19 June, 2010
So, the whole purpose of the "Toppaðu með 66° North" program, was to get to the top. Of Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland. It's not a particularly challenging mountain per se, depending on which way you go of course, and I'd joined mostly for the forced exercise of all the other trips on the program. But, I'd never been up there, and I'd need a few more friends to tie to a rope to do it safely anyway, so I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to it.
Of course, "looking forward to it" is also a bit subjective. The T66 trips were regularly 100+ people, so even tied to "only" 15 person lines for glacier walking, it was still going to be a zoo.
I was scheduled to go on the 5th of June, but my father died in the end of May, and I flew back to Australia and missed the trip. Icelandic Mountain Guides, the guiding part of the trip, (66° North were just promo and branding, and hoping to get us to buy more gear) were really nice though, and scheduled me in to go along on one of their regular trips. Because it's straightforward, only a long day trip, and right beside the road down near Skaftafell, it's also very popular with tourists, and icelanders along for the weekend, so the mountain guides run a pretty busy business dragging lines of people up and down the mountain, pretty much in any weather.
And so, 4:30am one Saturday, I was awake, with the car repacked, and standing in the carpark at Skaftafell. Pretty good looking day at this point, scattered high cloud, no wind, looked good. My group for the day was about 25 or so, a mix of icelanders, a group of 8-10 or so italians, and some couples and individuals from around the world. We got our axes, crampons and harnesses, and bussed off around to the start of the track up.
Then it was just up. Not an awful lot to see on the way up, in front of you is just rising mountain, mostly hidden behind itself, behind you is sand leading out to the sea, and the both sides were either blocked by the flanks of the mountain itself, or by various large ridges. Not a bad view, but not the best I've seen either :)
And some more up. The guides had breaks planned at various elevations, which I'm sure meant a lot to people who'd been up there 40 times that summer, but when you get out of the car and get told we'll stop at 700m, it's a bit meaningless really. Again, it's the sort of thing I'd come to dislike about these large groups. Stopping only at very specific points, and for longer times, rather than stopping for 30-45 seconds whenever you wanted to take in the view, or look at some interesting rocks. Stop here and you got run over by the person behind.
And some more up. We eventually hit the snow, and when that started to steepen, we tied in and put on crampons. Conditions today were pretty good, and you didn't need crampons, or the axe, and though the rope is always a good idea, we probably didn't need to be on the tiny short leashes we were on. I'm sure it's safer and easier from the guide's point of view, but being forced to march in absolute lock step with everyone else, lest your hip get pulled sideways forwards or backwards by the rope going tight forwards or backwards isn't really my idea of fun.
Oh, and the weather closed in. So we're slogging up a steep enough to get you working, but not steep or featured enough to be interesting snowy ice slope. Tied tightly together, in the fog. It was awesome.
Eventually, we reach the plateau on top. So now, it's flatter, meaning the snow is deeper and slushier, and it's still foggy, and we're still tied tight together. But now we're walking faster in slush, so less perfect lock step, and more pulling in both directions. More awesomeness. I highly recommend it. The view of feet and snow in the fog was truly a sight to behold.
Oh look! We've arrived. Somewhere. Actually, there's some really interesting looking features sneaking around in the fog, and we're apparently at the base of the actual "climb" up to the peak itself. My GPS tells me we're about 200m or something below the top, so done with 1800 or so, seeing as we start only about 100m from sea level. We wait here for a while, one of the girls in our party isn't in shape enough to continue, so we wait for the other group behind us to arrive with an emergency shelter for her and her friend (and it turns out, two from that group) to wait in while we go up to the top and back. This is quite a wait. Standing around in the fog, not doing much of anything, and wet. It's not quite cold enough to be dry, and not quite warm enough to just be warm.
Eventually, we make a move. I was getting to the point where I didn't care which way, just as long as we started again. But we're going up.
And immediately it's more fun. Actually having to have a look at where you're going, and some rough ground to get over, having crampons actually being useful. Oh, and the weather started to clear up. That certainly helps too :)
The lead group passes us on their way down while it's still a bit foggy, but by the time we top out, it's simply stunning, glorious sunshine on the glacier, and great views in all directions. (Even south! we're high enough now, and steep enough, to see down over the various other ridges and out to sea.)
As we head down again, the lead group comes back up again :) They want to have a good sunny view too. But even before we get back to the plateau, the cloud has come back in again, not sure if the other group got their sunny view or not.
Back at the plateau, we put our group back together again, and head off down. Well, across actually. Retracing our plod through the fog across the plateau. It's as much fun as the first time.
And then down. It's about as much fun, but faster.
And down more, and then off the line finally, and then back down the hillside, and back into sun again even. And then it's all over.
So, we had a really nice section on the very top. But really, if it wasn't the tallest, I don't think very many people would bother climbing this. There's plenty of nicer looking mountains with more variety that only a little shorter, even just some of the neighbouring mountains. In fact, for people doing the program for a second year, some of them got to go up Hrúfjallstindar, which looks WAYYY more interesting. Still, now it's done, and I never need to go back.
And so ended the program as well. Likewise, good bits, and it made me get out and about despite the weather, earlier in the season, and I went to some new places, but again, not something I think I ever really need to do again. :)