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Fimmvörðuháls trail solo hike (Iceland)

The Fimmvörðuháls trail probably is one of the toughest days of hiking I ever did. Not that the hike is super tough per se, but I grossly underestimated the trail, the weather and the time it would take me to finish the trail. On top of that, I grossly overestimated my fitness after already a full day of 40 kilometers of hiking in bad weather/snow and a morning 15km hike on the Laugavegur trail. This is the story of my June 2018 hike of the Fimmvörðuháls trail.

Thorsmork to Skogar, the Fimmvörðuháls trail

Near Thorsmork on the Fimmvörðuháls trail
Near Thorsmork on the Fimmvörðuháls trail

The route across Fimmvörðuháls lies between two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, and connects Skógar to Þórsmörk. This is one of the most popular hiking trails in Iceland, but possibly (as I found out much later) also one of the most dangerous due to the rapid changes in the weather that may occur during any season. While it can be calm and sunny in the low lands of Skógar and Þórsmörk the weather at the peak of the trail (approx. 1000m above sea level) can be totally different (yes, I experienced that). Brute force winds, rain, fog and even an occasional snow storm (yep) with almost no visibility are not uncommon (again, yes).

The largest part of the route is marked with stakes and the trail itself is mostly obvious except at the top where it is covered with snow and can be unclear. All who hike across Fimmvörðuháls should be equipped with a good map, compass and a GPS device (more on that later).

What happened before the Fimmvörðuháls trail

I had been spending 2 days on the Laugavegur trail before starting the Fimmvörðuháls trail. The first day, we couldn’t hike because of bad weather, which shortened the time I had on the total trail from 3 to 2 days, as I already had booked my return bus from Skogar and a visit to the Blue Lagoon spa the next day. That now meant I had 2 days to cover both the Laugavegur trail and the Fimmvörðuháls trail. I had been making rookie mistakes all morning while hiking towards Thorsmork on the Laugavegur trail wasting a lot of time before I even got to the start of the Fimmvörðuháls trail.

And then it begins … a 27km race against the clock on the Fimmvörðuháls trail

At Thorsmork, I quickly bumped into three of the wardens of the Thorsmork huts. As with all other wardens at all other huts along the way (and pretty much all Icelandic people I met), they were extremely knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. They told me normal hikers would take 9-12 hours to clear the track, but an experienced hiker in good conditions would be able to do it in 6. In all my arrogance, I considered myself an experienced hiker so I guessed the 6,5 hours I would have left to catch my bus would be more than enough (overlooking the snow ahead, the fact I already had done a 40km hike the day before and a 15km hike this morning). So, with a fast pace, I set out for the climb to Skogar.

On my way to Skogar
On my way to Skogar on the Fimmvörðuháls trail

Early on the trail, I encountered two ladies. Camelbacks, trail running shoes, athletic build. Just outside of Thorsmork I spotted them for the first time, but the moment I caught up (they were taking pictures of the scenery), they left to run some more on the trail. Later, as it turned out, they were Ukrainian triathletes training for an ultra marathon (one of them turned out to be Scady Abramova, who finished second in the recent Ironman in Spain). They had decided to run from Thorsmork to Skogarfoss and back (50k!). I crossed paths with them several times that day, until I finally left them behind near Fimmvorduhals.

Our most notable interaction was on a plateau a few kilometers from Fimmvorduhals. I had been chasing tracks (and their tracks) in the snow for quite some kilometers (signs and tracks were hard to see because of the snow), when I suddenly spotted the tracks became thinner and thinner and only consisted of 2 people walking. Their steps made sudden turns to the left and eventually, their footsteps were untraceable on a rare piece of exposed black lava sand. So there I was, clearly on the wrong track, no signs in sight, my phone GPS running wild (‘north’ kept spinning) and figuring out what to do while the snow was covering our tracks even further … until I heard female voices: the two triathletes. We joined forces, traced back our tracks and together found our way back and -eventually- to the right tracks.

On my way to Skogar
On my way to Skogar on the Fimmvörðuháls trail – bad weather conditions

After that and struggling for another few miles before arriving at Fimmvorduhals, I realized there was no way I would be able to clear this distance in the 2 hours I had left before the bus would leave. That would mean I would miss my bus, had to spend the night in Skogar and also would miss my next day appointment at the Blue Lagoon (another reason why you should have a flexible planning while hiking the Laugavegur trail).

So I called the travel company, Thule, and asked if they could wait for me for an extra 10 minutes at Skogar. They had no reason whatsoever to do so. I had a not cancellation ticket, I was late because of my own stupid mistakes (I could have left earlier, I could have walked faster, I could have planned with more backup time, etc), but the guy on the phone was friendly enough to inform the driver to wait for me.

The last 12 kilometers of the trail were therefor a rush to catch my bus. The first part was already a race against the clock, now I had to even increase my speed to be at the bus in time. A pity, while this is one of the most beutiful parts of the trail.

