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The Mountains of Iceland

The Mountains of Iceland

Henry A. Perkins

IT was a combination of Jules Verne and hay fever that was responsible for my first trip to Iceland in the summer of 1900. Reading A Journey to the Center of the Earth as a boy had created an urge to see that strange land where volcanic craters inscribed with mystic runes led down into the bowels of the earth. But it took a bad attack of hay fever while bicycling on the Rhine early that summer to clinch the matter. “Let’s go where there isn’t any hay,” I said to my classmate and companion. “That sounds good to me,” he replied. So off we started via Copenhagen, Leith, and the Faroe Islands.

Two major disappointments were in store for me. First there was hay. They were cutting the succulent very green grass of the river valley when we arrived, and even mowing the roofs of their homes, many of which had a luxuriant growth like a three weeks’ beard. But Icelandic grass must be different from European grass because I was cured of hay fever for that season. The other disappointment was in the volcano of Jules Verne’s tale. Snaefells Jökull (“Snefel” in the books) is 75 miles as the crow flies across the wide Faxa Fjord from Reykjavik, and well over 100 miles of hard riding by land in just the wrong direction if one wants to see the usual sights of Iceland. So we had to be satisfied with occasional glimpses, when clouds permitted, of its beautiful white cone seen at the end of its long peninsula Snaefellsness across the bay.

There is a curious fascination about Iceland that comes from its sinister volcanic landscape, its snowy domes, its vivid green valleys, its superb waterfalls, its people, their history and their sagas. The books of early travellers testify to the spell it cast upon them, and also to the quaint notions they carried away from “Ultima Thule.” For instance a certain Danish naturalist named Horrebow visited Iceland about 1755 and wrote an account of The Natural History of Iceland, of which the English translation was published in 1758. Chapter 26 is entitled “Whether there are wild beasts in this island.” In it he discussed only polar bears that sometimes come from Greenland on floating ice, and explains how the natives “get out of the way by throwing something to amuse him. A glove is very proper for this purpose; he will not stir till he has turned every finger inside out; and as they are not very dextrous with their paws, this takes up some time, and in the meantime the person makes off.” But the gem of the book which made it famous is Chapter 72, “Concerning snakes.” It reads: “No snakes of any kind are to be met with throughout the whole island,” and has long been quoted (usually misquoted) as the shortest chapter in literature.

Travels in Iceland by Sir George Mackenzie, published in Edinburgh in 1811 is a classic in its field. It is beautifully printed, and illustrated with fine colored lithographs and engravings from sketches by the author. These are models of restraint in comparison with most travel books of the period, when the author and artist let themselves loose in a perfect orgy of fantastic imagination. In contrast to Mackenzie's truthful representations of Icelandic scenery are the illustrations in Iceland; Its Scenes and Sagas, by S. Baring-Gould published in 1863. These too are after drawings by the author and remind one of Gustave Doré on a rampage. In fact Baring-Gould’s interest in Curious Myths of the Middle Ages and Were Wolves seems to have developed his imagination to an inordinate degree. However, the book is full of information and delightful reading, including an account of a fabulous monster, the “skrimsl” which various persons assured the author they had been depositing itself in a lake. A very different travel book is the little known How the Mastiffs went to Iceland, by Anthony Trollope, published in 1878. It is not an example of the author’s style at its best, but the account of the party’s voyage on the yacht Mastiff and their trip to Thingvellir and the geysers is diverting, while the spirited pencil drawings by a lady of the group make the book unique among Icelandic travel tales.

At one time, say between 1880 and 1910 almost everyone who really travelled in Iceland seems to have felt an irresistible urge to write a book about it. The collection of such books in English alone is quite extensive, but browsing through their pages one soon learns to look for accounts of the standard sights, just as an earlier generation wrote up the “grand tour” in Europe. They had to see Thingvellir (Tingvalla), the geysers (Geyser and Strokkr) and Mt. Hekla which some of them climbed, while a few more venturesome souls visited the Northland volcanic region near Myvatn and saw Europe’s greatest waterfall Dettifoss. But few did any serious climbing and the natives did none at all unless obliged to in travelling or hunting or in rounding up the sheep in the fall. Recently, however, the Icelanders have become ardent explorers of the more inaccessible portions of their own land where even after a thousand years of history there are still unknown regions and first ascents to be made.

