Distance covered: 28 miles
The problem with staying in such a nice hut is that it’s difficult to leave but I have that one clear, early wake-up call and no room for doubt. The weather seems to resume where it left it the day before which is not that bad of a news. It is demanding weather to be outside but far from my fear induced nightmare dreams. It is cloudy, windy, cold and generally unsettled but it is not raining consistently and there are even occasional spells of brightness.
It’s still good to go step by step, think of the next milestone only which in my case is the hut in Dingjufell. It’s 13 miles to get there so roughly a half day’s walk. I can do that no matter the weather so I can relax for now. Nothing can go wrong.
Out the Botni door there’s more lava field hiking. It’s kind of mesmerizing to be going through such an special environment: flat, featureless (had I said that before?) and so oddly shaped underfoot. One could set a bearing in a straight line and just keep going. I choose the easier way which means following the wooden markers. They’re spaced out enough to require close attention but that’s all it takes.
It’s also odd that there seems to be no “logical” way to the track … when following a trail or a cairned route in non-volcanic ground, there’s usually a sense of direction that takes you there before you see the next marker or the next section of trail tread. Not so in the lava fields. At most, the only apparent “rule” is that the track tries to link the sandy patches, when available. If not, a straight line would be expected but that’s not always, not exactly the case. Overall it wasn’t difficult to follow the markers anyway.
Back to gravel
I get off the lava field and onto gravel. Here the track is clearly marked on the ground again. There are isolated volcanic cones like islands in a sea of dust and rock. I’m starting to really enjoy this.
The land is so flat and void that it’s difficult to spot stuff like streams. Upon checking the map I see I must be very close to one but I can’t see it. A couple minutes walk later, there it is. There was nothing in the visible horizon that would show there was a water course there.
No need to say I’m on my own and don’t expect otherwise. It’s like I’m on the moon and the landscape helps. Then, there’s the first happening of what will develop into a regular feature: a 4WD comes along. There are tyre prints so it’s obvious that cars travel here, yet meeting one was the least likely thing I had in mind.
They stop and ask if I’m all right. I don’t think I look otherwise so my interpretation is that the whole place is just overwhelming enough so people would care for a lone hiker. I smile back. Indeed I’m quite all right. The scene will repeat a few times in the following days.
I’m getting closer to mountains. This is the northern slopes of the Askja caldera, a giant crater filled with water a-la Oregon’s Crater Lake, just not as big. The track squeezes in between rock walls and manages to keep a rather flat course but now I’m on a valley. This is news.
A few minutes ahead lies Dingjufell.
It’s the same kind of hut as Botni. I happily get in for a midday break.
There’s already a backpacker in there, a guy from Germany that’s getting his stuff dry after having crossed the Askja caldera and rim the day before. He relates how wet the traverse was due to both late season snow in the high areas and rain all along. This shows how tricky the weather is in Iceland, as I had quite limited rain just a day’s hike north.
The german guy seems worn down emotionally and I can certainly empathise with that. He’s got a very comfy setting with the heat on, which a driving-by, checking ranger had set. It was tricky as hell: one outside faucet, two other inside and a strict protocol that would be nobody’s guess.
We chat as we hear the wind howling outside and the rain hitting the windows but it doesn’t look too dark. I get out for a quick check and indeed all stays pretty much the same: windy, unsettled but not too bad. Sometimes it looks worse from inside than it really is.
I would have considered staying in Dingjufell for the night if the weather was really bad but as it is I have no excuse. After a hefty lunch and a well deserved break, I say goodbye, wish and get wished good luck and step outside. My death-march has no hut within reach now but it doesn’t look so deathly either.
No more safety net
I keep following a good track. The ground is gravel so it makes for easy walking. The track proceeds upstream in a slope that would be gentle for mountaineering standards but is actually the first real climb I do in the highlands. It feels like a high mountain traverse of the mid latitudes, with all rock, no vegetation and late season snow patches. It’s very pretty.
Only that the climb doesn’t end on a crest or a saddle. Instead, the terrain levels out and the valley opens up, leaving the Askja walls on the left –east– and showing a huge plain ahead, south.
When the residual climb finishes, I get to see far away south and get my first views of the northern rim of the Vatnajokull icecap. It’s beautiful and it’s a milestone. I’m making progress.
I’m still skirting the Askja western slopes when I meet two other backpackers coming north. They’re heading for Dingjufell tonight and I’m happy to announce it’s an easy, mostly downhill, beautiful hike and a great place to spend the night. They’re on the same journey as myself, just northbound and on a less demanding schedule and more traditional packing approach. They have already crossed most of the highland section and bring me interesting news of what comes ahead, most of them reassuring. They’ve been on good tracks all the way with just a few tricky, not too dangerous fords. The track skirting the Vatnajokull that I was most concerned about is just as good as the one we’re standing on. Out of the two mapped huts further south, there’s one that is open to the public, the other is not. They haven’t tried the most logical, direct route along the western end of the big icecap due to advice from rangers about the potentially dangerous fords on the way. It’s the same advice I’ve got.
While we chat I have the chance to verify the difference between hiking with or against the wind in this kind of weather. They appear much wetter than I do, their faces dripping and their attire more protective than mine. I probably look the same on my behind but I can’t really feel that.
It was a highly reassuring meeting for me. By that time, I was feeling quite emotionally fine compared to previous instances but still quite concerned about what was about to come. Suddenly it was all crystal clear and I felt like a much happier hiker. It’s the same old inner game that I find much easier with that little help from my backpacking friends.
I eventually start coming down to the huge expanse of land in-between Askja and the Vatnajokull. It’s not that much of a vantage point I’m at but I have a view that lets me understand the land. Other than Askja or the big icecap, the other distinct feature is the beautifully named Trolladyngja, a magnificent shield volcano that I’ll be going around for the rest of today and most of tomorrow.
The evening is getting brighter to the point that actual holes in the clouds break up to reveal blue sky above. Not so quick with a backpacker’s high as there’s still showers going through that remind me how cold and unpleasant rain+wind can feel but there’s indeed a progressive, unstoppable clearing going on. I’m now on a temporary eastward course as I follow the F910, a very major highland track. I meet a couple of 4WDs along the way.
As I get to the expected junction I can verify I’m joining a well worn track with a sign that clears up my future for the next 48 miles. Less than an hour later I’m looking for my first highland campsite and I’m relieved to verify it’s easy to find some minor hills to hide behind. As I make camp, there’s still a strongish breeze to shelter from.
The ground is sandy but there’s a good supply of heavy, dense, smooth surfaced rocks perfect for anchoring. I’m pleased with my arrangement. I have a home in the highlands.
Later the wind will calm down and the clouds will retreat to leave a twilight sky view. At last Iceland is being kind to me and I appreciate it highly.