Trail running up a mountain surrounded by glaciers under the midnight sun wasn’t exactly an item on my bucket list, but it somehow happened!
After the mountain skills course and a couple of shifts at Solheimajökull, Svinafellsjökull popped up on the roster. Svinafellsjökull means living in Skaftafell, known among the guides as the birthplace of many a wild story. That’s what you get when you pile a bunch of guides and park rangers in glorified shipping containers far away from anything resembling somewhat of a town.
Skaftafell is a popular stop for people driving Iceland’s ring road and for good reason. If you’re coming from the West you cross Europe’s largest black sand desert and if you’re lucky you get a stunning view of Europe’s largest ice cap spewing out huge glaciers and Iceland’s highest mountain Hvannadalshnúkur (2210m) dominating the horizon.
Skaftafell is mainly known for a waterfall surrounded by hexagonal basalt columns (Svartifoss), but they pride themselves on offering many more interesting hiking trails. The Öraefajökull glacier and the surrounding mountains form a natural shield against bad weather and the climate is usually very mild. The sunny South facing slopes are covered in low Birch trees (more like large shrubs really), which makes the whole place look very lush and green compared to the barren landscapes I’m slowly getting used to. The short walk from the guide accommodation to the place where we receive the clients leads past creeks and trails cutting into the hills. It was only a matter of time before I could no longer resist their pull!
After a couple of failed good intentions, June 1st was going to be the day! The skies had been steely blue all day long and the glacier walks hadn’t exhausted me too much. In case you don’t know, the sun doesn’t really go down here anymore around this time of year, so light wasn’t going to be an issue either.
I managed to set off around 21.15 and swiftly pushed uphill following the creek connecting four waterfalls called Thjófafoss, Hundafafoss, Magnúsarfoss and the king of them all – Svartifoss. The first part is a relatively steep climb quickly going up around 150m. Being surrounded by so much green felt great after spending so much time either on glaciers or the dusty moraine trails leading up to them.
Once I left Svartifoss behind, the landscape quickly opened up, starting to look more like a lunar bog. The night air was cool but not cold and I felt strong. I could see all the way across the heath and 5km in front of me Kristínartindar and its jagged ridges were pulling me in. I could already see the old snow the other guides had warned me about, but for now I was happy switching between fast hiking and running where possible. Grouse were hiding between the grass and often let me get surprisingly close before scooting off. They looked at me as if they were surprised to see anyone there at all.
A large cairn at the top of Nydrihnaukur (700m) gave me my first proper view of a possible route going towards the ridges. Coming from the West, I could see lines that looked relatively easy and I grew very optimistic about trying to summit this thing. The conditions seemed perfect and I was still feeling strong.
After about one hour I reached the bottom of the eastern “trail” heading up Kristínartindar. Trail is a big word. Scree made of egg sized rocks made going up very difficult. Two steps up, one crumbling slip down. As I got higher up, the slope became increasingly steeper and unforgiving. Old footsteps that couldn’t have been made by more than one person marked a line in old snow which turned out to be harder than expected and I was hardly able to kick steps big enough to hold me. It felt bad and looking down I assessed that a fall probably wouldn’t result in anything more than a painful slide. I felt so close to the summit and committed to pushing on, but the thought of going back down this way unnerved me. My hopes for the way back were set on the trail going down East which had looked a lot less steep on the map.
Once on the ridge, the scree turned into a steep rocky path. Movement was relatively easy but I was often using my hands to scramble because falling there would have had very serious consequences. The east flank is quite exposed and you can see all the way down to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier 700m lower.
Reaching the top was mind blowing. The high tempo of the scramble up there had kept me in a tunnel of focus and all of the sudden the dense rock made place for endless vistas. The first thing that popped in my eye was the huge rock wall with icefalls on both sides feeding down into Morsarjökull glacier. Turning around there was nothing but black sands plains, one glacier after the other and peaks sticking out of the crevassed ice cap. It had taken me 1h45 to reach the summit and at 23h everything was bathing in the diffuse purple hue of a sunset.
I took some time to soak up the scenery and started to look for the trail going down East. To my relief this side of the mountain turned out to be a lot less steep and there were only sporadic small snow patches to cross. I was super relieved to avoid the sketchy steep slopes I came up on, and was looking forward to cruising downhill without worrying about falling off some snow field or some rock face.
Well, this is where Iceland gave me an “authentic treat”. A local low pressure cloud had formed around a spot called Gláma at around 600m and I soon found myself feeling my way through a complete whiteout. I lost the trail in the featureless terrain and kicked myself in the head for not loading the proper map into my GPS device. I had expected nothing but clear skies and perfect visibility… After thinking about my options, I remembered the eastern track ran along the outer ridge of the bulge I was walking on and started pushing East. In a worst case scenario, the steep slope down to Skaftafelljökull could serve as my guideline and I was expecting to get out of the layer of clouds at some point. Luckily for my tired mind and body, I soon saw a small wooden trail marker and managed to feel my way down going from marker to marker.
Once I descended out of the cloud, the sky had turned from dusk to dawn. It was 00.30, the night had never gone dark and the sun was already rising again. Relieved to have gotten out of the cloud, I was cruising down the rocky paths on the gentle downhill slope and my feet thoughtlessly felt their way over the rocks. I could not believe how I was in Iceland and running under the midnight sun in this incredible scenery.
The last part of the descent goes through the southeast slope called Austurbrekkur and this place must be as close as it gets to the last thing a trail runner sees before he dies. Narrow rooty trails cut through a tunnel of small Birch trees and speeding down this slope, the soft light of a midnight dawn and the cool night air mixed into flow.
Pretty proud about finishing in a good three hours instead of the described six to eight, I was looking forward to a nice hot shower. Almost 20km and 1100m altitude gain had left their mark on me. Well you can’t have your cake and eat it… apparently the power had died and nothing was working, including the water pump! My bunkmate (Flo) had to endure the smell of a full sunny day on the glacier followed by a mountain run, but I was too tired to lie awake moping about sticky skin. I had just had the most beautiful run in this country so far!