Welsh 3000s and Remembering an old Friend

When I was about ten, my parents along with another family with similar aged kids, decided they should take us tramping (multi-day backpacking for non-New Zealanders). That summer, my parents, my brother and I, along with Graeme and Win and their kids spent a glorious seven days in Nelson Lakes National Park. The next year, we went for ten days, and this continued every summer until I went to university and got a job. Those are, without a doubt, among the most vivid memories of my childhood – being woken up by Keas in the little patch of woodland behind Upper Traverse Hut; crossing the Wangapeka Saddle in torrential rain and hail, with all the rivers in flood; eating sardines on cabin bread for breakfast at Coldwater Creek because it was all the food we had left.

Graeme made a huge impression on me during those summers with his humour, his confidence in any situation, and his evening stories of 20 day trips to the Arawata Valley and elsewhere. I learned about bush-craft from Graeme, how to back-country camp, proper hut etiquette, and how to lead a group and make decisions so nobody got lost or was asked to do more than they could. I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be as confident and competent in the outdoors as I am without Graeme’s influence.

Sadly, Graeme died last week, so it seemed appropriate to dedicate my weekend’s adventure to his memory. Without him, I’m sure I wouldn’t have spent Sunday doing the Welsh 3000’s challenge – summiting all the 3000+ ft peaks in Wales in 24 hours – solo and unsupported, and as a circuit rather than the usual one way trip. Graeme, I think, would have loved the spectacular mountain scenery, as well as the challenge of a really long day out in the hills.

First light on the Crib Goch ridge, with Garnedd Ugain and Snowdon behind.
First light on the Crib Goch ridge, with Garnedd Ugain and Snowdon behind.

I camped overnight between Pen Y Pass and the foot of the Crib Goch ridge so as to get an early start. At 5:30 I was packed up and ready for the first peak of the day – Crib Goch, with it’s tricky scramble to start, and then knife edge ridge with massive exposure on either side. Even at that time it was surprisingly busy, mostly with other people attempting the challenge. The ridge was slow, but after that things sped up with quick ascents of Garnedd Ugain and Snowdon, then the steep descent to Nant Peris, 950m below. After that was the long slow ascent of Elidir Fawr, which I reached four hours after setting off, and where I met up with a group of fell runners. I ran with them over Y Garn, and down to the lake at Llyn y Cwn, then as they headed up Glyder Fawr, I descended to the road at Ogwen Cottage for a well earned sausage roll and a bit of a break before my third big climb of the day.

Y Garn summit, with Pen yr Ole Wen and the Carnedds behind. Five down, ten to go...
Y Garn summit, with Pen yr Ole Wen and the Carnedds behind. Five down, ten to go…

Pen yr Ole Wen was the next peak, but the route from Ogwen Cottage was horrendous, with an indistinct trail, some serious scrambling, and just unrelenting steepness for 700m of ascent. However, from the summit, the whole Carnedd ridge was stretched out in front, with peaks every km or so – at that stage I’d done six peaks in seven hours, but the ridge promised quicker progress for a while. After a short break to recover, I set off again, and quickly reached Carnedd Dafydd, then the long flat ridge to the foot of Carnedd Llewelyn. Since I would be coming back this way, I left that one for the return and traversed around to Yr Elen, stuck out on its own on a side ridge. Then back to the main ridge and on to Foel Grach, Garnedd Uchaf and finally Foel-Fras, my turning around point.

Looking back the way I'd come from the summit of Carnedd Dafydd. Pen yr Ole Wen is directly behind, with Snowdon and Crib Goch on the skyline.
Looking back the way I’d come from the summit of Carnedd Dafydd. Pen yr Ole Wen is directly behind, with Snowdon and Crib Goch on the skyline.

By this stage I was feeling pretty tired, so was only running the gentle downhill sections, but fortunately there were quite a few of them! I returned along the ridge, picked up Carnedd Llewelyn, then dropped off the side to the stream below Ffynnon Lloer and so to the road. That left me three peaks left to do, Tryfan, Glyder Fach, and Glyder Fawr. I decided I was too tired for the scrambling approach to Tryfan, so opted for Heather Terrace and approaching the summit from the South. Unfortunately, tiredness was really kicking in at this point and I missed the main route to Heather Terrace, and rather than going back decided to follow an indistinct track that was climbing in the right direction. This worked, but with a bit more scrambling than I’d planned given my tired legs. Despite arriving at the summit just before 7pm (13 and a half hours after starting), there was still a crowd at the top – I hate to think how busy it must have been earlier in the day! From Tryfan there’s a very steep scree climb to Glyder Fach – I was glad to be going up instead of down – and then an easy wander along the ridge, bathed in the last of the sunshine, to my last peak, Glyder Fawr. 14 hours, 55 minutes after starting I had finished the peaks!

