I promised to wrap up this Icelandic adventure in my last post which included a jeep road excursion, and an overview of a magical campground called Þakgil. With only a few days left to cover, I can promise we’re in the home stretch!
Day 6, Summiting Kristínartindar
Kristínartindar is a peak in what I thought was called Skaftafell National Park (mentioned in my previous post). Turns out I didn’t have that quite right as Skaftafell used to be its own national park in southern Iceland, but has been a part of Vatnajökull National Park since 2008. Vatnajökull is a massive area that is divided into four territories and is home to one of the largest glaciers in Europe.
(Disclaimer, this post is full of words I can’t pronounce.)
So Skaftafell is a pretty cool area that has a lot of hiking options, including guided walks around glaciers and ice caves. It has a visitor center that is open year round, and is a home base for climbing Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan (I had to bow out after the Red Wedding episode) the Svinafellsjokull Glacier Tongue is a filming spot for some beyond the wall scenes. There is also a campground there, but our German friend advised us to stay at a smaller one just a short distance away called Svinafell. While not the most impressive place we camped, I believe it was quite a bit cheaper than the campground in Skaftafell, and it had plenty of sheep so we didn’t have to worry about sleeping in late.
Our hike to Kristínartindar started from the visitor center. This hike has a few different routes and can be done as a loop, but we did it as an out and back which is slightly shorter. Either way, it’s about 10 miles and around 3400 ft of elevation gain. Not bad, but definitely something to be prepared for. It’s rated as a class 2, although, there was more exposure and scrambling than any Colorado class 2 I’ve been on.
We had a great day weather wise, but I could tell right away that I was on the struggle bus. I was feeling sluggish and not moving very quickly. Bret, on the other hand, was way ahead of me and pretty much stayed that way the whole day (something we consistently fight about). The trail had some talus fields I wasn’t crazy about, followed by a fairly steep climb to the top that seemed to never end. As we got closer to the summit, there was more and more scrambling along some pretty exposed areas. In some spots you could peek over the edge and see straight down 1000 ft (eeek)! There were definitely a few times I got that nervous, shaky feeling and wondered what the hell I was doing. Overall though, this hike had some amazing views and was challenging enough to feel like you accomplished something but definitely doable.
Once we reached the top, I didn’t stay too long since it had gotten pretty windy and cold. Bret was still taking in the views and getting some shots with his infamous 7-eleven tank when I started back down. This was where it got a little hairy. The trail was pretty hard to follow and at one point, I took a slight wrong turn. While I wasn’t far from the trail, I was on a steep, narrow cliff side that looked pretty unforgiving. My nervous, shaky feeling came back as I watched some rocks I’d accidentally kicked tumble down the side of the mountain. Soon enough I heard Bret ask what I was doing. I acted like I knew where I was headed, but another couple passing me, politely mentioned that I had gotten off trail (THANKS).
I got back on the path, but was feeling kind of shaky after that encounter. I mainly had a hurt ego because not only was I slow, but I couldn’t even following a freaking path….ugh. I was kind of nauseous and had a headache, and decided that I just wasn’t going to talk to Bret for awhile, he was already ahead of me so it’s not like I had to try very hard. We hiked this way for a mile or so and you could feel the tension between us. Every time a couple who was hiking TOGETHER passed me, I used that as evidence against the terrible boyfriend I was making Bret out to be in my head. We eventually caught up to each other and started in on some more #realtalk. Turns out we were both making up reasons to be mad at the other in our heads. We agreed this was a pretty ridiculous way to spend the rest of the hike and decided to move on. Bret gave me some Tylenol for my head and we made our way back to the visitor center.
Normally, after getting through a challenging hike, the thing I’m most focused on is what my next meal is going to be. There wasn’t a lot of the time for that though since we had to go pack up our campsite, check out the glacier lagoon and iceberg beach which were too close to pass up, and head back to the magical land of Þakgil (where we decided to go back to rather than continue driving North).
Glacier lagoon and iceberg beach, while full of tourist buses and unapologetic selfies, is pretty neat. Glacier pieces floating in a lagoon are taken out to sea by the tide, then slammed back on to a nearby beach, creating a bizarre, yet beautiful scene of ice strewn along the sand.
After being pretty mesmerized by this, we snapped out of it and got back into the car. On the way out, we picked up some more hitchhikers, this time three French guys who had been camping and hitchhiking for awhile and therefore smelled terrible. They were nice though and I was impressed by their ability to travel so cheaply. We told them where we were headed for the night, and that we planned to go back to Landmannalaugar the next day. They decided they would camp outside of Þakgil (even though I told them there were showers there…hint, hint) and then ride with us to Landmannalaugar in the morning.
We had about an hour or two of driving left and I still hadn’t eaten anything epic. I got a bag of paprika flavored potato chips to tide me over. Thank goodness for the hitchhiking French dudes, otherwise my hangry side may have come out in the car.
As we got close to Þakgil, it was fun to watch the faces of these guys light up. They had been staying in campsites close to the main road and hadn’t seen anywhere this secluded and beautiful (the downside of depending on other people for rides). We dropped them off outside of the campground and headed back into our magical spot just as the sun was going down.
In case you’re wondering why we ended up redoing the first part of our trip, we decided the amount of driving we would need to do to carry out the rest of our itinerary wasn’t worth it, and that we’d rather spend more time in a few places we had great first impressions of. Lesson learned for next time, don’t try to see everything, stay put and explore more.
