Emstrur: Beyond the Volcanic Desert

Everything was still damp by the time I awoke at the Alftavatn hut, a fine coating of ash creeping into all of my clothes. Shuffling down the stairs, my body felt beaten and frail; I soon discovered a gigantic bruise forming across the majority of my lower back, skin deep black and purple where I’d hit the river bottom. Oh well, I though. I’ll heal later. I made a large breakfast in the hut’s luminous kitchen, enjoying my last moments of shelter before donning my cold, wet shoes and damp raingear, and making my way out into the land. This would be the longest day – 16 km of flatland through a volcanic desert – and I had heard it was the hardest due to its length. Still, flat sounded pretty luxurious. Off I went.

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Looking back on the Alftavatn hut. 

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The wind was still fierce, but the terrain in the beginning was beautifully lush and offered, in places, slight protection from the elements. The tonalities of the green mountains were stunning; peaks moved in and out of sight through the mist as I traversed the land.

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Then I came to the desert, and the following picture is the last I took that day. The weather changed so fast you could see it flying across the landscape in waves. I remember walking down that road in the picture above for hours on end, staring at the horizon and watching walls of horizontal sleet, snow, rain and ash come barreling towards me, bracing myself, praying for just another minute of calm. The wind’s force and consistent rhythm was brutal, and it was all I could do to bend my upper body parallel to the ground, shielding my face as I dragged myself forward. In addition, everyone I had spoken to had assured me that the next hut was fully booked. Regardless of the condition I arrived in, I would have to camp.

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I have no words, really. There was black sand/ash forever and gale-force winds blowing against my direction of travel. I thought my body would break under my pack. My skin grew raw from the sideways sleet and ash. For the majority of the time, I was completely alone in a landscape that seemed eager to destroy me. After a few hours of rain I was more thoroughly wet than after falling in the river; I waded through waist-deep rivers without taking my shoes off. You know, I can’t actually explain this one accurately. It was probably hardest 6 hours of my life. Suffering in the elements can be sort of strangely fun when shared between people, but not alone.

Luckily, shelter awaited me at Emstrur after all. I was so exhausted I didn’t know what to say to the hut warden; I just knocked and looked at her blankly when she opened the door. “Are you alone?” she asked, alarmed. “Uh-huh,” I managed. She stared as water poured from my clothes. “Oh my. Don’t worry. There will be room for you. We will make room.”

I could have hugged her. It was chilly in the hut, and very crowded as the day progressed, but I had a dry place to lay down. I spent the rest of the day intermittently cooking up hot soups and beverages, and just laying there. I listened to the stories of the hikers coming from the opposite direction, and the harrowing tales of the glacial pass to Skogar made my decision firm: the next day would be my last. I was going to injure myself if I kept pushing on like this, and a bus to Reykjavik would leave the next afternoon from Þórsmörk. It wasn’t my plan, and I had nowhere to stay in Reykjavik, but I was getting beaten into the ground out there, and the weather was predicted to worsen even more. It seemed unbelievable. Outside the wind raged, but our hut grew gradually warmer throughout the night.

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