An Iceland Expedition (part 11) : Mt Doom (Snæfell!) and the Waterfall Trail, walking from Snæfell to Snæfellstofa

Route
Day 54 : Snæfell – Sauðafell (28.7 km / 17.8 mi)
Day 55 : Sauðafell – Norðurdalur (23.6 km / 14.7 mi)
Day 56 : Norðurdalur – Snæfellstofa visitor centre (17.3 km / 10.7 mi)

Total walking days: 3
Total km: 69.6 km / 43.2 mi
Average km per day: 23.2 km / 14.4 mi
Overall total km : 1645.5 km / 1022.5 mi

Snæfell was still wrapped in a ring of mist when I woke. I was on the mountain’s northeast side, and I was deliberating whether to walk around the entire thing, enticed by a map that showed you could do just that. I quite liked the idea of circling a mountain, even though the route wasn’t marked.

I had just spent several days wandering the Lónsöræfi area without a trail, so how difficult could it really be? Although Snæfell is Iceland’s tallest mountain at 1,833m outside the glacier regions, it’s only one mountain in the midst of flat plains. Plus it was actually sunny. In theory, I figured, this should be easy.

How wrong was I.

According to my guide, circling Snæfell would accumulate to about 30km. Which means that in actuality, you end up walking significantly more. And since there wasn’t actually a trail to follow, it would also take a really, really long time.

But I had already convinced myself it would be an easy, fun day, walking around a big mountain. I certainly thought I had made a good decision when I spotted a flock of reindeer.

I’d seen something black move in the corner of my eye and, assuming they were geese, I looked up but instead saw about fifty reindeer gazing at me from a distance, running off in unison, eyeing me again and running off once more. They were black with white tails. They were amazing.

I was pretty dumbfounded, mostly because in my fantasies, reindeer run through thick forests, not plains of rock. But once the reindeer were gone, that was it, and I was brought back to reality, because sadly I underestimated two rather crucial factors that undermined the successful completion of my hike around Snæfell: The terrain and my hunger.

The views were vast and monotonous and so I thought the seemingly unchallenging terrain would be easy to thread. But looks were deceptive, and after I walked through sodden grass and pounded over endless sections of rocks in all sizes, the terrain proved unexpectedly difficult and slow to get through.

To make matters worse, an endless amount of snowmelt streams flowed off the mountain. I wasn’t sure whether this is the appropriate technique, but I tried to stay at a higher elevation, so the streams would still be small and easy to jump across.

While that worked some times, several streams had carved into deep gorges for which I had to reroute all the way back to the base of the mountain to be able to navigate to the other side, a tiresome exercise. I was constantly climbing up and down scree slopes, and it took hours to progress just a few kilometres.

The other matter that I had vastly underestimated was my hunger. I knew I was hungry, very hungry, but I didn’t quite realise how bad it was until I found myself having a nervous breakdown over losing a small rubber band.

I had tied a rubber band around my phone, so I could attach it to my beheaded tripod to continue to take pictures. When I took out my phone and at once realised it was gone, I almost lost it. I was attached to that rubber band. It belonged to my tent and it was perfect for its improved purpose. Now it was as though it was everything that was holding me together after all the shit things that had happened. It was like I’d lost a piece of me.

So I ran back in an absolute frenzy, trying to find the place I’d last been and taken out my phone, but as I rushed back, all the hilly piles of rock looked the same and I just hurried back and forth, aimlessly. It was useless. It took a long time to accept the loss and tear myself away from this place that was harbouring my rubber, somewhere.

I was devastated although I knew that, discounting my tendency to personify and idolise this perfect rubber band, my emotions were heightened because I was simply running on empty. Since leaving Höfn (well, since arriving in Iceland, really) the food I had did little to fill me up. Instead, it was just about enough to get rid of the worst hunger, but I was never satisfied.

By then I had hardly gone halfway down the east side of Snæfell. A six km stretch on the map was thirteen as I walked it, and it had taken me five hours. When I faced yet another gorge covered in snow with rushing water spilling out that I couldn’t easily ford, I decided to give up.

Why in the world had I thought it a good idea to walk around this bloody mountain? My view hadn’t changed all day. Nothing exciting had happened. Nothing exciting was going to happen.

I turned around and ran. An hour later I was already halfway back to where I’d started. I continued to run. I ran along deserted dirt roads through black lava, away from where I was, slowly back to civilisation.

