Alftavatn: Traversing Worlds

On my second day solo hiking Iceland’s Laugavegur trail, I began the day by promptly falling in a river.

Feeling good after a luxurious night’s sleep in a warm cabin, I had begun the day afresh with great enthusiasm. Today, in stark contrast to the day before, was going to be mostly flat or downhill! I was in a great mood as I made a cup of hot coffee and steaming bowl of almond porridge, chatting happily with the few other solo through-hikers on the trail. A thick fog lay over the land, eerie and blue in the morning light.

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While overall, the elevation gain was insignificant, the terrain nevertheless remained challenging. The landscape was striated with steep river gullies, and the trail was in constant flux between steep downhills and upward slopes. The rock was loose underfoot, slippery on the way down and slow on the way up. Every step slipped backwards a little. I still couldn’t believe how heavy my pack was; I found myself mentally checking out on the uphills, focusing all my mental energy on a song, a dream, a memory or idea; anything to get me out of that moment. Yet the struggle was, partially, to be relished. The feel of my heartbeat pounding, my body warm and capable, vividly alive in the desolate wild, was blissful despite the pain.

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At the base of one of the river gullies, the trail led across a hardened patch of snow that formed a bridge over the stream. Seeing no better place to cross, I confidently set foot onto the snow – and found myself in midair. Breaking through the snowbridge, I fell six feet to hit the river bottom with a splash, pack-first, panic coursing through my body. GET UP GET UP GET UP!!! I screamed aloud, rolling over into the icy water to be able to push myself to my feet. Thankfully, the opening of the ice cave was in sight; I waded briskly to shore and stopped for a moment, letting the initial burst of adrenaline slightly fade while the water seeped from my clothes and onto the ground. I drained the riverwater from my mittens and surveyed my condition. Realizing that by some miracle, I was uninjured, I began to laugh aloud, that exuberant sound of relief echoing off the gully walls. Things were going to be okay. I had food, water, shelter, and all my clothes were synthetic; the air temperature was still warm enough, and my exertion rate high enough, that I was not going to get too cold, as long as I kept moving. I thanked whatever higher power for the miracle of my safety, and continued on.

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Moss glistening in the lush warmth of a hot spring. 

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Some passing hikers, traveling at an estimated 5x greater speed. 

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After a few hours of dark, desolate gully-crossing, I arrived at a breathtaking viewpoint over an expanse of colorful rhyolite mountains, a window to another world. I realized I was approaching a mountain pass, beyond which lay the descent to Alftavatn, my destination. The surrounding rock grew more and more foreboding in color, deep reds and jet black spewing sulfurous steam. I thought of mythical conceptions of what hell is supposed to be like, and wondered where the inspiration for that had come from. Far from hellish, this landscape was surreal and profoundly moving, radiating some great energy that emanated from the ground.

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There, atop that rocky summit, I gazed for the first time down into the lush, green valley that housed Alftavatn, or Swan Lake. It seemed like the meeting place of two different dimensions, different planets nestled edge-to-edge on a bright red mountaintop. The richness of the greenery was emotionally comforting; here there was life. I began a steep and treacherous descent into the valley as the rain began to pour.

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On the flats, with the lake in view, it was impossible not to be in a good mood. It was so beautiful it nearly hurt. I arrived at the Alftavatn hut in high spirits: finally, I could start being economical, and camp for the night! The hut warden, however, advised against it, but I persevered – by pitching my tent in the shelter of the hut’s walls, I would be fine. Yet the wind began picking up again as I began to set up the tent; some Italian hikers, outside smoking in the rain, just laughed at me. You’re crazy. And maybe I was – for the moment my tent was finally erected, rainfly firmly in place, those fierce and howling winds descended once more onto the landscape, stronger than ever before. My tent shook and rippled in the wind, folding in on itself, the fabric threatening to split in multiple places. Rainwater rapidly accumulated on the barren ground, and by the time I had hurriedly disassembled the tent again, I was standing in nearly a foot of water. Camping, evidently, was unadvisable.

The wind howled that night unlike any I had seen before. We feared for the safety of anyone still outside. The hut shook; sprinting out to the bathroom meant risking being thrown to the ground, or at least thoroughly blasted with blowing water, sleet, and ash. I dried my clothes and warmed up, cooked a hot dinner. The next day would bring 16 km through a volcanic desert, and the wind was predicted to worsen.

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One thought on “Alftavatn: Traversing Worlds

  1. Woah, This is one of the best I’ve read in a while. Absolutely beautifully written and looks breathtaking. Reminds me of hiking in Ireland. I just remember thinking “this can’t be real” Can’t wait to read and see more :)

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