Uni-Packing in Iceland: Day 4

After three days of Icelandic gravel roads, it was finally time to ride on the famous Laugavegur hiking trail. Day 4’s route was almost 30 km long, through colored mountains, snow slogs, and rocky volcano valleys. I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t expect to get injured near Landmannalaugar and have to decide whether to push on or turn back. I managed to dredge up a bit of mental toughness and pushed on. And I’m very glad I did.

Author’s note: this is post is included in a series of articles I have written about this trip. To read more, check out the links below or use the “Iceland 2017” category on the sidebar to filter posts:

If you’ve read the summary article for this uni-packing trip, you’ve already hear the story of what happened on Day 4. This is the day that I broke my hand. Or didn’t break my hand. I’ve never really figured out if it was truly broken.

I won’t retell the story here. That would be redundant. It’s enough to say that I’m very thankful I have a bunch of amazing friends who do amazing things, because thinking of them and what they would do in the same scenario is the only thing that convinced me to move forwards, to hike further up, instead of turning around and returning to Landmannalaugar.

Now. I have been trying for hours, but I cannot figure out what to write for Day 4. I mean, 28 km of riding/hiking spread out over 8 hours, there must be something to say, right? Well, yes, of course, but I just can’t figure out how to say it. So, for this post, I’ll let my pictures and videos speak for me. For the route-oriented folks, I put a brief trail description at the end of this post. Enjoy!

I was smiling like a looney when I took this picture, a last look back at Landmannalaugar. It was finally time! I was starting the hiking-trail portion of my route! I had just said by to my new friend Judy, who had risen to see me off, but at 5:40 am there were not many other people stirring in the campsite. I then turned around and followed the trail into the lumpy lava formations that form the ridge bordering Landmannalaugar.
After a surprisingly short ascent through weird lava formations, the trail opened up to this incredible view. And — look at that! That trail is so rideable! Can you blame me, then, for getting super excited and immediately hopping on my unicycle, perhaps forgetting to put on my helmet and knee pads?
Welp, obviously I fell. On my face. So stupid to forget my helmet. I took this commemorative selfie right after I fell to remind myself later of my silliness. Note that I put my helmet on before taking the picture, though. Safety first, kids!
This picture may not affect you, but it makes me grimace every time I see it. This is where I fell hard, where I (probably) broke my hand. I was startled when I was flipping through my Iceland pictures and found this one. I must have snapped this photo and put away my GoPro immediately before trying to ride. I fell just before the pool of water. I can still here the sound of the rocks grinding along my helmet on impact. In that sense, maybe it was good I had that first small fall just past Landmannalaugar. It reminded me to put my helmet on. If I hadn’t been wearing my helmet for the second, harder fall here, I think my trip would have ended a lot differently.

Pretty nice, eh? The first 6-ish kilometers outside of Landmannalaugar meander through these cool rocks and even cooler mountains. It explains why so many people were there for day hikes.
See that dark, diagonal line through the snow? That’s the trail. It goes up, out of the colorful mountains, to cross a fairly flat mountain pass. This patch of the snow was the first of maaaaaany kilometers of trudging through that sticky white stuff.
Even though it was cold, wet, and windy in the pass over the mountains, it was still a cool experience. There were some rideable sections in the beginning of the trail, though I had to focus way too hard to prevent falling and possible re-injuring my hand. But, I managed to ride more than a few meters, thereby meeting my goal of riding 5 meters every day.

