Landmannalaugar: Into the Rainbow Hills

Let me preface by saying that it was never my initial plan to go into the mountains alone. The four-day Laugavegur trail, plus an additional two days over a glacier pass to Skogar, was an adventure I’d dreamed up while envisioning that my friend Tor Edvin was going to be accompanying me, splitting the weight of our camping gear, food, and fuel. However, when his plans changed last-minute, I decided to go for it anyway. Why abandon the dream? I was tough, I thought. I could handle it.

So it was that I found myself aboard a bus to Landmannalaugar, the starting point for the Laugavegur’s southbound route. Greg was back home in Switzerland; I had spent my time in Reykjavik doing laundry, going grocery shopping, and planning meals. The bus left the city, unsurprisingly, in yet another atrocious downpour. A steady stream of rainwater trickled down from a hole in the ceiling. I put on my raincoat and fell asleep.

When I awoke, we had left all semblance of a civilized world behind us. The bus barreled through one of the most desolate landscapes I had ever seen, careening wildly over hills and down steep riverbanks on a road that seemed to consist solely of black volcanic sand. Jet-black rock extended toward the misty horizon, into apparent infinity. Literally everything in sight was formed from foreboding black stone, save for a lake that we sped alongside for a while, its waves lapping an unsettling shade of milky yellow-green. A forbidden place, like an illustration from a fairytale.

As we neared Landmannalaugar and the landscape grew more mountainous, the bus splashed boldly through a succession of wide, deep rivers, water rushing through the doors and filling up the bottom of the bus. Suddenly, as if on cue, radiant sunshine broke through the clouds, and Landmannalaugar came to view. From its prominence on the map, I had envisioned it to be a town, but we were greeted by a scattered assortment of vehicles, tents, and a few small huts. The couple tents that were pitched around the area were being hurriedly taken down by some frantic-looking people.

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A fierce Icelandic woman stormed the bus before we even reached our destination. “ANYONE PLANNING TO START THE LAUGAVEGUR TRAIL TODAY,” she bellowed, “Will not be permitted to leave Landmannalaugar. There is a storm warning for tonight and tomorrow. Camping is now forbidden due to the high winds. If you still want to stay here, you’ll have to stay in the hut.”

Hmm. Okay, I thought. I’d been planning on camping to save money, but I was going to have to go with the flow. Having made it all the way out there, I decided to stay in Landmannalaugar for the night and attempt the hike the next morning. I booked a bed, unloaded the majority of my belongings onto my bunk, and set off into the landscape for a day hike. After all, the storm wasn’t supposed to hit hard until later. And the landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen.

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The hot natural hot springs at Landmannalaugar. 

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Landmannalaugar, as viewed from the hills. 

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The trail wove first through a crazy landscape of jumbled, craggy rock, lining the path like  a garden of sculptures, blanketed in moss. In the distance, colorful rhyolite mountains loomed through the mist. All was quiet; I hardly saw anyone else.

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Soon, I found myself overlooking a vast river valley, tundra flowers blooming in patches below. The hike I’d been recommended would cross the valley, ascend a hill on the opposite side, and then circle back to Landmannalaugar atop mountain ridges. Strong gusts of wind bore down upon the valley, but I pressed on.

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It was probably one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

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The base of the mountain was a strange and otherworldly place. The river valley split into fragments, crevices of space that snaked deep into the mountains, which, streaked with bright yellow and turquoise, emitted ominous clouds of steam. All was shrouded in mist. I began to climb.

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It was then that the weather began to take a series of exciting and indecisive turns. As I ascended, the wind began to thrash upon the earth in tempestuous gusts. Its violent force immediately threw me to the ground. Eager to maintain my footing on the ravine-edge I was climbing, I proceeded with caution, striking forward first with my trekking pole, and using it to pull my body upward through the wind. Suddenly, the wind ceased; it was hot and sunny again, for all of four minutes. Then it began to snow.

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That’s when things really got exciting. It snowed, rained, and hailed intermittently in raging horizontal blasts, biting at my skin and burning my eyes. I crouched, bracing myself in the wind, barely able to make forward progress. Still, the landscape was so beautiful, I continued to photograph, in disbelief at the brilliant color of the rhyolite mountains. Finally, a full-on whiteout enveloped the world in soft, powdery white. Upward I trekked.

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A blizzard might have struck some people as a bit of a letdown for September, but for me, it reignited that Alaskan childhood joyousness of the magical first snow of the year. I found myself laughing aloud, filled with a sudden urge to frolic about in it and shout ecstatically at the top of my lungs. Everything was quiet, winter-quiet, as the glittering flakes filled the air.

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Unsurprisingly, the blizzard was all but swept away in a gust of wind, and radiant sunlight warmed the landscape again. A fresh, powdery layer of snow now dusted the contours of the surrounding mountains. It was stunning.

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The higher I climbed, the fiercer the wind grew, and at times I had to stand still, back to the wind, to spare the skin on my face from the impact of blasting raindrops and hail. The valley below faded in and out of sight with such intensity and rhythm that I felt I was traversing through some sort of ever-changing dream, where the landscape took on the mischievous persona of a shape-shifting prankster, or perhaps a siren, ever alluring in its ethereal beauty. At times, I couldn’t believe that what I was looking at was real.

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Finally, a heavy blizzard took over with a new degree of permanence. By some miracle, I was able to keep sight of the trail, which now skirted the valley’s perimeter atop a ridgeline of jagged peaks. It grew cold; the wind howled, and the snow began to accumulate rapidly.

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Also, it looked like Mordor. 

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Finally, Landmannalaugar surfaced in the blustery distance. I had nearly made it! To celebrate, I sat down for a snack in a snowy field of tundra flowers, their bright purples and pinks vibrant in the snow. When I reached the road, a gigantic herd of horses was being led down the road. The surreality was overwhelming.

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Safe in the shelter of the hut, I cooked myself a hot dinner as the storm fell full-force upon Landmannalaugar. The blizzard grew dense and the wind brutal. I sprinted out to the hot springs after dinner in my bathing suit; my skin was nearly raw by the time I got there. For a long time, I sat alone in that weirdly hot water, enveloped in steam, watching the snow fall and the world grow darker and darker blue. I stared up at the rugged, wild mountains, emanating intensity in the evening light. There was something slightly unsettling about them that I had never anticipated nor experienced before. Perhaps it was because I was alone, but I had a deep feeling that this was not a landscape to mess with. Tomorrow, weather permitting, the adventure would begin.

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2 thoughts on “Landmannalaugar: Into the Rainbow Hills

    • Thanks, but these aren’t actually large format! These are digital. To see my “real” work you can visit acaciajohnson.com!

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