Hiking to Iceland’s highest summit

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By Sarah Sekula

I’d come to a small town in Iceland to test my prowess, to do something I wasn’t sure I could handle. No, it wasn’t eating fermented shark that had me panicky, although that was pretty formidable. And it wasn’t boating with Iceland’s Search and Rescue Team that I was worried about. No and no. That was all cake compared to summiting the tallest peak in Iceland. Needless to say, I had my quibbles.

The week before, I’d purchased the necessities — gaiters, lightweight pants, polarized sunglasses, gloves, glove liners, balaclava and hiking boots, which I broke in the week before during a high-altitude volcano hike in Chile. (Yet another feat that knocked the stuffing out of me.)

Next, I flew to Iceland, a 4-hour flight from New York, where I joined the 66°North crew for a daylong climb up Hvannadalshnúkur, a 6,920-foot glacier-covered volcano. I learned the day of the hike that 66°North offers a climbing program, which includes a series of pre-hikes. In other words, the people surrounding me, you know the Thors and Berglindars who could easily bench press me and my hiking gear, well, many of them had been training for months. Again, I was a bit intimidated.

After waking at 4 a.m. and gearing up from head to toe, I was bleary-eyed and still skeptical. With crampons swinging from my backpack and an ice ax tucked away for later, we began the uphill slog in earnest.

As a precaution, though, I hopped into the slower group, and, it turns out, even they were going fast. As we slogged along, however, and the sun came out, the layers came off and a smile crept onto my face. Okay, I thought, this may not be so bad after all.

However, as mountaineering adventures go, it was laborious work. Beautiful scenery, albeit, but not an easy trek. First we plodded through misty highlands, past waterfalls and up rocky ridges. We traipsed through the clouds, then onto the snow fields. Once we got through about five hours of the varied uphill terrain, only then did we spot the summit — a massive hump of snow and ice. In fact, there was a blanket of white as far as I could see.

Afterward, another half-hour was spent crossing a high plateau, following the trail left by the “fast” group. We busted out the crampons and ice axes and mustered up the energy to shimmy our way up to the top of the world. Well, the top of Iceland at least and the closest I’ve come to the Arctic Circle so far.

The view, as you can imagine, was worth it: The beautifully pointed peaks that surrounded me were all dwarfed by Hvannadalshnúkur. To the southwest was Eyjafjallajokull, the country’s ash-spewing mammoth that brought Europe’s air travel to a halt several years ago. I kicked up my heels, as heavy as they were, with ice ax raised above my head and let out a guttural woohoo! Since it’s not best to hang out at high altitudes for too long, ten minutes and a turkey sandwich later, we were skittering back down the slanted surface.

It was the hike down that changed me. Hour 8 passed, 9, 10, 11 and 12. My knees were throbbing, I was out of Snickers bars, I was just plain pooped. Not to mention, the vast terrain was working for and against me.

On one hand, the rolling green hills, lava rocks and unreal blue skies had me in la-la land. On the other hand, that same rough terrain nearly brought me to tears due to the  physical pain. In the final moments of the descent, I was emotionally drained. Physically exhausted. Mentally kaput.

Pep talk after pep talk. Prayer after prayer, I made it down. I think it’s safe to say I am now officially a hiker. Now that my ice capades were over; would I do it again? Well, yes. It was all equally ridiculous and rewarding. I’ll just make sure to bring an iPod next time.

Things to pack:

– Camera: It’s hard to take a bad photo in Iceland.
– Raingear: You may have rain, then sun, possible snowstorm, then sun.
– Sunglasses: Big enough to cover the eyes with sufficient UV-protection.
– Sunscreen
– Hiking boots
– iPod (Most of the time you are harnessed to a group of others. This means you walk about 10 feet apart from your fellow hikers. Lonely, yes!
– Gaiters: Calf or knee height and wide enough for your boots.
– Wool or synthetic thermal underwear
– Light wool sweater or fleece (2nd layer).
– Wool or fleece jacket (3rd layer).
– Trousers (2nd layer): Strong and light material that dries quickly. Wind resistant and water repelling preferable.
– Rain Jacket or anorak with hood: Waterproof and breathable material.
– Wool or synthetic liner gloves
– Wool or synthetic mittens (optionally waterproof)
– Wool or synthetic socks.  One or two pairs for thermal and blister prevention.
– Wool or synthetic hat and balaclava
– Backpack (Note: All gear should be wrapped in plastic bags before packing it in the backpack).

My trip to Iceland was sponsored by 66°North and Iceland Naturally.