Roughly speaking there are three kinds of mountains in Iceland. One of these is the fell or fjall1 which is a rocky peak sometimes like the “horns” of Switzerland on a reduced scale and as a rule not over 3000 ft. high. They would be fairly easy climbing by an experienced rock climber except for the fact that they are disintegrating at a rate which makes hand and footholds extremely uncertain. One such which I attempted solo in 1902 nearly resulted in disaster because the higher I climbed the more “rotten” the rocks became and it was necessary to kick or pull out many loose pieces before gaining a firm hold, while the tremendous leaps they took in bounding down the mountain were far from reassuring. Finally with a very precarious hold for both fingers and toes I discovered that a large block I was pressing against midway between my extremities was gently oscillating, just ready to be dislodged. By working sideways very slowly and with great care, I avoided that particular threat, but was never so frightened in my life, and concluded that even a possibly unscaled mountain not over 3000 ft. high was not worth the risk of making the remaining three or four hundred feet. Perhaps it was a case of “sour grapes,” but I never regretted that decision.

A mountain with one or more glaciers as well as an individual glacier is a jökull. Some of them are also fells like the Eyafjalla Jökull which has a rocky cone surrounded by glaciers like an island,hence the “Eya” part of the name, meaning island. Snaefells Jökull is another example of such a combination of rock and glacier. But a typical jökull is a large dome-like area of ice and snow without conspicuous peaks, from which stream huge glaciers. It is chiefly interesting as being an isolated remnant of the last ice age. The most remarkable of these is the Vatna Jökull, a vast glaciated triangle larger than all the glaciers of Switzerland and Norway combined in the southeastern part of the island. It has been crossed several times and partly explored in recent years, though there is considerable evidence to show that it was once less forbidding than at present and that the early settlers in the northland used to cross it on horseback to reach the fishing grounds on the south coast. A large portion of this icefield is an undulating plateau ringed around by rocky eminences and volcanoes, some of which have been disastrously active in modern times. On the southern edge rises Öraefa Jökull one of the most destructive, and its culminating peak the Hvannadals Hnukur (6952 ft.) was long regarded as Iceland’s monarch. But in 1935 Pollitzer-Pollenghi with a small party found a slightly higher summit, the Bardar Gnypa (6966 ft.) on the northwestern edge of Vatna Jökull. This is not as spectacular a summit as the former monarch but is pretty surely the highest point in Iceland. After the Vatna Jökull come Lang-jökull and Hofs Jökull. The former is shown in the plate which gives an excellent idea of this peculiarly Icelandic formation. It has not the beauty of a Jungfrau or a Weisshorn, but its great spread compensates somewhat for its want of height. When seen in the distance stretching its endless white mass along the horizon it has a peculiar majesty suggestive of ages long ago.

Volcanoes are Iceland’s specialty. No similar area begins to have so many or to have thrown out such vast quantities of lava in historic times. Five thousand square miles are covered with lava. Dr. Stefanson tells us in his Iceland, its History and. Inhabitants2 that the lava desert Odathahraun covers 1700 square miles of lava ejected by twenty volcanoes. He says: “The cubic capacity of the lava ejected here would make a solid cube, each side of which would measure about fifty miles. The peninsula of Reykjanes alone contains no less than 300 volcanoes with about 700 craters.” He must have counted very ancient ones, however, for a total of 130 volcanoes in Iceland was Findahl’s estimate in 1928. Of these twenty-five may be rated as active, and from the earliest records till today there have been about fifty-six important eruptions. Hekla, the most active of all, accounts for twenty of these at intervals averaging fifty years. Next comes Katla about thirty miles southeast of Hekla in the midst of the great glacial fields of Myrdals Jökull. Its latest eruption in 1918 coincided with the terrible influenza epidemic which decimated the population during a Seven Days of Darkness.3 Then there are recorded at least eleven submarine eruptions mostly off the southwest peninsula of Reykjaness. Trolladyngja has erupted seven times. Öraefa Jökull five times, and so on through the list of active volcanos. The record shows that although there are usually no smoking volcanoes like Vesuvius or Stromboli, it would be rash to pronounce any of them extinct. For instance Eyjafjalla Jökull’s first recorded eruption was in 1612, and it has erupted twice since then, although it must have been “extinct” during 600 years of Icelandic history. Eruptions in the Vatna Jökull area in recent years have been equally surprising as some have to break through hundreds of feet of the ice sheet above them. Even Snaefells Jökull long supposed extinct may some day awaken from its sleep and rain ashes down on Reykjavik. So Icelanders literally live on a volcano and never know when or where the next eruption will occur. It must add considerable uncertainty to life there, but the inhabitants are so used to it that no one seems to worry about an eruption until it happens.

