Hiking in Þórsmörk (Thórsmörk)

Húsadalur to Þórsmörk (4.5 km - 130m ascent - 90m descent)

Sun, showers and rainbows!


Reaching Langidalur Hut

Having completed the Laugarvegur Trek, our guide Svava led our group of walkers back up the track from Húsadalur towards Þórsmörk. We quickly walked up through the birch forest to climb a set of wooden steps and pass the graffiti-covered Snorrariki Cave (some recent, but some so old they are written in runes). Once over a pass, we followed the birch-filled Langidalur Valley as it opened out into a grassy flat, only to be blocked by the wide gravel bed of the Krossá River.

Heading into Þórsmörk - and rain

The last big patch of sunshine lights up the valley

It was here that the bad weather finally caught us - just as we arrived at Langidalur Hut the wind picked up, blowing down the river bed and the rain began to fall. Unfortunately, we were not staying here - our hut was another two kilometres away, walking up the broad and stony watercourse formed by the Krossá. The bright side to all of this was the beautiful rainbow that led us up the river to reach a long metal bridge. When I looked down onto the churning torrent, it was clear that this was not a river to wade.

One of the many braids of the Krossá River

Another superb rainbow - this time over the Krossá

Bridge to Basar Hut

It was only a short walk on the far side of the river to reach the hut at Basar, set in a sheltered and forested hollow beneath Útigönguhöfði Mountain. It was the best hut we had stayed in to date, having separate sleeping and dining areas and inside toilets (its the little comforts that count). With rain falling intermittently outside, we felt comfortable.

Sadly, though, the weather forecast for the next two days was particularly grim. Our main reason for being here was to climb the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, that had erupted in 2010, shutting down western Europe's airports for several weeks. Now that seemed unlikely - with an arctic gale and heavy rain forecast, the top of an Icelandic volcano would be no place to be.

Basar Hut

Strakagil Gorge (4 km - 130m ascent - 130m descent)

Rain and sleet!

It had rained heavily all night long and was still raining when we got up. The Krossá River was close to a banker and, in fact, the access road to our hut at Basar had been cut - no escape today. I wandered down to check out the churning brown torrent and could see why - the far end of the bridge was now a few metres from the bank. With gale force winds forecast to sweep in from the Arctic by lunchtime, the hut seemed the place to be.

Even in these conditions, cabin fever can quickly set in and by 3pm Svava launched Plan B, which was a short walk up Strakagil, one of the side gorges of Þórsmörk, to a cave in the basalt cliffs once used by a pair of notorious outlaws. It was good to get out in the fresh air (and with the wind blowing and single digit temperature, it was indeed fresh).

The Krossá River swollen after a night of rain

Deep in the Strakagil Gorge

Mists swirl around the Eyjafjallajökull Glacier

Fresh snow on the summit of Útigönguhöfði

The way back to Basar

The narrow cave entry high above the stream

View from the cave

On the way back we detoured to climb up through the low forest to a viewpoint high above Basar. As rain mixed with flurries of wet snow swept in, we took in the misty views of braided river in one direction and snow-dusted peaks and the ice cap of Eyjafjallajökull in the other, before retreating to the warmth of the hut. It had been good to get out, but was even better to get back.

A curiously shaped basalt plug guarding the Krossá Valley near Basar

The birch forest of Þórsmörk

That night as the wind clattered against the hut, I reminisced about the volcanic eruption that occurred here just three years ago, pouring out 250 million cubic metres of ash and cinders. The ash plume, blown south-east over Europe, had a drastic impact on air traffic, shutting down many airports. Interestingly, this made the event a net positive effect on the environment, as the reduction in emissions due to reduced air traffic was 10x greater than the pollutants poured into the atmosphere by the volcano. Such natural power, and all this happened just a few kilometres away from where we now sleeping. Tomorrow, if the weather permitted, we would climb up to ground zero. Anticipation is a sweet taste .... if the weather permits.

Þórsmörk Ridge Walk (6 km - 310m ascent - 310m descent)

Wind! Gale-force wind!

The rain had cleared overnight and there were even patches of blue sky to greet our last day in Iceland, but the icy stream of arctic air was still blasting down from the north-west. Our sheltered location was deceptively calm, but, with the Fimmvörðuháls Pass forming a natural funnel between the two glaciers, the wind would be even stronger up high. Our last chance to climb up to Magni and Móði, the two new craters of the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano that formed during the 2010 eruption had been blown away by the elements. Disappointment is a bitter pill.

