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Mountaineering: Climb the highest peak in Iceland
By Carol Masheter
| “What would it take to climb the highest peak in Iceland?” I asked. “It’s not hard,” Icelandic mountain guide, Johann Hrobgartsson, replied, “more of an endurance challenge, 2000 meters (6600 feet) vertical gain and back in a day.” It was May, 2015, I was on an Overseas Adventure Travel trip to Iceland. I had just met Johann on a glacier walk near Vik. Back home, I talked about climbing Hvannadalshnjuker on WMC hikes. By mid winter, five other people had signed up.
The Utah Iceland Team arrived at 7 am, May 12, at Keflavik Airport. Michael and Steve had found that renting two small cars was cheaper than renting a single big car, taking the bus, or having Johann pick us up. Along the 150 mile drive to Vik, where we would meet Johann, we admired several fine waterfalls, visited Kerith, a crater formed where an underground magma chamber collapsed, found Bobby Fischer’s grave, bought groceries, and took a break from blowing rain and snow at Kaffi Krus, a cozy bakery in Selfoss.
Renting a country cottage Johann had built was cheaper than staying at Johann’s Volcano Hotel. The cottage's seaward windows overlooked green pastures dotted with sheep that swept down to the sea from which rose a broad volcanic island. To viewers' right, highlands rose above a steepled country church to a massive glacier. While we cooked dinner, sheep bleated, birds whistled, and the sun slid toward a sunset that never ended in true darkness.
For the next few days, the weather was as good as it gets in Iceland — cold, bright sunshine. The morning of May 13 we explored the nearby seaside, first from overlooks, then by walking the beach on sea-rounded black pebbles and scrambling over wet boulders. Walking eastward, on our right fingers of volcanic rock jabbed skyward from the sea; on our left vertical basaltic columns towered. Fulmars, dovekies, and puffins wheeled and landed at their nests on cliff ledges.
That afternoon, Johann picked us up and drove us three hours east to the huts where we would rest a few hours before our climb. Johann changed our start from 4 am to midnight, after he learned that others, including a huge group of 120, were also climbing on May 14. The plan was to start before others and avoid post holing in soft snow during our descent.
After a few hours of rest, we got up at 10:30 pm and drove to the trailhead. In deep twilight we met the other guide, Olafur Thor, and seven other climbers, five strapping, young(er) Icelandic men, Steinar Orri, Victor Berg, Karl Eyjolfur, Bjarni and Erling, plus Johann’s sister-in-law, Kolbrun, and her daughter, Briet, age 20, who had ridden with us.
In good spirits, we started climbing just before midnight in deep twilight. No one wanted to be in front, so I “led,” setting a steady pace up a rocky trail similar in slope and rockiness to West Grandeur. A bright half moon lit the route, making headlamps unnecessary. We leapfrogged other groups up 3000 vertical feet to the first snow field, where we enjoyed slow brightening of the sky from dusky purple to smoky orange. Bands of pale clouds crept between ranges of dark rugged mountains.
At glacier’s edge, we roped up, Utah climbers behind Johann, and seven Icelandic climbers behind Olafur. The terrain was easy, a bit like Pfeifferhorn above the Headwall to the Knife Edge, but much longer. Moving steadily with brief water breaks, we took 3 hours to cross the peak’s wide crater. Huge crevasses stepped down the glacier in repeating arcs on our left. At the base of the summit cone, we dropped our packs, put on crampons, then switchbacked up the final 700 vertical feet, crossing several small crevasses.
The Utah Iceland Team was first on the summit at about 7:30 am closely followed by our Icelandic friends. We celebrated with hugs, fist bumps, and photos with Michael’s American flag and sign, “Hvannadalshnjuker, 2110 m, 6922 feet.” Kolbrun and Briet did impressive summit headstands.
Gazing back across the route, we could see several teams crawling across the crater like ants. The hoard of 120 darkened the far edge of the glacier. To avoid a traffic jam with ascending climbers, Johann took the anchor position and asked for a volunteer to take the front position on our rope, which wound up being me. As a team we safely passed others struggling upward to cross the crevasses and offered them a bit of encouragement.
Recrossing the crater was easy but long on firmer than expected snow. At a rocky patch we spotted a pair of ptarmigans, a male nearly all white with bright red “eyebrows” and a female in subtly beautiful camouflage brown.
After a little over 6 hours from the summit, we returned to the trailhead, grateful to have climbed this lovely peak in such fine weather, good route conditions, and good company. Johann complimented our smooth teamwork and good rope management, high praise from a guide. We celebrated with our Icelandic friends back at Johann’s hotel with a delicious dinner of local lamb, garden vegetables, and ice cream sundaes prepared by Johann’s wife, Margret.
The next morning, May 15, we hiked up to an outlook not far from the cottage to visit some ruins from settlements from the 1700s and an even older Viking grave. That afternoon we drove, then walked, to a local improved hot spring for a well deserved soak.
On May 16, we left the cottage and went our separate ways. Michael, Lana, and Julie snorkeled in dry suits in cold, clear water, where one can touch two tectonic plants at the same time. In Reykjavik I met Sigrun, leader of last May’s trip, and learned she is exploring tourist possibilities in Greenland. The next morning I rode an Icelandic horse through a fantastic landscape of red and black lava crust that had cracked, tilted, and twisted — great habitat for trolls and elves. That afternoon I walked to a local public pool for a swim. Steve and Jim went whale and puffin watching and saw both.
Already, the Utah Iceland Team is asking, “when is the next trip?” Greenland, anyone?
Carol Masheter (organizer and scribe), Lana Christiansen, Steve Duncan, Michael Hannan, Julie Kilgore, Jim Kucera (participants).