From the standpoint of a mountaineer, Icelandic mountains do not afford a playground comparable with the Alps, for instance. However, they are not to be despised, and they offer great variety in the character of an ascent. Hekla has, of course, been climbed a great many times and offers no technical difficulties. It is 5108 ft. high, and the ascent should be made in four hours and a half, the first part of the way on horseback. Near the top the snow is fairly steep, and the final cinder cone still steeper, but there are no glaciers and crevasses to negotiate and no serious rock work. So one climbs it for its geological interest and the fine view that may, or may not, be obtained from the summit.

Quite a different proposition is Snaefells Jökull whose icy cone seen from Reykjavik across the blue Faxa Fjord has a strong appeal for mountain climbers. It is only about 4700 ft. high, but offers such serious difficulties that it has probably never been quite conquered unless very recently. At any rate when I first saw it in 1900 it was regarded as unconquered, and Küchler writing of his own attempt in 1909 had the same impression. In 1930 Jon Eythorssen got within about 100 feet of the middle, and highest, peak but like numerous predecessors could not quite make the summit. Indeed it seems probable that no other snow mountain of so little altitude has ever proved so baffling. The difficulties are the weather, an extremely fatiguing approach and finally one appalling cleft (the old crater) between the central and true summit and the eastern peak. Considering these peculiarities an outline of the more important early assaults seems worth our consideration.

One of the first attempts to climb Snaefells Jökull was by Eggert Olafsson who is said to have made an unsuccessful assault in 1755, and again with Paulsson in 1774. In this second attempt they reached the summit of the eastern peak, but could not attain the highest (central) summit because of a cleft in the ice which “had a horrible aspect.” In 1789 a party composed of John Stanley (later Sir John) with Messrs. Wright, Benners, Crawford and Caldin nearly succeeded. Three of them got to within what seemed “a few yards” of the summit. There they were nearly stopped by a chasm crossed by a snow bridge about a foot thick. This Stanley and Wright succeeded in crossing and reached what they thought was the summit and descended to the others to fetch the barometer. Benners joined them on a second ascent; but this time, the sun having risen, they discovered that the “real summit” was the middle one, a thousand yards further west, and they made no attempt to reach it.

In 1810 two members of Sir George Mackenzie’s party, Drs. Bright and Holland climbed the eastern peak which they found to be 4460 ft. high, but did not reach the central peak which “was still 100 feet above us.”

In 1814 Dr. Ebenezer Henderson had a try with one companion and three Icelanders to carry provisions etc. Near the top the pitch was so steep that they could not go more than 30 or 40 paces at a time without resting. He writes: “About 3 o’clock we ultimately succeeded in reaching the base of the highest peak, when all at once a most tremendous precipice appeared at our feet exceeding 2000 feet of nearly perpendicular depth … Skirting the brink of the frozen precipice, we ascended the north side of the peak, but after climbing to within three or four yards of its summit we were debarred all further progress by a perpendicular wall of icy pillars … and completely surrounding the summit which we could reach with great ease with the end of the poles or long walking staves in our hands.” This sounds decidedly queer, but I leave its interpretation to more profound students of mountains, and especially “climbers tales,” than I am.

A French climber, Gaimard, attacked the mountain from the N. in 1835 instead of the usual approach from the S. E. It was much less steep from that side and he nearly succeeded. In 1859 Commander Forbes, R. N., made a gallant attempt but was frustrated by a snowstorm and the refusal of his companions to go further. Lord Garvagh, a complete novice, almost reached the summit in 1872 after climbing only four hours from the snow line. But here his guide gave out with “blood from his ears and in his eyes … unable to breathe atmosphere so rarified.” (at 4500 ft.!) Lord Garvagh was thoroughly disgusted as he had found the ascent surprisingly easy and counted on conquering what he believed to be a virgin peak.