The summit of Tryfan. Number 13 out of 15!
The summit of Tryfan. Number 13 out of 15!

The descent to Pen Y Pass was long and tedious, and my knees were quite sore by then. I finished the loop just over 16 hours after starting. A very big day out, but a challenge that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while conquered!

I thought about Graeme a lot on the way around. He had a big influence on me, and I undoubtedly wouldn’t be the outdoors person I am today without him. I’ll always remember those sunny (and occasionally not) summer days tramping in the New Zealand bush. Thank you, Graeme.

Celebrating on the final peak, Glyder Fawr. Sorry about the picture - there was nobody else up there to take it!
Celebrating on the final peak, Glyder Fawr. Sorry about the picture – there was nobody else up there to take it!

2014 Rab Mountain Marathon

This year’s Rab Mountain Marathon was in the East of the Lake District, in the bit between Kendal and Shap that’s not that often visited. That bit of the Lakes seems to like to borrow placenames from more famous bits, so the event centre was in Borrowdale, there’s a Lord’s Seat and Wasdale made up one boundary of the map. As has been the case (I think) for every Rab I’ve done, the weather was pretty good, with glimpses of sunshine, but cloud down on the tops at times.

This year I was running in the Long Score as a solo again, determined to improve on last year. That gave me seven hours on day one, and six on day two. Unfortunately, it also meant there was nobody to take pictures!

The first day start was in Crookdale, and I planned out a longish but hopefully high-scoring route. I headed up the valley at first and onto high ground to the North of the start. There the controls were in the cloud and I had a couple of small misses with visibility less than 10m. Eventually, after a brief view of the Day 1 finish, I dropped down into Long Sleddale for a 4km road run down the valley before climbing back onto the fells above Staveley, almost in sight of Sterling Central, where I’d spent the night before (thanks!). Then back North, through Kentmere and over the hill into Troutbeck and up the old Roman Road that leads from Ambleside to Penrith over High Street. This easy going didn’t last long and was followed by a very steep climb up Ill Bell, by which time I was feeling pretty tired. From there, things looked familiar as I traced the Kentmere Horseshoe path and managed to get running again, before dropping down to a 40 point control above Small Water. From there I had a little under an hour to climb over Gatesgarth Pass and down to the camp site in Long Sleddale. Unfortunately, a cramp attack on the climb, and a complete lack of energy meant that I couldn’t make it to the finish on time, and I ended up with 7 points deducted for being late. Not too bad, except that I’d also had to abandon a 15 point control that was not far from the path on the descent.

Happily, despite the points I’d dropped, I was in third place overnight, just behind Adam and Andrew, who I’ve raced against many times, and Stewart, my partner from the LAMM a few years before, who had a ten point lead at the front, and it looked like had chosen a route with a lot less distance, but perhaps more big climbs. The campsite was one we’ve used before, at the top end of Long Sleddale in a beautiful spot.

The campsite
The campsite (although this picture is actually from the 2010 Saunders MM).

Day 2 involved more clusters of controls, and it was pretty clear that the route was to travel South down the West side of Long Sleddale before crossing the valley and collecting a few points on the East side and around the finish in Borrowdale. The only question was whether to do a biggish climb at the start to get a couple of controls in the North East, or whether to do a bigger loop around the top of Borrowdale at the end. I elected to do the latter, but most of the top runners seemed to opt for the former, so again that may have been a mistake. The advantage of my route was the opportunity to pick up extra points near the finish if time was available, but in the end I couldn’t do the route fast enough, and got in with just a minute to spare and a ten point control close to the end that I couldn’t get to.

I lost one place on Day 2, to end up 4th overall, but 3rd solo runner. I’m pretty happy with that – I don’t think I could have done any more (I was totally exhausted at the end of both days), and given the limited opportunities this year for long days in the mountains, I’m pretty pleased to still be competitive with the top runners. As for the event, this year’s courses were excellent – I still don’t know what the best route was on day 1, and the contrast between the big climbs and long legs on Day 1, and the shorter more technical stuff on Day 2 was good. The event centre and camp site were well organised, and I particularly like the new policy of giving seperate prizes for solo and team runners.

