To Iceland's Tip
Climb of Hvannadalshnjúkur
Tuesday, July 10th
Early morning at Skaftafell CG
I tentatively poked my head out of the tent at 4 a.m., cautiously optimistic that the forecasted weather would hold true. Happily, an almost entirely clear sky greeted me. The only spot not yet clear was the summit of Hvannadalshnjúkur itself - a few wisps of clouds clung to its dome.
The morning view of the mountains around Skaftafell was fantastic. Even though we had had a sunny evening at camp the night before, stubborn clouds had clung to the sides of the peaks. They had now all moved on or evaporated away, and it was now apparent that this was a campground with fine mountain views - including a nice clear front-row view of Hvannadalshnjúkur.
With the rest of the large Skaftafell campground asleep around us, we had a quick breakfast of hot oatmeal (or noodles, depending on preference), and were ready to head off to the trailhead shortly before 5.a.m. The clouds had now completely disappated from Hvannaldalshnjúkur, and we finally had a clear view of our objective. It looked pretty high up from our vantage point here, down nearly at sea level.
Pre-trip mountaineering prep
The day's objective was a fairly challenging one - over 24 kilometres of distance and nearly 6,700 feet (2,000+ metres) of elevation gain. That's a fair bit of distance and a lot of elevation gain for one day. As I mentioned before, we had a number of people in our group who had expressed reservations about being able to complete such a climb; however, here on this beautiful calm morning, everyone in our group was now feeling fairly positive about the day's climb. Most of us had done a fair bit of training leading up to the trip - hikes, runs, bike rides, stair climbs - and we had held several training sessions in the back yard to brush up on our glacier travel and crevasse rescue skills. Certainly, I felt that we could all manage this climb.
Another Hvannadalshnjúkur closeup
We drove from the campground, and soon turned east along the ring road. It was a roughly fifteen minute drive to the parking lot at Sandfell - the starting point for our route - the Sandfellsheiði route - to the top of Hvannadalshnjúkur.
We could see that there was at least one other group - a guided group from one of the local guide companies - ahead of us. We had thought that our 5:30 a.m. start was pretty early for this peak, but perhaps not?
Sandfell interpretive plaque
In any case, at 5:30 a.m. sharp, we were off, climbing the somewhat insdinct footpath that led towards the first slopes leading up the lowest flanks of Öræfajökull.
Note: I know there will be confusion if I don't explain something right this instant: You'll see me bandy about two names throughout my description of this climb. One is Hvannadalshnjúkur, and the other is Öræfajökull. Hvannadalshnjúkur is the highpoint of all of Iceland, but it itself is actually just a highpoint along the rim of the Öræfajökull volcano's summit crater. So, it's the Öræfajökull volcano that forms the bulk of what were now climbing, and Hvannadalshnjúkur is the name given to just the highest nubbin on it.
Starting up the Sandfellsheiði route
So, back to the trail. After crossing a small brook, a good footpath developed. We soon started climbing quite steeply, sometimes switchbacking, up a long grassy slope. Slowly but surely, our viewing angle on the coastal plain became steeper and steeper. The climb was fairly relentless, and our pace was brisk, and we gained the first 1,000 feet of elevation in just 45 minutes. We then decided to pace ourselves in a slightly more regimented fashion, and adopted the "Quarter-K" rule - stopping for a small break, even if it was just a short one, every quarter-of-a-thousand feet (about every 100 metres of elevation).
Morning on the Sandfellsheiði route
We continued to make good progress (albeit a touch more slowly), still climbing steeply away from the coastal plain. A few morning clouds had gathered above us, but so far nothing more than a scenic addition to the view. Presently, we climbed steeply up to a gate-like opening between two rocky prominences. Above this, we arrived at a much flatter area. Not quite a plateau, because it was still sloping, but much less steep. A great place for a longer rest break.
Track of the Sandfellsheiði route
We continued on, enjoying the easier effort afforded by the lower slope angle up here. There was still a well-defined track leading upwards, now over a landscape of mostly pebbles and small rocks. The ground was becoming increasingly barren.
As the morning wore on, the thin layer of clouds that had formed overhead thickened, and soon we approached the altitude where we hiked directly into the layer. Our sunny, clear morning had suddenly become a foggy walk with no views. The trail was much less distinct here, requiring many little course corrections when we noticed we were off-course.