Chasing adventure in Iceland's winter wilderness
The general advice about trekking during the winter season in the highlands of Iceland seems to be, don't. It is suggested that the conditions in winter may be too arduous. Yet, for some people that very advice attracts them to the adventure.
I was looking for adventure in my first trip out of the UK since the onset of Covid. Jim Young, director at Adventurous Ewe, was organising his first winter snowshoeing expedition to Iceland. For me, this trip ticked all the right boxes. It was going to be challenging and somewhat off the beaten track. Jim warned us to keep an open mind, a positive outlook and be ready for adventure. I was in.
One of the more popular treks in Iceland passes through a place called Landmannalaugar. When visited during the Icelandic summer, between mid-June and mid-September, a major attraction of this area is the multi-coloured mountains that surround the valley in which it sits. In fact, the walking route that passes through here is widely regarded as one of the top 20 walks in the world.
Walking and Trekking in Iceland
100 days of walking and multi-day treks
This guidebook to walking routes in Iceland offers 49 day walks and 10 multi-stage treks including the classic Laugavegur Trail. The total of 100 days of routes described cater for most abilities, from waymarked walks to challenging glacier crossings. Information on public transport, accommodation, facilities and budget travel tips also included.More information
You can read detailed guides for over 100 walks throughout Iceland in Cicerone’s guidebook Walking and Trekking in Iceland. This includes day walks out of Landmannalaugar as well as a multi-stage walk passing through it.
Landmannalaugar was to be the centre point around which Jim’s trek would take place, but we were going there late in March in the midst of the Icelandic winter. At this time of year, the huts we would be staying in were almost completely buried by snow. Far from the colourful summer landscape, we were going into a remote and inaccessible arctic wilderness.
From preparation to final extraction, everything about our trek would be far from straightforward. Yet, the breath-taking beauty and sheer remoteness of this place in winter was more than enough of a reward for overcoming the challenges.
Jim’s wife, Sue, sent us a picture of one of the huts we would be visiting, and it was disconcerting to say the least. The hut was almost completely buried in a massive snow drift covering the hills around it. I had to scan closely to actually see that there was a hut in there somewhere. There was certainly no lack of snow, and it was going to be cold.
A major aspect of any winter trek is that more equipment needs to be carried to stay warm and move across snow or ice. Referencing the kit list we had been sent and drawing on my experience of glacier trekking and trekking in snow and ice, I gathered my gear together.
It was a familiar process of packing, re-packing and compromise. Making sure we had everything we needed, while keeping to weight limits that were mandatory for the flight and sensible to carry. In the end I had a day pack weighing around 10kg and a large duffel pack of around 21kg. I was able to strap everything on and walk, which meant I was surely ready to go. Especially as I would have the luxury of towing the duffel bag on a pulka (sledge) when we were on the trail.
One sleep later and I met Jim and the rest of our group in a cloudy, rainy Reykjavik. I enjoyed the warmth of new friendships and the sparks of excitement as we shared a dinner and some beers in civilisation the night before the trek started.
Reaching the start – an adventure in itself
On our first morning, it was breakfast, bags and relative chaos as we loaded our gear into a minibus and a Land Rover with wheels that looked like the size of houses. We set off on clear roads towards the Highlands, the Hekla Volcano, and the start of our trek. Shortly after reaching Hekla, the Icelandic Highlands in winter would present the first major challenges of this trip.
Within a few hours we received an ominous text which added to the tension. It was a government text informing us that we were in the area of an active volcano and to take care. Our guide, Max, pointed out the Hekla Volcano, which looked to be in the distance. He cheerfully added that it was due to erupt soon.
After a brief stop near the foot of Hekla, the dynamics of the trip began to change. The drivers let some air out of the massive tyres on both vehicles because this would give us better purchase in the snow. We left the clear road behind and set off in our vehicles into the snow. Max assured us that there was a minor road somewhere under our wheels. Within minutes the Land Rover bogged down in front of us, its front wheels having dipped into a stream hidden beneath the snow.
The mood of the drivers and guides was a little tense at this stage, and I had a definite feeling that the drive to the start of this trek was in no way guaranteed. Our minibus managed to tow the rover out of the stream, and we crept slowly forward through endless fields of deep snow. As the hours seemed to pass faster than the kilometres, my own anxiety levels started to rise.
The plan had been to dismount from the vehicles and start the trek around midday and then cover 6 miles on snowshoes to reach our first mountain hut. It was 3pm before we finally unloaded our kit from the vehicles and nervously ate a late lunch.
