The Magical Land of Þórsmörk and Volcano Huts

The little bowed bridge at Húsadalur. Photo by the fólk at Volcano Huts.

GUEST PHOTOGRAPHER: The Volcano Huts at Húsadalur

This is such a quaint scene, taken out at Þórsmörk (Thorsmörk) by the people behind the Volcano Huts at Húsadalur. They posted it on their Facebook page, and gave me permission to share it here as well. 

Þórsmörk is one of the most lovely areas of Iceland, tucked away beyond a glacial river that needs to be forded with expert care. This isn't a location you get to by rental car! The Krossá river rages fast and icy-cold in summer as winter snow melt from the highlands and glaciers fill its wide, flat basin. Every year the river carves new paths along the
sandy soils it runs over, so it's virtually impossible to map it formally. Instead, professional highland bus drivers learn to read it season to season, ensuring safe crossing most of the time (Reykjavík Excursions can take you on day trips there and back, so no excuses!)

Still, even the specialized 4 x 4 busses get stuck in the waters and need to be towed out, not to mention the hotshots who, every year, think that they're the ones who don't need to pay attention to the signs and warnings leading up to the river. It's always humbling having to wait on the roof of your jeep for a mountain bus or tractor to come get you and pull your sinking auto out!

Sigh. It happens every year. Photo found on www.sunnlenska.is

But beyond Krossá magic awaits. Þórsmörk is divided into three main camps, two on either side of the valley through which Krossá runs, and one, Húsadalur, on the northern side of the Þórsmörk mountain ridge. Hikers who're taking the Laugavegur trail that leads to Landmannalaugar set off from that camp and arrive there as well after their days up on the highlands. I've tented near the Huts but haven't ever hiked those highlands, though I know a woman who actually runs it for fun with a group of local cross-country enthusiasts, and it looks like Volcano Huts sponsors a trail run around the area as well.

I prefer the meandering path that takes you from Húsadalur and over the ridge to Langidalur to the south. My oldest memory of Þórsmork is from this site, where, when I was a pouty 11 year old, I ran away from my dismissive older sister and cousin (who were flirting with boys) and rooted myself onto a rock high above camp and stayed put, basically disappearing myself to make them suffer for having been mean to me.

It turns out it was my grandmother Ásta who felt my absence most, and who sent teams of campers out searching for me. I was on that rock for hours (pouters know how to pout!) until a German couple coming in from a long day hiking discovered me and refused to leave me until I came down the hill with them. I gave them as much silent treatment as I could, for as long as I could (long enough for them to eat their sandwiches and finish their thermos of coffee) then reluctantly gave in. 

An old postcard from 1940 showing the Langidalur lodge, with Krossá in the center and Eyjafjallajökull in the distance.

From Langidalur you can walk over Krossá via a moveable footbridge which is set up according to the current path of the powerful river.

The special thing about this natural gem, named after the god Thor (Þór) is how lush it gets in summertime. Considering that glaciers tower over it (including world-famous Eyjafjallajökull with its spunky live volcano) and its proximity to the oft-barren, dramatic highlands, it's strange to be able to wander around amongst all the flora in shorts and t-shirts (barring seasonal storms, that is!) and feel protected by the dramatic ridges towering above.

Stock photo (photographer unknown) of Stakkagil near Básar at Þórsmörk. This is a super wonderful hike! 

On one more recent trip, though, back in 2001, I did a super foolish thing, more foolish than sitting on a rock alone as a petulant tweenie. I'd moved my tent from Húsadalur to the Básar campsite, and decided to hike up and over the ridge above the lodge, down to the river Hvanná below, and around the finger of land back to Básar. On a map from the year before the trail looked clear and easy.

But I didn't tell anyone where I was going, or check with the park rangers in the lodge to see if the trail was still good. And I was tenting alone. If I got lost, no one would miss me for quite a while.

So up, up and over the high, rugged ridge I went, on a path that got less worn, hence obviously less used, the higher I went. I started getting more and more tripped out by the circling birds who'd at first looked all nature-y and romantic, but began to seem more foreboding every step further from Básar I took.

The trail down on the south side of the ridge was steeper than I'd imagined, and turned suddenly to very loose scree. I took my time, stepping carefully, sure that all I needed to do was make it to the bottom to be able to hit flat land and circle back to camp.

Farther and farther down I went, until I was close enough to where I should have been able to peer over the edge of the steep skirt of the ridge and see the trail resume by the river's side a few meters below. Instead, I saw the river running right up against the now-vertical side of the ridge. Anxiety set in. The trail I was on was disappearing into nothing as it got closer and closer to the river and squeezed out by a wall of rock.

I had one option left to try: jump down a final five feet onto a narrow sandbar and see if the trail led around a rocky abutment just next to the fast-flowing, icy river. I hopped down, and realized that there was nothing. No trail, no way back up, no GSM service, and no one missing me back at camp. Fear set in, big time. I couldn't even get back up that last meter to return to that awful sharp-rubbly trail I'd just barely made it down. A worst moment in my life.

And then I saw the clump of rugged, reedy grass sticking out of the five-foot-high crumbly dirt ledge I needed to get on to again. And I knew I had one chance to get my next move right. I dug out a little step in the ledge wall, just high enough to put my left foot on to leverage myself up, but too soft to hold any real weight. I tugged gently at the clump of grass to test it, then took a deep breath in, crouched down as much as I could with my left foot on the step, and all at once sent myself up and forward as mightily as possible.

It all went down in slo-mo: me seeming to levitate, the step crumbling under my foot on the way, and the clump of grass giving me just enough pull-power to get the height I needed before it slid out of the ledge wall. I'd made it back onto the trail, wasn't going to get swept out to the freezing Atlantic, at least not on this trip. I'd survived this leg of my ill-conceived hike to Hvannárgil.

Stock photo (photographer unknown) of Hvannaárgil. Just looking at this pic gives me rush-chills.

It took me hours to get back up the loose, shale-y trail. It was already night, so though it was summer-bright outside I knew there wouldn't be many, if any, other hikers out at that hour. I was proper scared, knees wobbly and totally lacking confidence in my self. I almost crawled back up the steep, high ridge. I knew, deep in the core of every cell, how stupid I'd been.

I'd been taught outdoor skills by my father all my life. I'd gone deep-Sierra hiking all my teen years, off trail and on. Buddy system was supposed to be so ingrained in my core reality that I'd never think to do what I'd just done. And on top of all that, I was being foolish in Iceland, a living island full of hidden mysteries and fickle weather. The ravens and gulls circling above were chiding me for my idiocy. I was lucky to be alive. When I got back down to camp I cried in my tent with relief, and the next morning went to the park rangers and told them that the trail was definitely out, though I kept my embarrassing story to myself.

So Þórsmörk has a very special meaning for me. It's taken care of me when I've been alone and vulnerable, after making foolish decisions, and has left me with lifelong, very personal memories. I definitely think it's time for another visit.

An overnight stay is recommended, but even a long day trip out and back by bus is worth the trip!

Just stunning! Photo of Þórsmörk by Max Rive Photography

3 comments:

Jono said...

Wow!

CikguIsya said...

Beautiful. God is Great. I would like to visit Iceland in the future.

Wouter said...

We went to Iceland last spring, it was really amazing! Thank so much for your work and info! It was my second time i have visited Iceland but after reading your inspiration and want to jump on the plane again.