The next day I walked quiet roads back to Jökulsá í Fljótsdal river, which the Eyjabakkajokull glacial tongue feeds into that I walked next to just days before. Now I was back, a bit further north to where I’d been and I passed the one building in the area: Laugarfell, a hotel with hot springs.

On route I had begun to dream about pizza and had all the intention of ordering food, or at least a coffee, but when I passed and looked through the windows, it looked like an abandoned hostel lounge so I reluctantly moved on, feeling quite sorry for myself.

Laugarfell marked the start of the Waterfall Trail, and I planned to follow the river up, all the way to Snæfellstofa visitor centre and then towards Egilsstaðir. Along the way are numerous waterfalls, some big and some small, and there is a marked path. Well, supposedly, because I never found the trail.

I followed sheep trails along the steep grassy and bushy slopes, close to the top of the mountain range. The tracks were too narrow for comfortable walking, so it felt like I was balancing on a rope the entire way. But I couldn’t quite see the path down below, and there were so many streams and waterfalls that I thought it was better to stay up high. It made it easier to jump across. I’m sure I made the wrong choice though, because walking the sheep trails was an absolute pain.

I was eager to reach the end of this road. After that it was only one more day to a supermarket, and I couldn’t wait to buy more food. For now I watched the waterfalls silently gush below me and I overlooked a beautiful little forest near the river banks all the way down. It was too steep to comfortably climb down now, which didn’t worry me, except that I missed out on a good camping spot. Instead I decided to keep on walking a little longer.

I did get worried when I’d walked so far that the landscape started to change. Suddenly the grassy slopes below me turned into cliffs and a road appeared far, far down. That road met the trail I was supposed to be following, which was in turn going to take me back to the world of the living. I, however, was stuck on top of the mountain.

I couldn’t remember when I last could’ve walked down the slope. A while ago. It was quite possible I had to walk all the way back to somewhere before the forest to get safely down to the road. That was at least an hour before. Shit.

Further ahead the mountain slope seemed to get steeper and rockier, but I knew in reality it was quite impossible to judge the angles of mountains, as perspectives are everchanging. I decided to keep moving ahead opposed to turning around in the hope that the gradient would flatten out at one point so I could safely get down.

That night I walked higher and higher and camped next to a waterfall. It would’ve been a beautiful sight if the weather hadn’t been so grey, and if I wasn’t worried about being stuck on a mountain top.

The following morning I was in luck. I quickly found a place to head down, off the mountain. I scrambled down some big rocks and small cliffs and threw myself down a few steep dry stream beds, landing on my butt, but still managing a decent descend, zigzagging down grassy patches until I was down in less than an hour. I continued to walk next to the road, which was wedged between the mountain range and the river, until I reached the visitor centre.

It was a fancy building, and there was hardly anyone there. I received free coffee, being a green traveller and I bought a piece of cake. I sat at my little table and loved it all.

I had all the intention of moving on that day, but instead got speaking to the girl who worked there. I was curious about the glacial river next to Geldingafell hut that I passed days before. I wanted to know if I had really overlooked a bridge or if people actually had to ford that monstrous river. She informed me that there’s no bridge, but sometimes there’s a snow bridge that people use to cross the river. Although it had supposedly collapsed by now.

I used that bridge! It was still there.

I was delighted to find out the snow bridge is actually a plausible way of crossing a river. Now I was decidedly happy I’d taken that route, rather than wade through the river itself.

After telling the girl my story, she offered me a ride back and forth to the supermarket at Egilsstaðir and in the end invited me to stay at her house. I wasn’t sure whether to accept. I’d only walked half a day, but getting to a supermarket at least a day earlier than expected was tempting. It also meant that I could alter my route and head straight to the East Fjords. Egilsstaðir was actually a bit of a detour for me.

The only problem was that I felt quite awkward. I hadn’t been amongst people in ages, and it was difficult to accept an offer of such hospitality. Still, in the end I couldn’t refuse and said yes. I received a hot meal, did my laundry and took a shower. (Thank you Rebekka!) I watched TV and got a real bed for the first time in two months and it was so strange to be indoors that I could hardly sleep. It was a completely different existence, that one night.

The next day we drove back to the visitor centre. I sat there again, sipping coffee. Everything different for one more moment, until it was time to go. I continued my way. Walking off once again, alone once again, following yet another road with no idea where I’d end up. The unknown was becoming strangely familiar.