Svava's Plan B was to do a short walk up to the ridge of Tindfjöll on the northern side of the Krossá River, where at least we would get views across to the Eyjafjallajökull, even if we couldn't get close to it. We set out from the hut at Basar, as clouds scudded across the sky, crossing the broad gravel bed and braided streams of the Krossá by bridge and foot (the levels had dropped overnight) to reach the far shore.

The river was still wider than the bridge

Light-play of sun and mist

Conifers and birch in the Þórsmörk forest

Here we entered the birch forest and headed up Storiendi, a sheltered gully, before following a narrow footpath directly up the slope beneath (though barely beneath) the birch canopy. The forest was virtually a birch monoculture with only a few taller conifers near the valley floor. The higher we climbed the shorter and scrubbier became the trees.

ICELANDIC HUMOUR Q: What do you do if you get lost in the Icelandic forest? A: Stand up.

Steinboggin - a natural arch on the way up to the ridge

View over the Krossá Valley towards Mt Útigönguhöfði and Basar Hut

The upward flowing waterfall at Stora Enda

Looking up the valley, we could see a dark basalt cliff and waterfall. The curious thing though was that the waterfall was going upwards, swept away by the wind funnelling through the gap. It seemed a good demonstration of why we shouldn't be attempting the volcano today.

Looking down the Storiendi Gully

Grim weather on Eyjafjallajökull

On the grassy tops of the ridge

As we climbed steeply upwards, past the curious volcanic rock formations, the trees eventually thinned out and were replaced by a thick grassland, scattered with pink flowering heath and wild thyme - it was good to see a dash of bright colour in this intensely green landscape.

View northwards over the route to Landmannalaugar

On reaching the open ridge top, we were now in the face of the arctic air, sweeping in from the north west. Big chill, but compensated by the big views - to the south, the ice and snow of Eyjafjallajökull covered the mountains high above the broad gravel bed of the Krossá River, while to the north, we could look out over the barren but beautiful grasslands and volcanic peaks and cones through which the Laugarvegur track passed and where we had been walking a few days ago. We were in sunshine, but there the skies were grey and menacing. It even looked like there was fresh snow on Hattafell and the high parts of the Laugarvegur Trail. I would not have liked to be setting out today.

Cloud trying to obscure Tindfjallajökull Glacier

Nello in the sunshine on top of the ridge

Zooming in on Hattafell - streaked with fresh snow

Heading west along the ridge towards the distant cap of Eyjafjallajökull

View from one bare ridge-line to another

Following the ridge along for a distance, Svava then led us down Litlaendahryggur, a razor-backed side-spur, past black basalt cliffs, to reach a small cave used as a shelter by shepherds in days past. It was the perfect place for an early lunch break - sheltered from the biting wind and with a rock window to frame the views out over the valley.

There was a tinge of sadness however - the group had been together now for 6 days and this would be the last time we shared a meal before heading off on our separate ways again. From the cave the route continued steeply down the spur, past some impressive basalt cliffs and back into the forest. At its end, we emerged out onto the flat gravel bed of the Krossá, leaving just a walk across the grey stony flats to reach the footbridge that led back to our hut at Basar.

The mystery volcano - can anyone tell me its name?

Descending the razor-back of Litlaendahryggur

The black basalt cliffs of Þórsmörk

Lunch in an old shepherd's cave

The 4WD bus arrived an hour later and we were soon heading back to Reyjavik and from there to the airport - our short adventure in Iceland was over. Thanks Svava, for being such an excellent guide - well-informed with a good dose of humour, as well as being a good cook. Thanks also to our trekking companions for being such enjoyable company as we shared the vagaries of the Icelandic weather and the beauty of the Icelandic landscapes.

Heading back into the forest in the
from Litlaendahryggur Ridge


View across the Krossá to the bleak and windswept
heights of Eyjafjallajökull

Steinholtsjökull, a long glacial tongue of
Eyjafjallajökull almost reaches the valley floor

Þórsmörk had offered a very different landscape to that of the Laugarvegur Track and the two short walks we did there provided a nice complement to the more open and expansive ones of the track. True, it was disappointing that we couldn't have walked up to the volcano, but that is the Icelandic weather for you, and the weather is a key part of the Icelandic trekking experience.

Walking in Iceland is a bit of a lottery, an expensive lottery to enter - if you win and get sunshine you will see amazing and unique landscapes just like in the tourist brochures, but, if you get a more typical dose of weather with cloud, wind and rain thrown into the mix, it will not be the brochure views. However, it will still be amazing and unique. Trekking in Iceland is a lottery ticket worth buying.