Break for some gorp (good old raisins and peanuts). The look on my face is mostly due to my hand — I was still learning to use the four fingers without moving my thumb. But, I figured it out well enough to ingest some calories, so that’s all that mattered.
After trudging through kilometers of sticky snow (and wrestling with my unicycle the whole time), even brief respites of solid ground became a gift from the gods. Each time my feet touched that hard, black dirt, I swore to myself “I will never take solid ground for granted ever again.” And every time my island of blackness was ending, I would grumble a few choice words to myself under my breath. Or perhaps I shouted them out loud. Probably the latter — no one else was there to hear me.
I finally made it to the Hrafntinnusker hut—cold, wet, and hurting—about 3.5 hours after I set out from Landmannalaugar. Many people were there and finishing their final packing and getting ready to hit the trail to Álftavatn. I met some German girls inside who invited me to eat breakfast with them, and I said yes, took a seat, and began to chat with them. Unfortunately, I soon started to shiver—even in the heated cabin—since I was no longer moving, so I quickly finished the tea they had poured me, bid them farewell, packed up my things, and headed back out into the snow. But, at least now the trail was downhill!
Iceland is notorious for its unpredictable weather. So I giggled when I saw this weather sign posted on a door inside Hrafntinnusker.
In contrast to the first 12 km from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker, during which I had seen no people heading my direction and only a handful in the opposite direction, the next 12 km from Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn were much more populated. That was no surprise: I was doing double the mileage of most of the hikers. So, after I passed Hrafntinnusker (which was my halfway point), there were many people on the trail who had slept in the hut and were now on their way to the Álftavatn Hut/campsite. It made it a bit more of a challenge to ride in some sections, but I hike faster than the average person (and riding is faster than hiking), so I soon passed the bulk of the hikers and was back into open trail.
Watch out for hazards on the trail! This patch of snow, though picturesque, boasted a hole through the top that you could easily fall into if you weren’t careful.
After several foggy kilometers of muddy trail that ran up and down ridges, over small creeks, and past thermal vents, the trail turned rocky and began to descend down a mountainside out of the clouds.
Once in awhile, I wish I had a better camera than my phone (and GoPro). This was one of those times. And, no, I have no idea who the person in the red jacket is.
After dropping to the valley floor and crossing a small river, the last few kilometers to Álftavatn were over a blessedly flat, Jeep road. I was pretty tired by this point, so when a hiking couple stopped me to ask some questions about my unicycle, I happily walked with them for awhile before resignedly hopping back on my uni to finish this leg of the route.
This is a perfect example of why it is a bad idea to pitch a tent at Álftavatn. There is ZERO protection. Any medium-sized Icelandic storm comes through, and your tent is toast. I knew this in advance, so I had already planned to press on the last 4 kilometers to the Hvanngil Hut and campground. I rested in Álftavatn briefly since the warden allowed me to hang out inside the heated check-in room. Apparently word of my unicycle shenanigans had reached them from Hrafntinnusker, and the warden was delighted to see me there. Unfortunately, the room was warm, but not toasty, so I once again got chilled from lack of exercise and decided to just put my butt in gear and get to Hvanngil. The idea of sitting warm and dry inside my nice sleeping bag and tent had a lot of appeal.
But first, I had to cross this river just outside of Álftavatn. I admit I felt like giggling when I arrived at the river and saw this group of hikers stripping to their underwear to wade across, and then I came along and just walked through in my boots. I’m not sure which way is superior, but I know for sure that my way is faster.
The trail after the river crossing looked mostly like this, but flatter in most places. It was a pretty easy 4 kilometers from Álftavatn to Hvanngil, but I was so tired by that point that the last bit of mileage seemed to take forever.
Hellooooooooo, Hvanngil! I arrived at the campground at around 2 pm, which gave me plenty of time to have a brief chat with the warden, pay for my campsite, then wander around the campground to find the best, most protected spot. The warden had warned me a storm was coming in, so I wanted to make sure my tent was well protected. Luckily, Hvanngil has many rock walls that were built purely for tents, so I was able to find a rectangular area with walls almost up to my chest. Let nature blow as it would, my tent would be ready for anything.

Trail description

The trail can be split into three sections based on the three huts you will pass during the day. Please note that the times listed are the times it took me to complete the section. You will travel faster or slower depending on your condition and hiking style.

  • Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker (12 km, 470 m up, ~3.5 hours). Start off with mostly gently uphill on gravel trails outside of Landmannalaugar through weird lava formations, cool thermal vents, and weirdly colored mountains. Wind upwards until you reach the mountain pass. After a few hundred meters of mostly-ridable gravel, the snow begins. Trudge through the snow and begin to hate that white sh*t until you finally reach Hrafntinnusker. Be wary of visibility.
  • Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn (12 km, 490 m down, ~3 hours): Begin trudging through more snow, but downhill so it sucks less. Eventually drop low enough such that the snow turns to patches and the rust-colored mud/gravel trail peeks through again. Wind downward, hiking down and up over small volcanic-ash ridges as needed. Eventually reach the edge of the elevated mountain pass and commence a steep-ish rocky trail descent into the valley that houses Álftavatn. Enjoy the views. Once you’ve descended, cross a small creek (shin-deep water), then it’s a few short and flat kilometers over a Jeep road to Álftavatn. Camping here is not recommended – there is no shelter at all, and your tent will die if a storm comes.
  • Álftavatn to Hvanngil (4 km, ~0 m, 0.5 hours): Proceed along a dirt trail carved into the Icelandic moss. Cross a fairly wide river (almost knee deep). Enjoy the views of the mountains. Climb up/down a few small ridges as they come, then a final descent along the edge of a hill into Hvanngil. Get there early to ensure you get a good spot for your tent.

One Reply to “Uni-Packing in Iceland: Day 4”

  1. I just love reading about your adventures! You are amazing! It’s great to have you post these days, I feel like I’m right there with you….without the pain! HaHa!!! Love you to pieces!💕

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