My route on day 1 (in blue) and day 2 (in red).
My route on day 1 (in blue) and day 2 (in red).

Seven days in the Parc National de la Vanoise

Having spent a week in April skiing in the Vanoise, we decided the scenery looked so good we’d spend a week hiking from hut to hut in the summer. Fortunately, there’s a fantastic loop – the tour of the Vanoise glaciers, with huts about 6 hours walking apart, and it’s relatively easy to get to by public transport too: we flew into Torino, caught the train to Bardonecchia, and then a bus through the Frejus tunnel to Modane to start the walk.

Day one saw us climb around 1600m from Modane, through pine forest filled with wild strawberries, and then across alpine meadows with flowers, to the Col de Chaviere, and then descending to the Refuge de Peclet Polset on the other side. The views were good to start with but as we approached the pass the cloud came in and it rained for a while. Fortunately we found an overhanging rock to have our lunch under, and by the time we’d finished the rain had too, although we still missed out on the promised views to Mt Blanc from the col.

Looking towards Peclet Polset from the top of Col de Chaviere.
Looking towards Peclet Polset from the top of Col de Chaviere.

Peclet Polset is a new refuge in a spectacular location, but we didn’t get to enjoy the views much as the rain came back shortly after we arrived. We did, however, enjoy the first of the fabulous four course meals that were to become a feature of staying in the Refuges: soup, followed by lasagne, then a cheese course, and fromage blanc avec myrtilles for desert!

Butterflies.
Butterflies.

Day two saw us travel down the valley from Peclet Polset to Refuge du Roc de la Peche before climbing 800m back up the side of the valley to the beautifully sited Refuge de la Valette. With better weather we were able to enjoy the huge variety of alpine flowers as well as watching bearded vultures soaring over the valley and a peregrine falcon hunting. The refuge came with a mysterious ruin that we never discovered the story of, a couple of attractive lakes, and friendly marmots, as well as lovely views down the valley.

The Refuge de la Valetta, with the donkeys used to haul all the food up there.
The Refuge de la Valetta, with the donkeys used to haul all the food up there.

On Day three we were up to watch the sunrise over the valley as we got our first clear day of the trip. We started with a series of ups and downs into glacial cirques hanging above the main valley, and views of the town of Pralognan far below. At the second cirque (Cirque du Petit Marchet) we decided to leave the marked path, scramble down into the cirque, then climb up to the col between it and Cirque du Grand Marchet. At the col we met a group of Bouquetins (Ibex) who kindly posed for photographs, seemingly unconcerned by our closeness.

Close encounters with Bouquetins.
Close encounters with Bouquetins.

From the col, we followed a faint trail down into the next Cirque, skirting an impressive band of cliffs, before traversing around the cirque underneath three magnificent waterfalls. We rejoined the main path on the way up to the next col (Col du Grand Marchet), and then had a precipitous descent featuring climbs with chains on them and scrambles down crags until we felt we were almost in Pralognan, before climbing all the way back up to the Refuge du Col de la Vanoise, another new refuge.

Rachel under the falls in Cirque du Grand Marchet.
Rachel under the falls in Cirque du Grand Marchet.

Unfortunately, day 4 dawned with rain and cloud to ground level. We set off down the East side of the col, with our initial plan to be to go to Refuge de la Leisse and then on an unmarked route over Col de Pierre Blanche to Refuge de la Femma. However, it rapidly became clear as we descended to the Torrent de la Leisse that we wouldn’t even be able to see the col in the cloud, so we opted instead to aim for Refuge du Plan du Lac for lunch and then on to de la Femma. Happily, the weather broke after lunch and we got views and some sun as we walked the rather nice path from Plan du Lac. The valley floor was absolutely filled with marmots and wildflowers, and we again watched falcons hunting as we approached the Refuge. Refuge de la Femma is an older refuge in a lovely spot with a large cliff behind it and a waterfall, and we thoroughly enjoyed adding it to our itinerary, despite the fact we’d have to walk back down the valley the following morning.

A young marmot pokes its nose out of its burrow.
A young marmot pokes its nose out of its burrow.

