My Hrútfjallstindar adventure: Dodging crevasses on a mountain in Iceland
Traversing ephemeral glaciers, scrambling down scree and experiencing daylight...all night long: It's all a part of the journey for our writer Kevin on his icy mountaineering trip. Read on to discover why having to turn back before reaching the summit didn't matter in the end.
As an adventure seeker, Iceland has long been on my list. For my first journey there, I planned out an ambitious itinerary that included a one-day mountaineering excursion to summit one of Iceland’s tallest peaks, followed by a solo backpacking trek from Skógar to Landmannalaugar via the Fimmvörðuháls Pass and Laugavegur Trail (famously known as the hot springs hike).
During my seven-day stay, I hiked through snow fields, trekked through glaciers, forded rivers, summited mountains, rode down rockslides, got blasted by near hurricane force wind, and was drenched by rain. I left Iceland exhausted and tired, but recollecting the captivating beauty of the exotic landscapes got me smiling as I flew back on long plane ride home.
Pictured above and below: Incredible scenery along the Ring Road, en route to Vatnajökull National Park.
I arrived at Vatnajökull National Park the night before my climb for a prep meeting with the guide and to meet the others who would be attempting the summit. Due to crevasses opening up in the mountain from warm weather, the guide was either going to take us to the 6,923-foot Hvannadalshnjúkur peak or a 6,152-foot peak on Hrútfjallstindar Mountain (which consists of four peaks). Because of snow conditions and forecasted afternoon rain, we found out that night that we would be going up Hrútfjallstindar. We were instructed to meet back at the hut at 4:45 a.m. to begin the ascent.
At 3 a.m. I woke up to the never-ending daylight to prepare for my one-day assault on Hrútfjallstindar. I could see the peaks shrouded in the clouds as I emerged from my tent. It was definitely weird waking up to so much light at that hour of the night, but I found out one thing: I have no problem sleeping with the light.
We started our journey promptly at 4:45 a.m. As is the case with most mountaineering trips, there were no established trails. For most of the first leg of the climb, we hiked up scree or small loose rocks that were withered by years of ice and snow. The shifty ground, although challenging, was just a minor obstacle for our group of five (from what I could tell) extremely fit individuals.
Once we got up to about 2,500 feet, we took a short rest break on a ridge that offered one of the best views of both Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafellsjökull, the two massive glaciers that make up what used to be known as Skaftafell National Park. The enormity of these glaciers is so impressive, pictures certainly cannot do it justice.
After nearly five hours of nearly non-stop climbing, we stopped to form a rope team, which would prevent any individual from falling into a crevasse as we traversed the remaining 1,700 feet of the glacier. Tied equidistant to each other with a single rope, we kept our distance to ensure the line stayed taut while we walked.
Another hour of climbing brought us to a dead stop. Crevasses now littered the snow surrounding us, some hidden, some visible. Our guide tested the snow at the ridge. No good. We backtracked to test another route.
After spending another 45 minutes setting up snow anchors and shoveling loose snow to put down an ice screw, our guide finally delivered the bad news: We had to turn around. The route simply wasn’t safe enough for us to summit. So, 500 feet short of our goal, we marched our way back down.
The descent was much faster—it took us half as long getting down 2,500 feet than it did going up. Our guide decided to switch things up and have us go down a different route than the way we came up. Instead of heading down the gradual scree fields, we went down a long steep scree field by triggering a small rockslide with each step. We descended 2,000 feet in a little less than 30 minutes.
For the last and final act, we traversed through the icy part of Svínafellsjökull to get back to the trailhead. The ice was rock-solid, and even with the sun bearing down on it day and night, our crampons barely made any dents as we plunged our feet into it.
The blue-tinted seracs, the series of never-ending crevasses, and the abyssal moulins along the way were just otherworldly and, in a way, ephemeral. Since glaciers are ever-changing, it will look completely different the next time I visit. It took us nearly two hours to make it back to the trailhead, just as the rain started really pouring down on us.
All in all, our excursion took about 12 hours. I was completely exhausted by the end of it, but despite the fact that we didn’t reach the summit, I left extremely happy. Sometimes, the best part of a mountaineering trip isn't standing at the top: The journey there and back can be equally—if not more—satisfying.
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