By now our nightly routine of setting up camp and cooking dinner was second nature. However, Bret and I still seemed to be a little moody with each other. One thing I had to learn on this trip is that Bret likes to double check things and ask questions, which is fine, but sometimes I take this questioning as condescending. When that happens I get a little snappy with my responses, maybe even throw in an eyeroll here and there, and on this night that did not land well. We got into a minor spat and I went off to cook dinner by myself in the cave. This was not how I wanted our last night at Þakgil to go down, not to mention we weren’t able to get to a grocery store so I was down to a couple packets of ramen for dinner. So much for that post hike epic dinner.
Bret eventually joined me in the cave and apologized. I suppose I did too, although I’m not great at admitting when I’m an asshole, so it probably didn’t come easy. Since this trip, I’ve come to appreciate Bret’s attention to detail and preparedness, and I try to not get defensive with my response when I haven’t thought of everything, though that doesn’t always happen. There’s a lot of ego in wanting to plan for everything and do everything well, and it’s something I have to work hard to let go of. Guess I should start reading more Brené Brown
Day 7, Back to Landmannalaugar
We told our hitchhiking pals we’d be around to pick them up at 8:00am, which didn’t leave us much time to say goodbye to Þakgil, oh well, until next time! Getting back to Landmannalauger was pretty easy since we knew what to expect and where we were going. Once again, seeing these guys get so excited by the landscape was rewarding, especially when we drove through some river crossings. On the way there we stopped to get some groceries, and Bret (who hardly ever buys anything) got himself an Icelandic wool sweater. He has worn it so much since we got back that at one point he got a rash from it. We also tried to find some beer to celebrate our last night, but finding alcohol is kind of difficult in Iceland. There are only a few specific stores you can buy it from outside of Reykjavik, and they are open at somewhat odd times. We ended up finding a super small store inside of what seemed to be more of an office building, very different from your corner liquor store.
Once we got to Landmannalauger we setup our camp for the last time and parted with our French friends. After Kristínartindar I wasn’t really up for hiking so we just took some time to explore the park. We found a crater where a small volcano once erupted and more river crossings. I also finally got to make my epic meal I’d been waiting for. I wasn’t very hungry but I was not going to back down because I EARNED IT (the day before).
After dinner we decided we’d check out the hot spring again, only this time it was way more popular since it wasn’t freezing and storming. It was a little too much of a party for me but I stuck it out. Our French friends ended up there too since we told them that we’d seen the northern lights there. They still hadn’t seen them and were holding out hope. We stayed in the spring for quite a while and it didn’t seem like we were going to get another show until all of a sudden, a beautiful ban of light came out of nowhere. It was just as amazing as the first time we saw it, and since it was a clear night, you could see much more detail and movement. I didn’t even attempt to take a picture because it wouldn’t have really done it justice. You’ll just have to believe me when I say that the northern lights are quite the spectacle. I feel like I should understand more about them, but all I really know is that they are a result of solar activity colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field. If you want a more thorough explanation I would tweet at Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Day 8, Going Home
Our last morning in the tent was a chilly one, there was actually ice on the outside of it. As we were packing up, a guy wandered over and asked if we would be willing to give him a ride back to Reykjavik. He looked freezing and told us that he didn’t realize how cold it was going to be and didn’t bring the right gear. He came for the weekend with friends (because when you live in Europe you can do that…..ahh) but was going to head back to the city early after spending a sleepless night in the cold. It would have felt weird to leave that place without a random passenger, so off we went. This guy was originally from India but worked as a software developer in Amsterdam at a travel booking company. He was just trying to burn off vacation time (must be rough). We had a good chat after he regained some feeling in his extremities.
On the way to the airport, I finally got myself a gas station hot dog. I kept hearing about how hot dogs were a popular thing in Iceland. All I’d been eating for the last few days was salt and carbs so why not go out with a bang? It was pretty good, though I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the crispy onions, mayo, and 3 different kinds of ketchup I put on top.
As we were leaving the gas station, another hitchhiker approached us for a ride. This time a Polish guy who worked in Iceland and was headed home to see his family. I’m beginning to think we should move back and start Bret and Bricelyn’s shuttle service, free rides but tips and hot dogs are encouraged.
We eventually got to the airport and had a pretty enjoyable, speedy check-in process. Their security just runs so smoothly. A lot of the process is automated but people who do work there are super friendly and happy for the most part. A little different than the Baltimore airport , where we were greeted back by TSA agents yelling at us and herding everyone around like very confused cats.
A Few Parting Thoughts
Going to Iceland was the first time I’d left the country since 2010……yeesh. I plan to never wait that long again. That feeling of being in a country you’re not from can be really enjoyable (especially these days). It’s nice to find things a little unfamiliar, a little odd, and to see how different, but also really similar everyday life can be.
Traveling with someone can also be pretty eye opening. I think the way people act in environments and situations they aren’t familiar or comfortable with can be very telling. Sharing a tent for multiple nights is also a good test. In my case, this trip made me realize I need to take myself a little less seriously, own some of my shortcomings, be willing to learn, and not respond with default defensiveness.
I’d like to to end this with something witty yet partially inspiring. Unfortunately, I’m no Cheryl Strayed who says things like “when the path reveals itself, follow it”, so I’ll just leave you with an image of Bret in balmy, 70 degree Baltimore wearing a sweater made entirely of wool.