One of the impressive waterfalls towards Skogar
One of the impressive waterfalls towards Skogar on the Fimmvörðuháls trail

When I finally arrived (20 minutes late), the bus driver -although he had every reason to be grumpy or slightly annoyed by me being late- was extremely kind, understanding and helpful. So, two people who had every reason to either not care about the issue I caused or at least be irritated by it, went the extra mile to help me out – he even dropped my af at my hotel in Reykjavik. I extremely appreciate this.

Skogafoss
Skogafoss by Shutterstock. Yes, Shutterstock, as I had to rush for the bus and did not have time to take a picture.

 

My top tips and take-aways

  1. Safety first. Don’t be stupid, listen to wardens, check the weather, log your plans with safetravel.is and inform your family and friends of your travel plans and changes of plans. Als see my separate blog post on this subject.
  2. Mother nature. The trail is incredibly beautiful. But the weather can change in an instant. Respect nature – do not leave your waste at the trail.
  3. Icelandic people are awesome. Every single Icelandic person I met was super friendly and helpful. They (especially the people I met on the trail) seem to have an amazing symbiotic relationship with nature – very well aware how to respect and use the elements.
  4. Pack smart. At Emstrur I bumped into a couple of whom the man had a 20kg backpack and the woman of more than 15kg. This, while they did not pack a tent nor sleeping pad (they stayed in the huts). Unless it’s a purposeful training exercise, there is no reason to have a. 20kg backpack while hiking Laugavegur. Did you pack too much clothing? Food? Stuff you do not need? Also see my packing learnings below and my full packing list.
  5. Planning is everything. Then be prepared to change your plans. I was well-prepared. Knew the route, planned my backpack carefully, informed friends and family. But I was not really prepared for this weather and the disappointement of not being able to hike on Day one. I could have planned my total number of days better, informed my family better when my plans changed and could do even more next time.
  6. Hiking is social. Because of the harsh circumstances, it was great to see how many new bonds were created. I -again- have to thank Thijs and Roel for having me join them, but also the Ukranian triathletes for sharing food, the countless hikers that shared bits and pieces on the weather, distance, etcetera.

Planning learnings

See my original day planning for my Iceland trip, including Fimmvörðuháls trail.

  • Take more time. As said in my opening statement, Laugavegur in just two days is insane. Please take more time.
  • Place to dry my tent. I had not realized I might actually be arriving back in Reykjavik with a tent in need of drying. The hostel I stayed at, did not have an area to dry my tent. So I booked a last-minute room in a hotel to dry my tent.
  • Last day – plan better. I really had to rush the last day to be in time for the bus (and barely made it). Although I had reserved some extra time, I could have reserved more and could have got up earlier. And should. Because missing the bus was not an option.

Packing learnings (well, actually just fails)

After a few days on the trail, I had some learnings on what to pack and what not to pack for the trail.

Also, see my original packlist for the full Laugavegur trail, including the Fimmvörðuháls trail
.

  • Packing errors (not enough):
    • I should have brought gaiters to protect from snow (especially on the Fimmvörðuháls trail between Thorsmork and Skogar).
    • Turned out I did not have an appetite for the Adventure Foods Breakfasts, so next time I should bring normal dinner meals rather than their breakfasts.
    • Garbage. Super obvious, but I had not realised before the trail (of course) has a zero-waste policy. You have to bring all the trash with you, you also brought on to the trail. I did not have a solid system in place to store this. I do use one of my pockets while on the trail, but I did not have a bag/container to keep all my waste from the trail and my cooking in the evening and morning.
    • Mixed Nuts. I got some mixed nuts from the Ukranian triathletes. Really liked it, so will have to pack the next time.
    • Waterproofing. I had just enough bags to pack my sleeping bag, clothing, digital materials (cables, charger, etc), could have had more.
    • Sunglasses. sunscreen and moisturizer. With so many hours in the snow, the sun beams refracting on the snow, were rather inconvenient.
    • Rope. Had packed it to take with me, but forgot it at the hostel.
    • Duct tape. Likewise.
    • GPS. I trusted I would be ok with the good signage along the trail. However, there were several moments in the snow when an exact GPS would have been convenient. In the meanwhile, I have bought a Garmin 64s.
    • Backpack. I have a rather small backpack which meant I had my tent hanging outside of my bag. Will need a bigger backpack for my upcoming plans.
  • Packing errors (too much):
    • I brought a GoPro Gimbal – what on earth was I thinking. Used it twice.
  • Packing wins (just enough):
    • Bifi. Mini salami. The best.
    • Adventure Foods. Super tasty, nutritious meals.
    • One trekking pole. I know a lot of people  walk with two trekking poles, but I only use one for my right hand. I like to have one hand free to drink, eat, send messages or do whatever, while not having to hold two poles in one hand. Very happy therefor, I only brought one.

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