Day 5 was the best weather of the trip, with sunshine most of the day. The walk down the valley was just as nice as it had been on the way up, and the big climb back to the main path from Col de la Vanoise brought lovely views of La Grand Casse. The walk to Refuge de l’Arpont was fantastic, with glaciers looming above us, lovely lakes, and encounters with Bouquetin and Chamois. After reaching the refuge we hiked the hour or so up the hill to the beautiful Lac de l’Arpont, a glacial blue lake with the end of the glacier just above it – a fantastic spot to laze away a couple of hours.

Lac de l'Arpont with the Glacier de l'Arpont behind.
Lac de l’Arpont with the Glacier de l’Arpont behind.

Day 6 dawned with cloud in the valley and on the peaks, but clear skies at the refuge. Unfortunately, the trail immediately dived into the cloud and we spent most of the day without views as we traversed around La Dent Parrachee. After lunch the sun came out for a while, but by the time we reached Refuge de la Dent Parrachee the rain had started and it continued all evening. Dent Parrachee is another older refuge, but as it’s half an hour off the main track there were only twelve guests, and we had a very amusing evening talking in a mixture of French, English and German. The evening meal was great, and featured no fewer than five courses – Dent Parrachee really is an excellent place to stay!

Rachel walking through fields of wildflowers.
Rachel walking through fields of wildflowers.

Our last day started in thick cloud and rain, which didn’t let up for most of the day. We chose to climb over Col de la Masse to Refuge de l’Orgere, and then return to Modane. Sadly, we never got any views, and somehow we missed the main col in the cloud and ended up trekking along the ridge for a while looking for a reasonable descent before backtracking. We got to Orgere wet and cold, but fortunately they had a roaring fire going, so we sat and dried out before having lunch and descending in the now improving weather to Modane.

A Bouquetin checks us out.
A Bouquetin checks us out.

Overall, it was a great trip – we saw lots of wildlife, spectacular mountains and amazing wildflowers, ate great food, and generally enjoyed ourselves (even if it was perhaps less strenuous than most of our holidays). We’d thoroughly recommend the Tour de la Vanoise to anyone.

Flowers in front of La Grand Casse.
Flowers in front of La Grand Casse.

Three Days in Bergen

Last week my work took me to Bergen, Norway for a few days, and afterwards Rachel flew over to join me for a long weekend. Apparently it rains on average 202 days a year in Bergen, so when it dawned clear on the Friday we decided the classic hike from Mt Ulriken to Mt Fløyen was in order, despite the shortness of the days at this time of year.

We caught the bus to the foot of Mt Ulriken and decided to walk up rather than taking the cable car. This was quite tricky in places as the steep ground combined with lots of ice (it was around -3 degrees at sea level) made for treacherous footing in places. However, the views over the city were nice and we soon reached the snowy plateau at the top.

The snowy summit of Mt Ulriken.
The snowy summit of Mt Ulriken.

The woman in the tourist information had said “you won’t need a map as you’re in the mountains” when we’d asked about the route, and we soon realised why – the long line of large cairns stretching across the mountain made it pretty simple to see the route even where snow covered the path.

Crossing the plateau following the cairns.
Crossing the plateau following the cairns.

The ice and snow made running tricky, but with the sun out it was pleasant enough to walk despite being well below zero. The views were lovely, with the city visible below at various points, and lots of frozen lakes to look at.

One of the frozen lakes.
One of the frozen lakes.
One of the many frozen lakes.
One of the many frozen lakes.

Eventually we reached Mt Fløyen, much lower than Ulriken, and mostly tree-covered. From there the path wound across the hilltop past various huts and old military relics before eventually arriving at the top of the Fløibanen funicular, with lovely views of the city. We elected to walk down the switchbacks to town, where we arrived in time for hot chocolate and cakes as the sun set.

Looking down at Bergen from the top of Mt Fløyen.
Looking down at Bergen from the top of Mt Fløyen.

Saturday was again nice so we went for a stroll around the harbour, explored the town, and then visited Bryggen, the old Hanseatic town (a UNESCO world heritage site, with a lovely row of old wooden buildings along the waterfront) and the Hanseatic museum, which smelled of dried cod and had lots of poorly explained exhibits. Sadly it didn’t feature biscuits in cod heads like the museum in Å. However, the man at the front desk was very informative and explained the history of the place and how it all worked – he was much better than the exhibits themselves! After the museum we wandered around the old fortress, went to the same cafe for cake again and then walked back up Fløyen in the late afternoon as it started to snow gently.