In 1909 a German traveller, Carl Küchter, reached the base of the triple summit at a point where he obtained, from the E., probably the first close-up photograph of the top. But he considered the ascent from that flank or from the south too dangerous to attempt, as it was traversed by countless crevasses. Moreover in his book (a really poetic rhapsody on Icelandic scenery) he tells us that having lost a younger brother two years before on the Jungfrau, he felt unwilling to run a similar risk although like all the others he believed that no one had actually reached the true summit. After reading these various accounts one is convinced that most attempts failed through the inexperience or poor equipment of the climbers, and that an expert mountaineer, such as those the new movement in Iceland is developing, should have no serious difficulty in reasonably good weather.

A really difficult climb, even for an expert, is Herthubreith. The name means “broad shouldered” and the two sounds I have indicated by th are really the single Icelandic letter “eth” pronounced like the soft th in father. This mountain was undoubtedly a virgin peak when I saw it in 1902, but Professor Stefan Einarsson of Johns Hopkins University tells me that it was climbed less than ten years ago by a party of three Icelandic explorers: Olafur Jóhnsson and Edvard Sigurgeirsson of Akureyri; and Stefan Gunnbjörn Egilsson of Laxamyri. Herthubreith is said to be 5477 ft. high, and seen, as I saw it, from the northwest at a distance of nearly 35 miles it is a formidable and unusual mountain. It rises quite alone from a sandy plane black with cinders and with occasional green pasture land surrounded by rough and barren lava. Some of this lava Richard Burton describes as having a “green glaze fresh as if laid on yesterday.” It was like riding on “domes of cast iron,” he says, “a system of boilers.” Then comes a moat or kind of bergschrund encircling the mountain, its inner flank sometimes rising in high cliffs near the beginning of the talus made of palagonite clay as well as cellular basalt of all sizes, some as large as “an Icelandic room.” This talus reaches far up the mountain where the “core” begins. This core is the original mountain exposed by gradual disintegration. It rises in buttresses and flying buttresses resembling pillars of mud and very steep. From a distance of 35 miles one would judge it to have an average slope of perhaps 80°. The heads of these columns Burton says form a cornice, the mountain’s “shoulders,” and “from the summit of the cylinder an unbroken cone of virgin snow sweeps grandly up to the apex.” It is a superb mountain even at the distance from which I saw it.

Burton in his Ultima Thule, from which I have just quoted, attempted an ascent in 1872. He worked his way around from the base (1500 ft. above sea level) on the lower, less precipitous slopes below the “pillars” from the N. toward the E. Then “after an hour and a half of very hard work, for we had scrambled up nearly 2000 feet, we reached the mud pillars, and serious difficulties began.” They then had about 2000 ft. still to climb. It was late, as they had lost valuable time by taking the worst possible route in reaching the base. The sun was setting and Burton’s Icelandic companion Steffan was exhausted. Stones began falling from above (a peculiarity of Iceland where “cannonades” occur toward evening instead of in the morning). He attempted to negotiate a couloir but had three narrow escapes and finally “judged the game was not worth the candle.” So though close to the snow cone, he had to abandon the attempt and could not renew it later because his companion whose ‘‘footgear was in tatters” had to return to the starting point where he had been promised to another traveller. In reading this account one realizes that Mr. Burton, better known for his exploits in Arabia and for his translation of the Arabian Nights, had plenty of courage and considerable technical skill, so that if he could have tried again with the experience gained from the first attempt, he would probably have succeeded.

Herthubreith was regarded as impregnable for many years. In 1881 Mr. John Coles, F. R. G. S., en route with two friends to explore Askja stopped to admire “the broad shouldered mountain” and writes: “Its summit is said to be inaccessible, though we met an American at Reykjavik who said he had ascended it, and the New York Tribune contained an amusing description of his expedition.” This was my former fellow townsman William Lee Howard, later of Baltimore and locally noted for his tall tales. This particular tale was based on a genuine trip to Iceland the same year that Coles was there. On his return he gave an interview to a Tribune reporter. It was printed on October 19, 1881, and a portion reads as follows: “I climbed to the top of it (i.e. Herthubreith), 6740 ft. above sea level. The only way to ascend for 1500 ft. was to fly a large kite with an anchor attached, and a rope fastened to the anchor. After securing the anchor to the rocks above my head, I would pull myself up by means of the rope. By repeating the operation many times I made the ascent in thirty-eight hours.”

