a tall New Zealander who switched seamlessly between Icelandic and English throughout our ride.

Skogafoss waterfall

Pain on the way to 1,100 meters
After three hours of spinning past bright green moss–covered mountains, we disembarked at Skógar where our group split in two. The foreigners clamored to get photos next to the towering 200–foot high Skógafoss waterfall while the Icelanders, who'd all done this trek before, pulled on their wool hats and adjusted their backpacks.

When Sylvía suggested we get going, I realized I had been so entranced by the thundering spray of Skógafoss that I'd failed to notice the steep, winding scar that cut through the mountainside to its right.

It was a trial–by–fire start that left Jean, Rick, and I panting by the time we reached the top, directly above Skógafoss.

"Wow, that was steep!" Rick said to no one in particular. And then, to Sylvía, "What's the elevation of tonight's hut?"

"Eleven hundred meters," she said.

"Wow!" Rick repeated as he turned to me and Jean. "That's more than 3,500 feet." Rick paused as if making some more calculations. But instead he just posed a question. "What elevation did we start from?"

Sylvía, who now looked confused, turned to Kristjana, and they consulted in Icelandic.

"We started at sea level," Kristjana said.

"So we'll be hiking eleven hundred meters in just four hours?" Rick asked.

Now, in addition to Sylvía's confusion, Kristjana looked concerned. Once more, they consulted in Icelandic, and then Kristjana turned to us, smiling encouragingly.

"Well," she said. "Maybe a little more than four hours."

As we hiked, Sylvía threw out details about the trek, with Kristjana translating—there would be 23 more waterfalls along the trail; a footbridge up ahead had been constructed several years ago after a strong river current sent a hiker downstream, never to be seen again.

Kristjana had appointed herself our end–of–the–line hiker to, as she put it, "make sure no one gets left behind." I appreciated the vague use of "no one" as it soon became apparent that if anyone were to be left behind it would be me, Jean, and Rick, the out–of–shape Americans.

Fortunately, we took multiple dinner breaks during which Jean and Rick and I attempted to recoup our energy by gorging on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The Icelanders and Kate, a university researcher who had spent enough long stretches studying the Sagas in Iceland to have acquired a taste for the country's cuisine, dined more delicately on sandwiches of hangikjöt (sliced, smoked lamb) and hverabrauð (dark rye bread) with sides of dried haddock chips called harðfiskur. We all quenched our thirst on icy cold river water that ran so pure it needed no filtering.

At midnight, after dinner break number three, Kristjana conceded that the hike would probably take close to six hours, putting us at the hut at two a.m.

Iceland landscape

A cabin far away
Earlier on in the trek, we had passed several runners, but after dinner break number four, we had the mountain all to ourselves. We hiked on into the deep night that looked and, with no sunset–induced drop in temperature, felt just like day. The landscape, though, grew gradually darker, transforming from lush green valleys into stark and rocky lava–covered terrain backed by snowy peaks.

At two a.m., there was still no cabin in sight.

"Don't worry," Kristjana attempted to console once more. "I know where we are, and I am sure that we have no more than two more hours left. Maybe," she added with a cheerfulness that didn't help the situation, "maybe we have even just another hour and a half!"

At this point, I was too tired to respond, which was probably just as well as I was afraid I might yell if I did. Instead, I tried to comfort myself with the thought that at least we were getting the harder, longer hike over with on the first day. But then, recalling the hour, I realized that the second day had already begun.

The wind swirled around us as we continued on, and I moved robotically, my eyelids heavy and my backpack weightier with each step. Soon we came to a stretch with snow so deep it not only slowed our progress but also obscured our footpath, now marked by a series of protruding yellow posts.

A little before three a.m., Kristjana pointed to a dot on the distant horizon and, as I imagined many a mistaken North Pole explorer before her had done, proclaimed, "There it is!"

We trudged on in the direction of Kristjana's finger until finally, at ten minutes to four a.m., we reached Fimmvörðuháls. It was a lonely windswept hut with peeling alpine green paint, and I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. Inside, the soft geothermal heat swirled around me, and I peeled off my gloves and hat, pulled off my shoes, and collapsed into a corner bunk, mesmerized by the view from my window. Below the cloudless blue sky, the landscape was a black and white photo—all lava fields and ice. How fitting, I thought as I drifted off to sleep, that NASA chose Iceland as the training ground for its trip to the moon.


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