Some Icelandic Mountains
KENNETH A. HENDERSON
From a mountaineering standpoint Iceland has been much neglected. This is a pity, for the scenery abounds in extensive views, the country is interesting and historic, the people pleasant and extremely helpful, and the mountains most interesting from a geological and glaciological standpoint. In the main the climbs are not technically difficult, except perhaps those few snow climbs where some short stretches of technical difficulty are found. The rock is of volcanic origin and extremely friable so that difficult rock climbs which are justifiable from an objective viewpoint are hard to find. Because of the fine facilities at our disposal last summer, three of us, Frank Gaebelein, Casper Cronk, and I were able to make the ascent of several major peaks of Iceland in late July and early August. The following account may be helpful to others wishing to make climbs in Iceland, as no adequate guidebooks are available.
KERLINGARFJÖLL AND THE CENTRAL HIGHLAND
The Kerlingarfjöll (Carline Mountains) lie on the central highland between the Langjökull (Long Glacier) and the Hofsjökull (Temple Glacier), nearer the latter. They may be reached over a rocky but well- cairned road from Gullfoss (Golden Fall) on the Hvítá (White River) by ordinary car, although care must be used at some of the fords if the weather has been warm and glacier melting considerable. Extra gasoline is advisable, although we managed with only a tankful. There is a fine shelter hut, the Asgarðhús, of the Ferðafélag Islands (Icelandic Tourist Association), located at about 2500 feet on the high ridge between the Jökullfall and the Innri-Asgarðsá River. The Ferðafélag runs bus trips here during the summer, going also to other points of interest on the central highland. The massif is composed of four or five peaks of about 4500 feet altitude with a number of small glaciers, and in the midst is the Hveradalir (Hot Spring Valleys), where the largest group of hot springs in Iceland is located. Somewhat below this, the Innri-Asgarðsá drops into a deeply cut canyon. The 500-foot drop through soft volcanic rock is similar in structure to, although far more somber than, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Wyoming.
From the refuge hut it is an easy walk up the ridge skirting this canyon to the glaciers of the highest peaks, about four miles distant. Snaekollur (4846 feet) is the highest of the peaks and is a relatively easy snow climb up the east face. A more interesting climb is Loðmundur (4698 feet), just north of Snaekollur. Loðmundur is a distinctive rock peak built in the form of a tower with steep cliffs on all sides. There are several breaks in these cliffs, but the couloirs formed in them are very steep and full of loose scree, which, although useful for a quick descent, should be avoided on the ascent. With moderate difficulty from loose rook, the climb can be made from the Loðmundurskarð between Loðmundur and Snaekollur (Snow Peak). From this same col a series of ridges can be followed to Snaekollur itself, making a pleasant and not too difficult day. We made this trip under adverse weather conditions, reaching the summit in a blizzard. Several other snow peaks may be reached across the glacier on the other side of this pass. Ögmundur and several lower peaks to the west may be reached by crossing the Innri-Asgarðsá above the canyon, although this makes a considerably longer day.
The Hofsjökull is not easily reached by ordinary conveyance and is more suitable for a ski ascent than climbing on foot, as it rises in a great dome-shaped mass. The Langjökull, similarly, is best ascended by ski owing to the long distance. However, one may obtain good ice climbing and route finding through séracs in the icefalls of the Nyrðri and Fremri Skriðjöklar (the More Northerly and Further Sliding Glaciers), two of the distributary glaciers which fall into Hvítárvatn (White River Water). Near this beautiful lake is located the Hvítárneshús, another hut of the Ferðafélag. It was here at Hvítárnes that Hauskold the Priest, of the Njal Saga, lived in the 11th century. The farmland was abandoned after the eruption of Hekla in 1104, when the land became unusable.
Hrútafell (Ram Peak, 4626 feet), lying east of the Langjökull and just north of Hvítárnes, is well worth a visit. It can be approached closely only by truck or jeep. Defended on all sides by high cliffs, it is best ascended by glaciers which drop down through these cliffs on the north and northeast sides. It may be approached also, on foot as well as by jeep, from Hveravellir (Hot Springs Plains), the large hot spring area at the end of the Kjalvegur on its northern side.
