An Iceland Expedition (part 5) : The Hellismannaleið Trail, walking from Rjupnavellir to Landmannalaugar

Hellismannaleið
Day 26 : Rjupnavellir – Afangagil (21.2 km / 13.2 mi)
Day 27 : Afangagil – Landmannahellir (24.9 km / 15.5 mi)
Day 28 : Landmannahellir – Landmannalaugar (19.6 km / 12.2 mi)

Hellismannaleið – Laugavegur – Fimmvorthuhals (see part 6 + 7)
Total walking days: 7
Total km: 138.7 km / 86.2 mi
Average km per day: 19.8 km / 12.3 mi
Overall total km : 906.7 km / 563.4 mi


The Hellismannaleið trail is the first and least trodden path of three consecutive hiking trails in the area. The other two are the famed Laugavegur and Fimmvorthuhals, which I was going to complete afterwards. Altogether, the three trails run from Rjupnavellir to Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk and end in Skogar. Hellismannaleið is about 55 km long, although I have noted the daily distances I actually ended up walking.

The Hellismannaleið route proved a great start to this longer hiking section as a whole. Recommended as a three-day route between mountain huts, that’s exactly how I walked it. The days weren’t long, hiking 5-7 hours at leisurely pace and I never started very early, meaning I arrived at the next hut at a decent time in the afternoon or early evening, making for relaxing days.


There were no large crowds. In fact, the only people hiking on the same day as me, was one large group of seventeen Icelandic hikers. They were ahead of me, leaving early in the morning every day and reaching camp before me. I didn’t really see them until I passed them in the morning on the third day. I spoke to a hiker on the second day and apart from seeing one person arrive at one of the campsites, inadvertently hiking in the opposite direction, I didn’t see anyone else on the trails.

On top of the quiet, if not desolate, trail, I was very lucky with the weather. With this area well known for challenging conditions, I experienced a mixture of sun and clouds, low temperatures with a lot of wind at times, but no rain until I got to the higher elevations where it was cold with snow and covered in fog.

When I arrived in Rjupnavellir, I was peeved to finally reach these trails, to finally get off the road for a longer period of time, and to see more people do what I was doing. Hike.

The Hellismannaleið trail began on the private land at Rjupnavellir that housed the first mountain hut, and I walked in the sun through the fields, waiting for the bridge across a river that would introduce me to the bare, volcanic landscape that rolled to my right.


This first section came with its own challenge, as I was immediately swamped with flies. For the first time I understood why people wear those silly head nets, and I desperately wished I had one.

Instead, I furiously waved my cap in front of my face to keep them from overwhelming me. I had never experienced flies this exasperating. Still, it didn’t work, there were simply too many. I had about 200 flies attempting to enter my eyes, nostrils and ear holes, and suddenly I found myself shouting ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!’ at the top of my lungs, releasing some sort of primordial anger that even shook myself.

Thankfully, the flies remained localised, and although I had to deal with them throughout the day, they calmed down after that first section.


That first day continued along a volcanic landscape, lava fields that reminded me of black sand dunes and clusters of rock. I walked up and down a rolling landscape on the rim of this new terrain, watching the mountains and Hekla volcano covered in year-long snow in the far distance.


The second day began with a grand black volcanic plain, and I moved on, listening to the laughing of birds, echoing from the rock of mountains. The day was languid with some beautiful vistas, and it reminded me of why I was there, why I’d come to Iceland to walk. I moved along the changing landscape, from mountain to open plains, and when the sun peeped through, the views were otherworldly. I noticed the trail got more and more impressive the closer I got to Landmannalaugar.


There was one river crossing that day. I had just had a bad experience a few days prior on an F road, where I got stuck not able to ford the river because of the strong current, and I couldn’t stop worrying about it. At the first hut, the caretaker told me that a couple of hikers had come through several days before, and they had mentioned that the water had come up to their hips. I wondered, what if I couldn’t cross? I wouldn’t be able to hitchhike to the other side because I was on a hiking trail. Would there be any other hikers? What would the current be like? Would it be strong? Was it going to be scary?

