South Coast Drive
Skógar to Skaftafell National Park
Monday, July 9th
With the successful completion of the Þorsmörk-Skógar Backpack backpack, we now turned our attention to our next major objective - the climb of Iceland's highpoint. During the trip planning, several members of our party had expressed concerns about their ability to climb the peak, or, if they were going to attempt it, that it not be positioned on the day after a major outing (like the backpack we had just completed). Competing against these concerns was the time pressure of our short trip in combination with whatever the weather threw at us. Or, to put it more succinctly: we were at this point unsure if we were going to attempt the climb the following day.
In any case, we did not have to decide right away, for there was still half a day and more than 150 kilometres of sightseeing between where we were at Skógar and the Skaftafell area, near which Iceland's highest mountain is located.
We started driving east along the ring road from Skógar. Initially the sun shone brightly on the flat coastal plains, but as we approached the small community of Vik, the clouds returned, and this time, it started outright raining (rather than the drizzly, spitty precipitation we had experienced earlier). I was slightly disheartened by this, because there is some very interesting coastal scenery near Vik, along with some prime birdwatching spots. I had been hoping to see puffins here!
We didn't really have time to wait out the rain, so we decided to visit the coastline near Vik anyway. We turned off the main highway and down the Reynishverfisvegur (215), a short byway that led down to the coast.
The coastline here is quite interesting: a huge cliff comprised almost completely of clean basalt columns rises out of the black sand, and offshore are a number of striking basalt sea stacks - the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar - supposedly, the stacks are trolls that were turned to stone.
It was rather miserable, wet, windy and cold as we explored the coastline here. We didn't stay long, unsurprisingly, and we did not seek out any birdwatching spots. Caroline and I did see some puffins fly by above us, though, although it was impossible to take any sort of good picture of them from where we were.
Returning to the van, we got back on the ring road and stopped for gas and a snack at the N1 gas station in Vik. The wind and cold rain continued unabated, making some among us wonder whether or not some nice dry cabins might be available for rent at near Skaftafell.
Then, perhaps 25 kilometres east of Vik, the rain stopped, and we returned to the semi-usual Icelandic pregnant skies-but-no-rain. The ring road began cutting across a most peculiar landscape through this area - on either side stretched away a curious terrain: huge lobes of thick moss coated an uneven plain of rough lava. The comically-thick, lumpy moss-scape made for a fantasy-land sort of feel. We had to stop and take a few pictures, of course.
Eldhraun lava flow
This was, as it turns out, the Eldhraun lava flow - one of the immense outpourings of lava made by the colossal eruption at Laki in the 1700s. We were over fifty kilometres from the origin of the flow, giving a sense of the size of the eruption.
The weather continued to improve as we resumed our drive east, and by the time we reached the western edge of the Skeiðarársandur outwash plain, the day had transformed once again into a beautiful breezy sunny day.
Here at the edge of the outwash plain was an abandoned turf farm, called Núpsstaður. It had been farmed for hundreds of years, and only in the 2000s did the last two farmers finally die, with no one to continue the tradition. Today the farm is a good example of the type of harsh conditions endured by the pioneers of the Icelandic wilderness. It is also the home to one of the few remaining turf churches in all of Iceland.
Núpsstaður turf buildings
We walked up the short gravel road to the farm, which sat in a beautiful but lonely setting beneath tall cliffs, with a small strip of copsewood forest on the slopes leading up to the cliffs. All around the farm buildings were tall grasses, giving the place a lush but slightly overgrown and neglected feel.
Núpsstaður turf buildings
The turf buildings of the farm were more or less in passable states of repair, and a more modern and slightly unpleasant-looking corrugated metal-sided two story building marked the residence of the final farmers.
