europe · travel

Trekking in the Land of Ice and Fire

“So, this is how I die,” I sigh to myself.

I stare hard at the long wall of loose gravel, then shoot a look at our guide, waiting for him to say that he was just kidding and that this isn’t a part of the trail. Except that he wasn’t. And yes, this is the trail. A light kick sends a rain of pebbles tumbling down. Yup, that’s a long slide from here.

Geirmundur, our guide, patiently holds my hand as I shuffle slowly sideways, facing the wall. Deep breath, baby-step. No, don’t look down. Deep breath, baby-step. All my wits are funneled into this delicate dance, until we finally make it to solid soil after what seemed like forever. Lucky me, I live another day! And this was only Day 1.

You know you're up for adventure when the wheels of your bus look like this.
You know you’re up for adventure when the buses around look like this. We saw a tiny SUV trying to cross from the other side of the river; I could only shake my head.

Þórsmörk is a long drive from Reykjavik, taking you past the Seljalandsfoss falls (extra treat: you can walk behind it!) and across the ever-shifting Krossá River. Reaching the valley may not be easy, but your persistence will be easily rewarded with great landscapes to explore, as much as a valley surrounded by three glaciers can give.

Mountain goats making their way through the valley
Mountain goats making their way through the valley

One great perk of choosing a tour that wasn’t in the default tourists’ bestsellers list is that you will have the equally-breathtaking routes almost all to yourselves. We hardly met a soul along our hikes; in the Basar hut at the foot of the mountains, we only shared the lodge with a handful of locals and hikers.

Hanging out
Hanging out with Arn, Maria, Andrea, Geirmundur and François

Our own ensemble consisted of only six: Geirmundur, our hardy but genteel Icelandic guide, who reminded me of a detective in a 50’s flick whenever he wielded his pipe; François, our tall and charming second guide from Belgium, who could easily make girls swoon (Belgian or not); Maria, a petite rock-climbing grandma, whose energy you should never make the mistake of underestimating; and Andrea, Maria’s friend from the rock-climbing circle, who has been to adventures in almost all continents. Of course, there was Arn and me — rookie glacier-climbing wannabes who had no idea how serious the road ahead for us was going to be.

And that was how I found myself earnestly praying that I wouldn’t find my end sliding down a wall of pebbles. I still need to have a long heart-to-heart talk with the wildling that made that trail, but for what it’s worth, even at the face of self-preservation, I didn’t have the urge to flee. The mountain was astounding, its natural beauty captivating, all helped by the perfect sunny weather that egged us on. I could not possibly waste such a gift.

“Life starts at 33,” Geirmundur declares unequivocally, upon learning that today was Arn’s 30th birthday.

“Why, what happens at 33?”

“It’s a turning point for you,”

I asked my newfound hero, “Maria, what happened to you when you turned 33?”

A few seconds of silence and deep thought. “Well, my dad died,” More silence. “And oh yeah, I got divorced,” Maria continues.

“Now, why did you have to bring that up, Geirmunder?” Andrea says, half-chuckling.

We move on.

Back at the foot of the mountain, we took advantage of the midnight sun and had dinner out on the hut’s patio. Nearby, a group of junior high teens (who we were sharing the lodge with) belted out both Icelandic and English tunes, as one of them played the guitar. I have a feeling the warden cuts off mobile use and wi-fi specifically for us to enjoy moments like these.

Just as when we were about to have our dessert, the teens asked, “Who is Arn?”, and then launched to sing Happy Birthday to the delight of the very surprised birthday boy. Maybe our 30’s is not doomed to be so dim after all.

The midnight sun makes it a bit tricky to sleep, but it does wonders for waking up early. We get up hours ahead of our intended wake-up call, all set with our game-faces on for the longer, more challenging hike of Day 2.

Meet the Fimmvörðuháls trail — sandwiched between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers, it bestows upon you stunning landscapes, as you make your way to the craters of Magni and Móði. And yes, naturally, you’ll be trekking on volcanoes. Buried under glaciers. And by the way, that’s how you spell E-P-I-C.

Ridge along the Fimmvörðuháls trail
Ridge along the Fimmvörðuháls trail


After negotiating some steep ridges and trails of volcanic rock, we finally reach the plateau, and I feel like I’m in another planet altogether:

Hiking in Þórsmörk with Arctic Adventures

At one point, all I could see is the vast stretch of white, set against the stark blue of the cloudless sky. I am lost and disoriented, and I can’t help but be amazed at how this planet is always capable of surprising me with something new.

Happy camper.
Happy camper.

After a literally breath-taking assault on the steep ice, we finally reach the craters of Magni and Móði, where we could rest our shaky feet. We take out our packed lunch, rest our backs against a delightfully comfortable rock and take in the view of the glaciers. During the hike, we heard a loud clap of thunder that was unmistakably from a glacier cracking. I munch on my sandwich, as I also take in how much of a small speck I am in the great scheme of the universe.

As much as how great the view was from that side of the pillow-rock, what was waiting on the other side was far much better. Vents! We find smoke rising from a small patch of exposed volcanic rock, and we gladly sit on them. I vaguely remember someone mentioning that this very same volcano was long overdue to erupt, but our warm tooshies couldn’t possibly pass up the unexpected gift of heat in the midst of chilly wind at the peak. Life is good.

After a long hike, I was taught the most effective and FUN way of going down the ice --- on my butt.
After a long hike, I was taught the most effective and FUN way of going down the ice — using my butt.

Geirmunder and Francois greet us in the morning of Day 3, and announced that today we’ll take it easy. I was ready for a day of meandering through relatively-flat meadows, tracing the path of the gurgling stream (full of Icelandic-mineral-water goodness) but as with every day I’ve had in Iceland so far, life tends to always throw in a bit of extra excitement.

Crossing the rivers in Þórsmörk
Crossing the rivers in Þórsmörk

Remember the shifting river that I mentioned earlier that our bus had to cross on the way to the Basar hut? Now we had to cross the Krossá River by foot! Arn’s sandals actually gushed away with the current for a few seconds, but he didn’t feel a thing in the ice-cold water.

We tread on, until we reach a bend which revealed a narrower valley, where we were dwarfed by the tall, yellow-green V of the grassy mountains.

As we hop on smooth rocks along the riverbed, I struggle to find a balance between soaking in the grand view and keeping my eyes on the trail so that I don’t fall flat on my face. We eventually come onto the far end of the valley, where the next way to go was up. The river was stronger at this point, and I can hear a loud gush of water. After clambering between boulders and ice, I discover where the sound was coming from — a very welcome treat of a hidden waterfall!

Get through the ice,  and discover a waterfall!
Get through the ice, and discover a waterfall!

Hiking in Þórsmörk

The three-day hike in Þórsmörk was a long, hard journey — it was worth every second. I was utterly blessed to share the trek with incredible people, each of whom sincerely loved and respected the great outdoors. My legs may feel like jelly, my face may get numb from the cold, but I’ll never tire of finding all the great places my lovely feet can take me.

Needless to say, if you’re keen for a hiking adventure in Iceland, I’d highly recommend going with Trek Iceland tours. Click here if you want to view the details for the ‘Trekking Behind the Mountains’ adventure that I’ve described in this post. Depending on your itinerary, Trek Iceland also offers hikes day trips to nine-day trips! Happy exploring!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.