Askja is a volcano forming part of a group of volcanic mountains called Dyngju-fjöll. It has by far the largest crater of any of the Icelandic volcanos and its eruption in 1875 was the most impressive of any in the world during the nineteenth century, barring the appalling explosion of Krakatoa in the Straits of Sunda in 1883. Apparently Askja was unknown, as a volcano at any rate, until this its first recorded outbreak from a very long slumber. The region to the north and west of it had been surveyed in 1837 by Gunnlaugsson, but bad weather drove him back before he could make a really accurate survey of the region. So no one really explored Askja until the year of its great eruption which began with a tremendous explosion January 4, 1875. During the following February, Iceland’s worst month, an adventurous Icelander, Jon of Vithikaer crossed the lava desert Odathahraun (“evil deeds lava flow”) as far as Askja which must have temporarily subsided. He did not climb the volcano, but he did find the ruins of the ancient abode of the outlaws whose misdeeds gave the desert its name. On March 29 the greatest eruption of pumice and ashes took place covering 3000 square miles with pumice to a minimum depth of two inches on the east coast 50 miles away.

The first real ascent of Askja was made during the following summer, when it was still extremely active, by a hardy and courageous young man from Scotland named William Lord Watts. After crossing the Vatna Jökull in terrible weather, a really remarkable feat, he saw the Dynjufjöll far to the north “smoking away with greater ferocity than ever” and decided to go there and see what it was all about. He and his party of Icelanders reached the edge of the crater and he writes: “Beneath us lay a pandemonium of steam and hideous sounds. Suddenly a fearful crash made us stand aghast; it seemed-as if half the mountain had tumbled in upon the other side of the horrible valley … while the most hideous shrieks, groans, booming and screaming sounds rose from all parts of this terrible depression.” Rifts kept opening near them and “a mile away to the north we could see the rim of the crater, at a great depth beneath us, and while we were looking at it, a great crack opened upon its margin, and a huge slice slipped with but little noise into the crater.” Further on he writes: “We turned our backs upon what I can imagine to be one of the most indescribable sights the world can anywhere present!” What he was observing was probably the formation of a great abyss which a few years later had become filled with water forming quite a sizeable lake.

Askja was visited and mapped the following summer by Professor Johnstrup and Lt. Caroc of the Danish Navy, but the most careful study of the volcano during those years was made by Mr. W. G. Lock, F.R.G.S., who visited it in 1878 and in 1880. His book Askja, Iceland’s Largest Volcano describes the second and more successful trip in 1880. At that time the volcano was still more or less active. He writes: “Steam belched forth at intervals from about a dozen large holes and rifts with such violence that the rocky ridge upon which we stood trembled.” Then he descended to the floor of the crater 800 ft. below and writes: “It is almost circular in shape, quite seventeen miles in circumference, and encircled by a somewhat jagged mountain wall varying from 800 to 1500 ft. in height above the superficial lava … At least three of its highest hollows contain true glaciers.” He further observed that almost diametrically opposite each other were gaps in the wall through one of which much of the lava of the Odathahraun must have flowed. Then he continues: “The crossing of the lava-covered floor of Askja is the most fatiguing work; it has taken me, a young and active man, each time that 1 have crossed four hours to proceed as many miles, most of the way by the aid of my hands protected by thick woollen mittens that they might not be cut by the lava.” He also climbed an inner cone which he called the “Pumice Crater” rising 200 ft. above the lava floor and writes that the view from its summit “is as unquestionably unique as it is wildly weird.”

