Fimmvörðuháls Pass: Hiking the Volcano

The absolute coolest thing I did in Iceland resulted from a miscommunication at the tour booking office. My mother and I enlisted ourselves for a Saturday hike across Fimmvörðuháls, a mountain pass between two glaciers.  The tour company representative cautioned that the route was “challenging.” I would have gone with “wildly terrifying and physically demanding.”

The hike actually usurped the title of Best Icelandic Experience, which previously belonged to Friday night’s sea angling. With 12 other people plus a guide (Gísli), I trekked from 850m to 1070m above sea level on an up-and-down route spanning approximately 22 km (about 13.5 miles). First, though, we rode in a behemoth of a vehicle on an unpacked gravel path up the mountainside, and I don’t mean on those safe hairpin turns that decorate the sides of the Rockies. I mean UP, at a 25 degree angle, between gorges and ravines so close to our monster tires that I gratefully realized how swiftly I’d die. It felt like riding a bull that just got stung by a bee. Our professional driver, whose build matched the proportions of our truck, bounced gleefully in his seat as the rest of us clung to each other. Later I told Gísli that I thought the driver was a masochist. Gísli explained that his seat was actually broken, and that he had only driven the route a handful of times. I gulped.

The hike itself evades concise description. The way up mostly offered several hours of landscape observation. Until this trip I labored under the impression that a volcano looks like a cone – you hike up one side of the slope and down the other side. As it turns out, this volcanic mountain pass features multiple peaks, valleys, ravines, cliffs, and even a random plateau that God might have dropped one day and forgotten about. The terrain alternates between black sand and glacier. A fine layer of volcanic ash dirties the snow where we crossed it. The black mountainside takes on a rusty red hue in some places: oxidization of the iron in the volcanic rock.

Underneath the Eyjafjallajökull glacier sits the volcano that erupted in 2010. Our prescribed route took us to the summit of the eruption, where centuries-old glacier ice had melted to reveal the underlying volcanic rock. Fissures in the side of the summit leak lethargic plumes of steam – an allusion to the continuing volcanic life beneath us. Upon cresting the peak, one among our group broke out a package of bratwurst and proceeded to successfully roast them on the still-hot rock.

A few of us enjoyed the nicely toasted snack before beginning our descent (which a much smaller number of us enjoyed). I have some photos but they convey neither the extreme height nor the absolute terror of descending a volcano assisted only by the occasional chain rooted into sandstone. The decision to direct my energies toward not falling off a cliff resulted in a dearth of photographic documentation for the worst parts – which unfortunately means I have no way to prove I’m not exaggerating. The tour guides affectionately dubbed one of the ravines we crossed “The Ravine from Hell.” The only thing more petrifying than traversing such an aptly named passage is turning around to watch your 58 year old mother do it.

Around Hour 5 of 7, the landscape transformed from post-apocalytpic into something out of the ending of the Sound of Music. The slopes acquired a jubilant carpet of grass dotted with Woolly Willows. Twice I found myself crossing an unprotected stony pathway while being buffeted on both sides by an unsympathetic wind, but the change in scenery heralded renewed hope and the last couple hours of the hike passed happily.

I spent the next day convalescing in a Reykjavik kaffihus, fangirling about this experience with one of my fellow trekkers and admiring my photos. Check out the accompanying photo gallery for more explanations of the Icelandic phenomena I witnessed.



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