The old Hanseatic town of Bryggen.
The old Hanseatic town of Bryggen.

Sunday featured pouring rain so we decided on a museum day. The science museum turned out to be excellent, with a centrifugal bicycle and an oil well simulator as well as a variety of other interesting hands-on science toys. The Bryggen museum was a little small, but interesting, and gave a bit more of an idea what the town would have been like in Hanseatic times, and the aquarium was much like most aquariums but featured playing penguins and a very friendly sea-lion. Sadly the rain still wasn’t letting up, so after one more visit to the cafe with the nice cake we headed off for the airport home.

Rachel loops-the-loop on the centrifugal bike!
Rachel loops-the-loop on the centrifugal bike!

Bergen is a lovely city and well worth a long weekend stay. There’s lots of access to nature very close to the city, and lots to do. Hopefully I’ll get to go back in the summer and explore some more!

Christmas Skeleton

For Christmas this year, Rachel gave me a human skeleton–no, not bones, but a cardboard model that could be assembled into a skeleton. Over the course of our week in Hawes, we slowly transformed the eight large sheets of card (along with dozens of split-pins, and some odd-shaped pieces of wire and plastic) into a life-size skeleton hanging from the ceiling.

The start: eight large sheets of cardboard...
The start: eight large sheets of cardboard…
End of day 2: Legs, a pelvis, and a spine!
End of day 2: Legs, a pelvis, and a spine!

There’s not much else to say: We reckon it took about 20 hours of work in total (between me, Rachel, Catherine and Tony); it’s not easy, with many of the parts twisting in complex ways to match the shape of bones, and despite the claim on the box that no scissors or glue were required we ended up cutting it in six places to make it work (and I’m pretty sure all six were required). I would, however, recommend it to anyone! The process was challenging and fun, and the end result is really cool–it can rotate its head, bend at the jaw, knees, ankles, elbows and wrists, as well as flex its back! Lots of pictures below…

Working on the ribcage.
Working on the ribcage.
Forewarned is forearmed but there's nothing humerus about the situation!
Forewarned is forearmed but there’s nothing humerus about the situation!
Attaching the final arm to the shoulder.
Attaching the final arm to the shoulder.
The skeleton shows off its dance moves!
The skeleton shows off its dance moves!

Rab Mountain Marathon 2013

This has been a chaotic year for us, and with one thing and another I hadn’t got to do a single mountain marathon all year. Since we usually do at least four, that’s quite a change! I got a last minute entry to the Rab Mountain Marathon (thanks Adrian), and since Rachel wasn’t so keen, opted for a solo entry.

This year the Rab had a great event centre at Newlands Adventure Centre, and the start was at the foot of Catbells. I opted for the long course, so had seven hours the first day, and six the second to collect as many points as possible. Watching a slow-moving line of “runners” heading straight up Catbells, I instead opted to start with a fast path run around the edge of the hill past Little Town, then over a ridge into Little Dale, and on to Hindscarth Edge. This part of the route was clearly unpopular – I didn’t see another runner for about an hour. After that I rejoined the crowds for a couple of controls above Honister Pass before dropping down to the pass and up to Grey Knotts and a group of five controls around Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks.

I’ve never been along the ridge on the South of Buttermere (featuring the famous Innominate Tarn) before, so it was nice to run along there, especially given the gorgeous sunshine and clear views. Unfortunately, the steep and rocky descent to Scarth Gap, followed by the two very steep climbs up High Crag really did me in, so I wasn’t very fast along the ridge. From there, my chosen route dropped down towards Buttermere for a few more controls, and then up Rannerdale Knotts before a fast descent down Rannerdale to the finish. I ended 17 seconds late, so lost one point!

Looking down to the head of Buttermere (and the field we were supposed to camp in during the cancelled OMM of 2008) from Scarth Gap.
Looking down to the head of Buttermere (and the field we were supposed to camp in during the cancelled OMM of 2008) from Scarth Gap.

Day Two was just as sunny as Day One, although windier on the tops. The controls were mostly North of Newlands Pass this day, and I started with a poorly judged steep climb through waist-deep heather to the summit of Grasmoor, followed by Hopegill Head and a steep descent into Hope Beck. From there I headed East to a control below Grisedale Pike and then over the ridge into Coledale. All of this was quite slow because of the tall vegetation – much harder than the good running on Day One, so I was far behind my planned schedule and had to change my plans for the second half of the day, collecting a bunch of controls near the finish rather than heading back to the Southern half of the course. I ended up finishing 40 minutes early having run out of points to collect.