Hekla, long associated in the medieval mind as the site of Hell, or at least the entrance thereto, was the favorite objective of most early travelers to Iceland. Its long record of volcanic activity embracing 16 eruptions in the last 800 years has spread its fame far beyond its native heath.
The ascent of Hekla is quite rewarding. For nearly 100 years the usual route of ascent has been from the farm Naefurholt up the south side of the mountain. In the past, horses could be taken high on the mountain to facilitate the climb. However, the eruption of 1947-1948 changed all this. The farm and the valley between it and the mountain was covered by new lava many feet thick. The farm was moved nearer the river, Ytri- Rangá (Outer Crooked River), and although still on the way to the mountain, Naefurholt is no longer used as a climbing base. At Hella, on the main road from Reykjavík to Kirkjubaejarklauster, one may obtain a jeep and driver who knows the mountain. It is only 50 miles from Hella over a reasonably good road to Hekla. As far as Naefurholt the road is generally good, but it is narrow and crosses several deep fords. From there on, four-wheel drive is required, as the way leads through old lava fields and over a number of subsidiary ridges until Little Hekla, on the northwest side of the mountain, is reached. The route skirts the edge of the 1947 lava flows and then goes up the soft cinder slopes of Little Hekla. If the jeep is not too heavily laden, it may be possible to drive several hundred feet up these lower slopes before bogging down. From this spot (ca. 1500 feet) it is about a 1500-foot climb to the top of Little Hekla, from which the entire summit area of the mountain may be seen. This part of the ascent is very easy, for the slope is not steep, and the cinders have been consolidated to make good footing. However, the rest of the way is over steep, unconsolidated slag or cinder, or over snow-covered glacier. The latter route is preferable and should be followed wherever possible. Once on the summit ridge, the gradient is easier, and the cinder slopes become less troublesome.
The summit was raised 180 feet by the 1947 eruption and is now 4931 feet in altitude. It is the highest point on the ridge around the northern crater, where the explosion occurred in the last eruption. The entire crater rim and much of the summit area give off a considerable amount of steam and are composed of loose cinders and ash which are warm to the touch and to walk on. From the summit and its crater we went over the ridge to the south along the rim of the central crater, which is about one-half mile long and 100 yards wide. The descent from the peak was easy, with long glissades or simple traverses over the snow-covered glaciers.
Snaefellsjökull (Snow Peak Glacier, 4744 feet) lies at the end of the long peninsula of Snaefellsnes, which, except for a small bit of the great northwest peninsula, is the westernmost point in Iceland. It is well known to those who have sailed in the Faxafloi to Reykjavík or have spent time in that vicinity, for on clear days the peak’s great, gleaming cone of white is readily seen across the 90 miles of foam-flecked water between. In contradistinction to the eastern Snaefell (6014 feet), the glacier-clad peak north of the Vatnajökull between the Jökullsá á Brú and the Jökullsá, it is always referred to with the appellation "jökull” at its end. The mountain appears as a truncated cone with the snow-filled crater broken away on the north side.
With four-wheel drive it may be possible to reach a point fairly high on the east side of the mountain, but we drove the car along the main road and camped on the south side of the mountain near the farm of Dagverdará a few miles from the village of Stapi.
The ascent of Snaefellsjökull is easy and straight-forward from this point. There is a broken subsidiary crater at about 2300 feet on the southeast slope of the mountain. We headed directly for the western ridge of this crater and found the going very good, over grass until near the top of the ridge and then over fairly stable rock. From the little col between the crater rim and the mountain, it was only a short distance to the edge of the glacier at about 2500 feet. Although it was the first of August the ice was covered with a thin layer of snow. There were many small crevasses, but none large enough to impede our progress, and the next 2000 feet was mainly a steady plod over snow to the rock peak on the right side of the skyline ridge. We found that the ridge marked the edge of the crater. The snow and ice fell away steeply toward the north, and the crevasses were much larger. According to the map the rock peak on our right was some 15 feet higher than the great snow summit on the left end of the ridge; so we traversed on steep, rime-covered snow slopes diagonally upward to the northwest corner of the peak where the route looked easiest. From here it was only about 30 feet up almost vertical, rime-covered snow to the top. It was necessary to cut through about six inches of frost feathers into the underlying snow to get good holds. The steepness of the slope made it impossible to stand in the steps without also cutting away the rime and snow between. Progress was slow, therefore, but the distance to the top was not great. The summit view is superb: the sparkling blue of the Faxafloi to the south, the Breidafjördur on the north, and the Denmark Strait stretching toward Greenland on the west. Eastward the hills extended back to the mainland, which was seen dimly in the distance through the dust clouds raised by the winds.