By far the most remarkable of Iceland’s mountain massifs is the Vatna Jökull. Its great ice cap is ringed around with volcanoes and glaciers, and even now it has been only partially explored. Its name means “the glacier of waters” which is very apt, as the melting of such a mass of ice gives rise to many great rivers some of which suddenly appear, flow for a time, and then as suddenly run dry. Hans Wilhelmsson Ahlmann, a Swedish geologist, in his book Land of Ice and Fire (London, 1938) says the annual precipitation in the “Devils Pass” 4000 ft. above sea level is about thirteen feet, compared to two feet three inches in Spitzbergen, and he adds: “There can be no doubt but that Vatna Jökull is something quite special in the way of glaciers.” One of its rivers, the Jökulsá, has a flow of water greater than that of any other river in Iceland although it is barely one kilometer long. It wells up from underneath the glacier (not through a hole) carrying enormous quantities of mud and gravel from far underneath the glacier.”

It is the combination of water, ice and lava that makes the southern portion of the Vatna peculiarly terrible and peculiarly Icelandic. For instance in 1727 Öraefa Jökull staged a terrific eruption when lava melted the ice, and the glacier “suddenly slid with enormous floods of water down on the lowlands and washed away whatever blocked its path. Everything perished. That which was not crushed by ice was drowned in the floods. That which was not consumed by fire was buried beneath the ash and pumice.” This was described by an eye witness and reported by Olaus Olavius in Oekonomisk Reise, Copenhagen, 1780, and he further reported: “When the deluges had passed, the glacier itself slid forward onto the plain looking exactly like molten metal that is poured from a melting pot.”

Ahlmann’s book already referred to, and from which the above quotations were taken, describes a thoroughly modern expedition with dog teams and base camps established on the ice cap itself. The purpose was to study the formation of the cap and especially its annual change in thickness. The expedition covered quite a large practically unexplored area especially in the central and western portions. In one place toward the western boundary they found “two open craters from whose boiling lava the smoke arose steadily (and) betrayed the volcano sleeping beneath the ice, one of the strangest examples in nature of heat and cold, fire and ice side by side.”

The classic description of this great snow cap is in Watts’ account Across the Vatna Jökull. There he describes the first crossing in modern times (1875) and the book is absorbingly interesting. It took them twelve days to cross the plateau from S. to N. partly because of fearful weather conditions. In places the crust broke through to their knees but luckily the sleds they were pulling remained on top. He writes: “Although the snow became worse and worse and we sank deeper into it as we proceeded, we managed to do five hours work by halting every quarter of an hour.” Then came a storm which continued two days. The compass was useless and it was “impossible to get many yards away from the tent without being lost.” After that there was more soft snow and they were reduced to half rations. Finally they abandoned the sleds and the six men in the party carrying supplies and equipment on their backs, continued wading through snow up to their knees. The plateau rose in altitude as they moved northward until they reached a height of 5900 ft. Then followed other storms, and Watts writes: “Never before had I heard the wind make such an unearthly wail. It seemed as if every imaginable demon and all the storm spirits of that wild region had assembled to howl and make a united attack upon us.” From the northern and highest rim (6150 ft. where they reached it) they descended very steeply down precipitous snow slopes succeeded by a fringe of glaciers and then by lava flows. “The snow terminated in half melted slush lying on a bottom of ice. Wading through the slush which at times took us up to the waist, we next reached Kistufell where the ice and snow terminated … The Vatna Jökull now lay behind us with its mysterious recesses and volcanos carefully guarded from intrusion by gloom and storm''

Ahlmann’s party sixty years later had better weather and were far better equipped, but they too were impressed with the forbidding character of this greatest of Iceland’s mountains whose vastness and inaccessibility should give it a high rating with mountaineers in search of new conquests and adventures.

Note.—Two early maps are among the illustrations. The first is from the first Swiss edition (Basle, 1567) of Historia de gentium septentrionalium, by Olaus Magnus. This shows Iceland, with Mt. Hekla in eruption and a polar bear on an ice-pan off the east coast. In the northern part of Scandinavia there are figures of men skiing and ski-jöring with reindeer.

The second map is from the rare French edition (1646) of Blaeu’s Atlas Major, and shows Mt. Hekla in eruption, a representation characteristic of many 15th and 16th century maps.

1The double l in these words is pronounced something like the double l in such Welch names as Llandudno. It is not “th” but almost like an unvocalized “tl” ejected from the corners of the mouth. One writer says the only successful way to do it is to have a hollow tooth, put your tongue in it and draw it out smartly.

2Washington Government Printing Office, 1907.

3Title of English translation of Gunnar Gunnarsson’s Salige er de Enfoldige.