I was 10th on Day One, and 11th on Day Two, but somehow that worked out to Eighth overall – not too bad considering I haven’t done a mountain marathon since October, and haven’t managed nearly as many long runs as in previous summers. However, there’s clearly room for improvement – I could barely stand up at the finish, and struggled to walk the morning after!

Struggling to walk on the way back from the finish.
Struggling to walk on the way back from the finish.
Yes, the flag is holding me up!
Yes, the flag is holding me up!

Landmannalaugar: The Icelandic Interior

Our time in Thorsmork was so nice that we decided to head back into the interior of Iceland to visit Landmannalaugar, famous for its geothermal activity and spectacular rhyolite peaks. Unfortunately, it’s at the end of a road we weren’t allowed to drive our rental car on, so we left the car in Leirubakki, a tiny village at the end of the sealed road, and caught the bus for the very rough 90 minute journey through miles of lava fields and river crossings to Landmannalaugar. We guess the bus needs lots of maintenance doing that trip every day!

Landmannalaugar
Landmannalaugar, with the lava flow towering over the huts, and the hot springs that come out from under the lava.

Arriving at lunchtime, we decided on a shorter walk for the first day, and headed for Ljotipollur, or “Ugly Pond”, a spectacular lake that occupies a brilliant red crater in the top of a mountain. The views on this walk are stunning, with the lake itself as a centre point, but also views out over huge braided rivers with volcanic cones all around and enormous lava flows, again in a mixture of grey ash and green moss.

Ljotipullur.
Ljotipullur.
Rachel on the crater rim in front of the braided river.
Rachel on the crater rim in front of the braided river.

We had lunch at the lake in the last of the sunshine, and then walked around the lake as the rain steadily worsened. On the return from the lake we climbed a couple of other nearby mountains, one of which, Northurnamur, provided interesting views over a huge old lava flow and the crater that produced it. The cracks in the lava surface follow the path the lava took, hinting at collapsed lava tubes below.

An old lava flow, with cracks following the lines of the lava tubes.
An old lava flow, with cracks following the lines of the lava tubes.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny (our only rain-free day of the trip), so we headed off to climb Skalli, the second highest peak in the vicinity. This took us into the rhyolite region, where the mountains are a lovely yellow brown, with soft ridges as they appear to be made entirely from loose fragments of rock. Skalli provided lovely views over the icecap of Torfajokull and an impressive range of snow covered volcanoes, Haskerthingur. From there we descended a knife-edge ridge very reminiscent of the badlands of Alberta to Hattver, a name on the map that appeared to have no distinguishing feature at all on the ground except that the trail ended there, in a broad braided river valley.

The rhyolite canyons, with Haskerthingur in the background.
The rhyolite canyons, with Haskerthingur in the background.

Sensing the opportunity for a little more adventure, we decided to continue up the valley towards a geothermal area we could see on a ridge a few kilometres away. We forded the river a couple of times and eventually found an easy-to-climb ridge that led us across a series of mossy ridges to the steam. From there we climbed up into a saddle between two mountains, and descended across a large snowfield to eventually (and somewhat to our relief) catch sight of Hoskuldsskali Hut perched on a rocky hillside on the other side of a plateau.

Crossing the river.
Crossing the river.
Rachel in front of Haskerthingur.
Rachel in front of Haskerthingur.

As we approached the hut we realised that the whole hillside was covered in shiny blocks of obsidian ejected from the mountain behind the hut, known as Obsidian Peak. We had lunch at the hut, and then joined the trail through the obsidian fields back to Landmannalaugur. This was a lovely walk, featuring a fascinating geothermal area with boiling pools, fumeroles, and a mysterious hole in the ground splashily spitting out boiling water! We then entered the rhyolite again before reaching the source of a massive lava flow, which poured down the side of the mountain before spreading out over a large flat area. The lava steams spectacularly in places, but the sheer volume produced is what’s most impressive – the flow ends at Landmannalaugar in a wall of lava that must be 30m tall.

Hot springs on the way back to Landmannalaugar.
Hot springs on the way back to Landmannalaugar.