Snaefellsjökull was climbed first by Eggert Olafsson and Biarne Pálsson on July 1, 1754, and has been attempted many times since, often unsuccessfully because of poor visibility and inability to find the summit in the fog. The route which we used, however, can be followed easily by compass with minimum danger from crevasses.
Herðubreið (Broad Shoulder, 5518 feet) is shown as one of Iceland’s most beautiful mountains. It is situated near the eastern edge of the Ódádahraun (Lava of Evil Deed), the dreaded lava field which stretches for 100 miles on the northern edge of the Vatnajökull. The mountain is circular in shape and is almost completely surrounded by a double band of cliffs composed of soft and loosely cemented palagonite breccias. Curiously enough, the columnar basalts, the harder rocks which form the real base of the mountain, are covered largely by scree on most sides of the mountain. The cliffs themselves might be climbed if one had enough time to attempt them with the care which they demand, for the rock is exceedingly rotten. However, there is a break in them on the northwest corner which offers a feasible route to the summit plateau. The base of the mountain is about three miles in diameter, while the summit plateau, some 3000 feet higher, is roughly a mile and a half across. The summit plateau is, in turn, surmounted by a volcanic cone on which there is a dead glacier on the northern side. From a distance the mountain thus resembles an extremely broad-shouldered man, from which resemblance it takes its name.
Herðubreið cannot be approached closely by car without four-wheel drive to cross the Jökullsá á Fjöllum east of the mountain and to negotiate the intervening lava flows. This route was used by the 1955 survey party with two trucks equipped with winches to help each other over difficulties. A more usual route with jeep follows the road on the west side of the river, thereby avoiding having to ford this deep and rapid stream, and then crossing the Ódádahraun from either Grafarlönd or Herðubreiðar- lindir. This approach makes the ascent possible in a long day from Myvatn (Midge Lake), where good hotels may be found, although a camp at Grafarlöndsá (Cut Lands River) or Herðubreiðarlindir (Herðubreið Brook) would make an easier trip.
We left our jeep at Grafarlöndsá as far up the meadows bordering the river as we could drive, and then headed directly toward the mountain. From here the mountain is about 12 miles distant, and the route of ascent lies around it to the northwest corner. The footing is good for about 10 miles across the lava, but there is considerable up and down. The last few miles around the mountain on the outwash plain is smoother going. The first 3000 feet of ascent is up scree-covered gullies, the upper parts of which were extremely loose. Even climbing some rock ridges didn’t help, for the rock crumbled when touched. Some snow slopes, however, were helpful, and we followed them whenever possible. From the top of the gullies there are a few cairns which were erected by the survey party and which lead to the summit. Rather than follow the cairns, however, we headed directly for the summit, first crossing remnants of the dead glacier and then climbing steep ice- and snow-covered slopes on the north side of the summit. Beset by fog as we arrived on top, we soon returned a short distance down the west ridge, but we found the rock rotten and the views through the mist to the lake on the south side disconcerting; so we headed back down the way we had come.
Although we had enjoyed fine views of Snaefells from the Ódádahraun on the way to the peak in the morning and excellent views of the Vatna- jökull and Kverkfjöll on our way up the mountain, most of the return trip across the lava fields was made, after a fine sunset at about 10:30 P.M., in a gathering storm, by following a compass course. The round trip covered some 25 miles of walking and 3500 feet of climbing, which with the 100 miles of driving means a very long day. It should be possible to shorten this distance considerably by starting from Herðubreiðar- lindir, which is three or four miles nearer the mountain.