We hadn’t been able to reach the start line of the trek. In fact, we were 4 miles short, meaning that we had 10 miles to cover to reach the mountain hut and we were starting 3 hours late. I nervously prepared myself for the inevitable fast start. My mediocre fitness levels were going to be tested for sure.
Race against the night
Despite the now inevitable fact that we would have to cover some of our first day’s trek in darkness, Jim and Max seemed determined to minimise the time we would be out in the dark. Jim explained that the cold night with potential high winds would not be good to be outside in.
We put on our snowshoes, loaded our pulkas and set off across the arctic wilderness in a long double line.
Lunch had been rushed and we had packed in a hurry. Very soon some of the group began to stop at the side of the trail making some adjustments to equipment. The rest of the group pushed on into the late afternoon.
It took about 2 hours crossing the snow on foot before we finally reached the start line that the vehicles had been headed for. It was around 5pm and already the sun had started to sink lower in the sky.
Soon after we set off again, I found myself completely in awe at the beauty before me. A tiny lake was off to our left almost shining blue against the sheer white of its snowy surroundings. I took a moment to revel in the beauty, I snapped a few pictures and, all too soon, got back on the move again as the group had started to pull away from me.
As the sun set, the pace increased, and the tension mounted. During brief rest stops, only those at the front of the group got any real rest as the group was moving again as soon as the rest of us caught up. It was harder to cram in essential food and water during those brief breaks but to just keep moving without food and water would have increased the likelihood of dehydration, exhaustion or even hypothermia.
Suddenly the danger seemed a lot more real.
Despite the tension and increasing danger, our group automatically and quickly started working as a very effective team. Pushing up a particularly high hill, the fitter members of the group ascended to the top, dropped their gear, and came back down to carry some of the equipment the rest of us were struggling up with.
As the slower of us wearily plodded into wherever the group stopped for a rest, the faster walkers were waiting with energy gels and sweets to keep us going.
We reached our first hut at Landmannahellir in darkness sometime after 9pm. Though it was mostly buried in snow, the entry was clear, and we were quickly inside and organising ourselves. Gas fires were lit, and, in the light of our head torches, pots of snow were melted for much needed water.
The conditions were very basic but soon we were warm and dry. Before too much longer, we were fed as Jim and Max prepared dehydrated curry and laid out fruit and chocolate cake.
Fire in the snow
Having won the race to beat the winter night, we were out on the trail again the next morning. With no pressure of time and beautiful weather, we got the chance to appreciate the beautiful wilderness around us. Crossing endless plains of brilliant white snow flanked in the distance by black volcanic rock and broken by the occasional, stunning aqua blue lakes.
In the undulating terrain there was the sheer hard work of plodding slowly upwards through snow slopes often followed by the exhilaration and fun of sitting on our pulkas and sledging down the next slope.
Learning to move with a pulka was less than straight forward for me. More than once the pulka knocked me over, crashing into me on descents. I also managed to tie myself to it on one descent becoming hopelessly entangled in the ropes that attached it to my harness.
I also created havoc with the group when I unclipped the pulka from my harness and pushed it down the hill in front of me. The group at the bottom of the hill had to scatter as my 40kg pulka sped in among them.
The weather turned as we spent our second night in a mountain hut in Landmannalaugar and we ventured out of the hut on day 3 to find a whiteout.
High winds swirled heavy snow around us as we climbed almost blind out of the valley in which our hut sat. We were on a revised agenda and would only be walking about 5 miles. Having been in these conditions before, I envisaged little more than high freezing winds and near zero visibility for the entire time we were out.
Yet, a little over 2 miles from the hut we found ourselves standing on a riverbank, snowshoes off and peering through the steam from the water boiling around us. This is the uniqueness of Iceland at its very best.
We spent an hour or so lost in the relative warmth and beauty of mini geysers boiling up through the stones around us. We could still see the snow falling and the snow flanked slopes of the nearby hills through the sweltering steam of these natural springs. Such a contrast was striking and beautiful.
In fact, we had already experienced natural hot springs in a unique bathing experience right beside our hut in Landmannalaugar. Stepping out of a mountain hut almost buried in snow about 3 meters deep, a short 100m walk over the top of the snow brought us to a natural volcanic hot spring.