On our final morning in Landmannalaugar we opted for a short walk close to the camp site as we didn’t want to miss our bus and the weather was very windy and occasionally wet. We climbed a long ridge looking out over the area, but the wind and cloud meant we didn’t really get to enjoy the views much. We then explored some small geothermal areas, one of which featured a lovely intermittent spring (or possibly small geyser). When we saw it first it was furiously bubbling and splashing water perhaps 20cm high, but a few minutes later when we returned it was completely dry. We watched it for a few more minutes and it bust back into life, producing a small waterfall where there had been no water at all moments before.

A small intermittently erupting spring.
A small intermittently erupting spring.

Sadly our time had run out and we had to head back to Landmannalaugar for the bus back to our car.

Hiking over Fimmvorthuhals Pass

Since the weather forecast was at last promising at least a small amount of sunshine, we planned a two-day hike over Fimmvorthuhals Pass, from Skogar to Thorsmork and back. The walk passes between two of Iceland’s ice sheets, Myrdalsjokull, and the recently famous (but still unpronouncable) Eyjafjallajokull, source of that ash cloud in 2010. It’s also, supposedly, one of the best hikes in the world.

The Skogafoss waterfall, where our hike began and ended.
The Skogafoss waterfall, where our hike began and ended.

The walk starts at Skogafoss, a seriously impressive waterfall where the Skogar river plunges over a 62m lava cliff. From there we climbed up beside the river for a couple of hours, passing waterfall after waterfall, as well as some impressive gorges. Happily, the weather forecast had been right, and we got to enjoy sunshine for all of the climb.

A pair of waterfalls further up the Skogar River.
A pair of waterfalls further up the Skogar River.

Yet more waterfalls as we headed up toward the pass.
Yet more waterfalls as we headed up toward the pass.

We had lunch at the only bridge across the river, at which point the character of the landscape changed, with green mossy tundra giving way to ash, cinders, and rocks. The climb continued past a small shelter, to cross a series of snow fields, at which point it was getting noticeably colder as we’d now climbed over 1000m up the mountain. The weather also started to turn, but it was still clear as we reached the summit of the pass and started our descent.

Bizarre snow and ash formations were a feature of the walk.
Bizarre snow and ash formations were a feature of the walk.

The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull actually started on the pass, with an impressive lava eruption from a couple of new craters, Mothi and Magni. The lava from these craters has spilled down the far side of the pass, and the path passes right past the two craters and over the brand new lava flow – some of the youngest rocks in the world! In fact, the craters and the lava flows were still steaming in places, and we warmed our hands on the hot rocks!

Looking across the fresh lava flow to Magni, one of the new craters on Eyjafjallajokull.
Looking across the fresh lava flow to Magni, one of the new craters on Eyjafjallajokull.
Looking from Magni across the steaming lava flow to the glaciers from Myrdalsjokull.
Looking from Magni across the steaming lava flow to the glaciers from Myrdalsjokull.
The steaming summit of Magni, with Mothi behind.
The steaming summit of Magni, with Mothi behind.

From the new craters the path descends very steeply to an amazingly flat plateau, Mornisheithi, by which stage it was pouring with rain. Happily that didn’t last too long as the views were amazing, with icefalls, lava falls, and steep grey ashy slopes adorned with vivid green streaks of moss.

Looking down from the plateau at the long ridge leading to Basar hut.
Looking down from the plateau at the long ridge leading to Basar hut.

We continued to descend along a narrow ridge on the edge of a spectacular canyon, to eventually reach the valley floor at Basar Hut in Gothaland, where we camped for the night. Thorsmork is unusual in Iceland for the fact that it is mostly covered in birch forest, although admittedly most of the trees are less than head height! The forested setting next to a huge braided river makes for a lovely place to camp.

The rugged landscape to the West of Thorsmork, with glaciers spilling down from Myrdalsjokull.
The rugged landscape to the West of Thorsmork, with glaciers spilling down from Myrdalsjokull.

The next day we did it all again in reverse, but the weather was strangely reversed as well, with mostly clear weather on the climb, where it had rained the day before, but rain and bitter cold on the pass and the descent back to Skogafoss. We took a slightly different route over the pass, visiting Fimmvorthuskali Hut and crossing a number of snowfields where the combination of snow, freeze-thaw and ash had produced bizarre landforms.

Looking across at the steaming summit of Magni.
Looking across at the steaming summit of Magni.