Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Surviving an eruption in the vicinity of Eyjafjallajökull

Eyjafjallajökull is the glacier-covered volcano in southern Iceland that erupted in 2010 and brought air traffic to a standstill in Europe. Our group of trekkers spent the fourth night of the Landmannalaugar–Þórsmörk walk near its foot. We weren't in any danger from the volcano; the problem was my bad mood, which I attribute to having had three sleepless nights. One of our group – three Germans, three Italians, three Norwegians, three Australians, two Americans, two Icelanders, one Nicaraguan and one Dane – was a champion snorer. As we were all in bunks in the same room in mountain huts, and the weather outside wasn't kind, there was nowhere to escape the sound, which went on at volume, all night long. I wasn't the only one to spit the dummy, but I spat it loudest and furthest. I'm not proud of myself. But after four nights I decided to cut my losses and return to Reykjavik with the first group instead of adding on a further walk that would have included our friend.

That aside, I really enjoyed the walking. The landscape is very stark and beautiful, with very little vegetation. Geothermal features, ice and snow, black sand, glacial moraine. 

Day 1 we took a bus from Reykjavik past Hekla volcano (which is overdue to erupt) to Landmannalaugar, and walked from there to Hrafntinnusker (about 12 km) through stunning, yellow-brown volcanic landscapes, iced-over streams and hot springs. Minutes after we arrived I nearly broke my leg when the heavy wooden bench seat I stood on to claim a top bunk toppled over, tossed me, then slammed on to my right leg. It took me a few minutes to get my breath and assess the damage. No bones broken, but some very sore contact points. (Yesterday, a week later, I saw a doctor about the bad bruising and numbness on my lower right leg, and he assured me I can run my scheduled half marathon this weekend.)

Day 2 (12 km) was a similarly wet and steamy landscape, with mud pools, springs and our first glimpses of the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers. Mýrdalsjökull looked like a cloud bank, but was instead a looming iceflow on the horizon. Our hut accommodation at Álftavatn had flushing loos and an alternating scalding hot/icy cold shower. I didn't attempt any acrobatics. One of our bunkmates stormed down the ladder from her bed in the middle of the night to prod our snorer and suggest that he put a sock in it, but to no avail.

Day 3 (15 km) we walked into the black deserts of Mælifellssandur. It was sort of like being in "Dune". At one point we crossed a very fast-flowing glacial stream by linking arms and wading across together. It was in the hut at Emstrur that night that I blew my top. A shame, really, as we'd had a lovely dinner prepared by Kolle and Gudny and I'd figured I was so tired I was bound to fall asleep before the show started... Not so.

Day 4 we climbed and descended for 15 km with Mýrdalsjökull glacier off to our left. Our second crossing of a glacial stream. We finally saw our first real trees as we were on the approach to Þórsmörk. There is a tiny settlement here, and a bus connection to civilisation. 

Day 5 I took the bus back to Reykjavik with the two Americans, the Dane, the Nicaraguan and the two Australians.

Lots of interesting, very well travelled people among the group. 

The next time I sign on for a trek, for the purposes of full disclosure, I'll mention in the documentation that I react badly to sleep deprivation. And I'll take along some industrial-strength ear plugs.

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