One of the most interesting parts of Iceland lies in the remote southeastern part of the island. The Öraefijökull is the high southern extension of the great Vatnajökull, that vast icefield which covers some 3400 square miles of the land. Its name, Wilderness Glacier, is well chosen, for it is separated from the rest of the country by impassable barriers. On the north lies the icefield of the Vatnajökull (Water Glacier), so called because of the severe floods coming from it as the result of sub-glacier volcanic activity. To the west and east are the great stretches of gravel, the Skeiðarársandur and Breiðamerkursandur, crisscrossed for miles by braided streams, deep and rocky or with quicksands. The streams are changing their beds all the time and periodically are subject to excessive flooding by the dreaded jökullhlaup (glacier burst). The Öraefijökull blew up with tremendous violence three times in the 14th century destroying the farms in the area, and many other natural catastrophes (floods, advancing glaciers, etc.) have made life hard and have served to breed a special kind of self-reliance among the inhabitants of this region. This section is now accessible by plane with service twice weekly from Reykjavík to Fagerholsmýri (The Beautiful Hill in the Bog).
The highest point in the Öraefi is Hvannadalshnúkur (Angelica Valley Knoll, 6952 feet), also the highest peak in Iceland. It is situated on the north side of the ancient crater on the edge of the Vatnajökull. Nearer the south edge of the crater rises another high point, Knappur (The Knob, 6073 feet), often attempted but only climbed a few years ago for the first time.
The mountain may be climbed directly from the airfield at Fagerholsmýri. We arranged to stay at one of the farms there and were able to select a possible route for the ascent to the skyline 6000 feet above. The next morning we started at 2:30 A.M., for we knew that the route was long: about 3500 feet of ascent to the glacier front and another 2500 feet over the ice to the skyline. This we reached at 9 A.M. after a nine- mile climb. A close look at Knappur disclosed why it had defied attack for so long. Although the climb was only a few hundred feet, a mean bergschrund cut directly across the only route, and the entire, extremely steep slope was sheathed in rime. From this point we had to cross the crater on a relatively level walk of three miles to the peak itself. Hvannadalshnúkur rises about 1000 feet from the crater’s floor, and its slopes are crossed by many crevasses. Although these seemed small from a distance, many proved to be very large and deep, so that a careful selection of route was most important. We reached the summit at noon. The view was extensive, except to the east where clouds hung somewhat below us to obscure the views in that direction. To the north and east over the Vatnajökull we could see for many miles, and southward over the Atlantic the horizon was the only bar to visibility. We started back at 1 P.M. and reached the farm for supper five hours later after a 25-mile round trip and an up-and-down climb of 14,000 feet. The climb could be shortened by staying at the abandoned farm of Sandfellsome six miles from Fagerholsmýri, but this would entail walking that distance on the road unless one could arrange for a ride on one of the large trucks which are the chief form of transportation in the area. Hvannadalshnúkur may also be climbed from the Vatnajökull, for it is possible to drive a weasel to within about an hour’s walk from the summit from that side. This, however, would require a great deal of equipment and advance planning.
The scenery in this part of Iceland is outstanding. The many glaciers which descend the valleys from the Öraefijökull make it appear more alpine in nature than any other part of the country. The farms have mostly the old sod houses which are being replaced rapidly elsewhere by cement. The farmers still cut the hay from the rooftops as well as in the tún, but each farm has its own electric generator with more than enough water power. Here, where Ingolf first landed and spent his first three years in Iceland and where many of the influential chieftains mentioned in the sagas lived, there is perhaps still retained the finest flavor of the old Iceland which is disappearing rapidly elsewhere.
Ascents: Snaekollur, 4846 ft.; Loðmundur, 4698 ft.; Hekla, 4931 ft.; Snaefellsjökull, 4744 ft.; Herðubreið, 5518 ft.; Hvannadalshnúkur, 6952 ft.
Personnel: Casper Cronk, Frank E. Gaebelein, Kenneth A. Henderson.