It seemed so unnatural stripping down to swimming trunks out there in the snow, but we soon found ourselves basking in water as hot as a hot bath. Neither the smell of sulphur coming out of the springs nor the utterly freezing experience we knew awaited us when we climbed back out into the snow could dampen the sheer relaxation and enjoyment of those springs.
The Northern Lights tried but failed to make a full appearance on the third night. I had been trudging back through the snow towards the hut having climbed out of the buried toilet block when the cloudy sky started to change colour. I called excitedly to everyone inside the hut and soon we were gathered outside with cameras pointing skywards.
In the end all we got was a faint green glow in the clouds. The clouds did clear eventually but by then it was merely darkness above us. Well, darkness and a billion stars twinkling in the night. Out here there was breath-taking beauty even in disappointment.
Danger of a summer path in winter
Like so much of nature’s beauty, there was also danger lurking around us. Several of the crater traverses had to be crossed single file following closely in the footsteps of the person ahead so as to avoid falling through ice into a freezing lake.
Perhaps the most dangerous area we had to cross was a winter traverse of the so-called Summer Path leading into the hut at Landmannalaugar. The winter snow piled meters on top of it and lay at a steep angle sloping right down into the river beside it. The snow sloped like this for about 400m along the riverbank.
Traversing this with our heavy pulkas in tow represented the first obstacle of our final day as we set out to find our transport back to Reykjavik.
This traverse took us about an hour and a half, creeping slowly forward with our pulkas mostly dangling below us pulling us down towards the river.
Several of us were pulled over and started to slide ominously towards the freezing water. Once you started to slide down the snow slope it was very difficult to gain any purchase. Luckily for me, the guy behind saw me start to slip and grabbed my arm.
He held me in place while others unclipped my pulka and I struggled back to my feet thankful to have avoided an unexpected freezing early bath. Exhausted and a little shaken we all made it safely to the other side and were soon trekking across the open volcanic snow-covered plains once more.
Within a few hours the going was much more level underfoot and we realized we were walking along a road, or at least above a road deeply buried under the snow. In the early afternoon it was the movement of what had looked like just another couple of volcanic rocks in the distance which now caught our eye.
I tried not to get my hopes up too much, but it was soon obvious that our vehicles were driving through the snow towards us. In a joyous reunion of trekker and vehicle in the same kind of middle of nowhere spot where our trek had started, the adventure was finally over.
For some, this adventure held special meaning as money was raised for charities close to their heart. Charlotte and Gayle, 2 UK based paramedics, brought the total raised for their chosen charity, Mind, to over £1000. Sue and John raised money for Macmillan Cancer Support, bringing their total raised to over £2500.
We took the selfies, clapped each other on the back and with more than a little feeling of accomplishment, packed our gear onto the vehicles. The welcome civilisation of Reykjavik was a 3-hour drive away.
Pros and cons of a winter trek in Iceland
Can you trek in the Highlands of Iceland in winter? Yes! Should you trek in the Highlands of Iceland in winter? Yes… but… there are a lot of things you must think about and bear in mind. This is not an easy undertaking!
I would say having a guide and trekking with someone who knows the area and has been there in winter is of paramount importance. The Highlands of Iceland in winter is an expansive freezing wilderness where the terrain is difficult to cross, and it would be very easy to get hopelessly lost. Even with the biggest winter tyres I’ve ever seen, we were barely able to move in vehicles in the terrain. In only 4 days out we spent close to half of that time in whiteout conditions.
You also need to be in very good physical shape. We carried and pulled a combined weight of around 40Kg each and, including breaks, kept up a pace close to 2.5Km/Hour. Maintaining this pace carrying the weight over snow and undulating terrain was relentless and exhausting yet necessary to link up between the remote mountain huts in the area.
Had anyone been injured or not fit enough to keep up this could have represented a major problem for the group overall. The only quick way out of the area would have been by helicopter.
Speaking to Jim at dinner in Reykjavik after the trek, he mentioned that we could well have had to spend a night our in Emergency shelters had we not been able to get to our hut on the first night out. With the limited reach of the vehicles and the arduous weather conditions it was simply impossible to be too accurate about the times and distances we would be moving.
All that said, there was a massive sense of achievement having reached the end of the trek and the beauty and remoteness of Iceland in winter painted pictures that will last a lifetime. Should you trek in the Highlands of Iceland in winter? With an open mind and a sense of adventure, absolutely, yes!
For anyone wanting to get involved to the next winter trek to Iceland or a number of different adventures, Adventurous Ewe offer adventure travel in small expeditions throughout the year. You can click through to their site to contact them here.
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