History of Núpsstaður
Past the white building stood the tiny turf church, surrounded by a gate and fence and covered with a thick mantle of grass. It sat in a beautiful location, with one or two large trees growing behind it, and the flats of the Skeiðarársandur outwash plain stretching off in the distance behind. The church was in good shape; it had clearly been the recipient of a bit of TLC. There was a functioning latch on the door, the little white cross at the peak of the roof was clean and recently painted, and the interior was clean and tidy. Even the pullcord up to the small internal bell worked, causing the bell to ring out clearly when pulled.
Each of us poked around a different part of the farm - the little cemetary behind the church, where the tombstones of the final farmers were located; the various paths leading up towards the small band of forest above the farm; the slightly ajar door to one of the turf buildings, revealing a well-preserved smithy. It was definitely a worthwhile stop along our journey.
Núpsstaður's last farmers
Núpsstaður living quarters
Glacial valley near Núpsstaður
After our visit to Núpsstaður, we started on the final leg of our journey to Skaftafell - the crossing of the Skeiðarársandur, a vast flat glacial outwash plain that drains some of the mighty glaciers coming down off of the Vatnajökull icecap. Periodic volcanic eruptions from under the icecap in combination with the huge quantities of water in the glacier creates what are known as a jökulhlaup - glacial outburst flood - that can send huge quanities of water, ice and debris across these flats (indeed, that is how these flats were formed).
We stopped at an interpretive pullout along the highway to see and read about the volcanic eruption and subsequent jökulhlaup of 1996, which wiped out a section of the ring road and a fairly substantial bridge.
Crossing the Skeiðarársandur
We were now approaching the Skaftafell area - a beautiful landscape of jagged mountains and cascading valley glaciers spilling off of the Vatnajökull icecap, along with the scenic foothills beneath them. Up above us, we knew, was the summit of Hvannadalshnjúkur - Iceland's highest peak - hiding behind the clouds. Just as we were about to make our turn into towards the Skaftafell campground, we caught the briefest of glimpses of a white-domed summit through a small hole in the clouds above. A good portent for tomorrow?
First glimpse of Hvannadalshnjúkur
We turned off the ring road and drove a short distance to the Skaftafell visitor center and campground. We just squeaked in under the 9pm closing time, and managed to pepper the ranger desk with useful questions about current conditions. The forecast for tomorrow actually looked pretty good - and the next day, too. The rangers caught wind of the fact that we were an independant unguided group planning to climb the peak, and told us that it was "not recommended". I assured them that we had all of the necessary gear and requisite skills. I'm guessing that's a standard line they give to all visitors, since the climb to the top of Hvannadalshnjúkur is not actually overly difficult technically.
With our questions answered and our campground fees paid, we made our way over to the very large campground area. Like other campgrounds we'd seen, the place featured large open areas where you could pitch your tent wherever you wanted. And once again, we picked a lightly-used spot at the very far end of the campground - far away from potential noise-making.
Hatko's special summit item
Once set-up at our campsite, we had a discussion about what we wanted to do with regards to the highpoint climb. I think enough recoup time had passed since the end of the hike earlier today that most everyone seemed more receptive to the idea of climbing the next day, and after a final bit of debate, we unanimously decided to go for it. The following day - Tuesday - would be the climb day.
Mr. Hatko and I returned to the visitor center parking lot, where Chris discovered the secret to one of the guide services' wi-fi network. We were then able to look up a detailed mountain weather forecast for ourselves. Sure enough, the forecast for the next day definitely showed that we were supposed to have clear but cool summit conditions. The day after - wednesday - also looked good.
Prep for tomorrow's climb
With the decision made, we set about both preparing our packs for a day-climb (we would be leaving our tents and overnight gear set up here for two nights). Our tentsite was soon strewn with all manner of climbing stuff - helmets, harnesses, ropes, carabiners, pickets, crampons, and ice axes, to name but a few.
We were all prepped, fed, and ready for bed by 10pm. Wakeup time was 4 a.m., with the objective of being at the trailhead, ready to go, by 5:30 a.m.
Interactive trackmap - drive from Skogar to Skaftafell - click map to expand