I had tried to remain calm about it. I can always turn back, I told myself. I wasn’t going to risk anything. Just before I reached the Helliskvisl river for the crossing I decided to take a break. I had already decided I would ford the river with my shoes on, and I didn’t want to be wet from the icy water and then sit down for something to eat.

While I sat on the ground next to the trail, spreading Nutella on wraps, an Israeli hiker appeared, carrying a big pack. He’d just crossed the river and was headed south. We spoke a little. I hadn’t spoken to many people in Iceland until then, perhaps three or so in the month I had been walking around. It was nice to talk to someone else. Especially another hiker. He told me he loved Iceland. He came as often as he could, hiking around the entire country.

I asked about the river crossing, which was just behind me. I hadn’t dared to look at it yet. I was obsessed with this river crossing. He pointed to somewhere up his thighs, to show how high the water was.


When our conversation dried up, he moved on, and I ate another wrap. Just as I was getting ready to get up and face the river, he suddenly reappeared.

You seemed quite worried about the river crossing,’ he said. ‘And I would feel really bad if something happened to you. So I decided to come back and make sure you got across all right.

I was touched. We moved towards the river together and he showed me where I could cross. It was deep and there was a current which seemed quite swift, but I couldn’t tell how bad it was until I got in. He offered me his trekking pole to get across, but I would never be able to throw it back at him. I was happy enough for him to watch me as I crossed. At least he could help if something did happen.

I took off my socks and lowered myself into the water. It was deep, and it got deeper as I moved, high around my thighs but nothing more. I pulled up my shorts so they wouldn’t get wet. The bottom of the river didn’t have any rocks or pebbles. It was sandy instead, which made the crossing much easier. I kept going until I pushed my heavy legs out of the water on the opposite side. I threw my arms into the air in relief and thanked the hiker, who was still watching me from the other side. He went on his way and I sat down and dried off. I couldn’t have been happier.


I continued the hike along a variety of landscapes, vast valleys and rocks covered in moss. Everything was barren and grey and black, save for the tiny pink flowers growing through the grind. The sky was grey and it was difficult to take pictures. Everything just looked black in the frame.

Edit
At night I was ravenous with hunger. Every day I needed more and more food. Hiker hunger was real, and I was feeling it. All I could think about was that shop in Landmannalaugar. If only they had some suitable food for me to supplement my supply, if only, if only. I was scared to eat too much in anticipation of reaching it, but I almost couldn’t stop myself. Every night I ate multiple dinners, and the evening before reaching the shop, I ate two dinners and a breakfast, and I was still hungry. I couldn’t wait to get there. I woke up in the middle of the night and all I thought about was food. I didn’t care what I’d have to eat. I’d eat sleeves of cookies if that’s all they had. I just needed to know, for sure. I couldn’t finish all the food I had just yet.


The final day on the trail was the most impressive. The views were big and the elevations got higher. Parts were freezing cold, but the views were endless and unexpected and I couldn’t stop taking pictures.


The next moment I was walking on snow and the mountains contrasted abstractly against the white patches. I loved it.


When I got close to the valley at Landmannalaugar the intensity of the surroundings increased, and the mountains and rocks looked like a fairytale, the colours as though painted on a canvas.


I moved across the many streams that littered the valley. I made the mistake of taking off my shoes for the first and putting them back on right after crossing, thinking I could skip across the others. I quickly realised I couldn’t. I had to take them off again and wade through a fair amount more.

Looking around me, I instantly understood why Landmannalaugar was such a destination. I had never seen a landscape like it before and I couldn’t wait to see more of it. It was crawling with day trippers. I couldn’t believe people would be satisfied walking around for the day, but never exploring the trails further ahead. It made me curious for the Laugavegur trail that was to be the next part of my hike.


It was in the middle of the afternoon when I made my way to the campsite at Landmannalaugar, which was located on a section of flat rocky dirt surrounded by cars and buses.

It was far from compelling, a mucky and rampant sight compared to the scenic views the area had to offer. I had expected an oasis of beauty, something quite different from this. But it didn’t matter. I had different priorities. I needed food. Where was this shop?