Fimmvörðuháls – The fiery pass across Eyjafjallajökull

Fimmvörðuháls – The fiery pass across Eyjafjallajökull

The Eyjafjallajökull area is one of the defining features that blew me away on my first trip to Iceland. This was before I even knew its name, when it was still some obscure mountain massif on the south coast. When it suddenly erupted into world fame in the spring of 2010, I was screaming in frustration looking at videos of spectacular fountains of lava. I so much wanted to see this with my own eyes!

The first episode of the eruption – now affectionally known in Iceland as ‘the tourist eruption’ – took place right in the middle of the walking track across the Fimmvörðuháls pass, between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and that other fearsome volcano – Katla.

The fiery pass across Eyjafjallajökull

So when my next trip to Iceland suddenly bubbled up in 2014, I had to finally climb the thing and see (what was left of) the steaming heaps at the Fimmvörðuháls fissure.

The track goes from Skógar on the south coast to the other side of Eyjafjallajökull into the fabled valley of Þórsmörk, one of the most beautiful and enigmatic parts of Iceland. It’s full of big mountains, glaciers with volcanoes underneath, huge river valleys and gorges & all kinds of rugged terrain.

Fimmvörðuháls - Epic view into Thórsmörk

Epic view into the valley of Þórsmörk.

By now, I’ve done the walk in both directions.

The easy way up from Skógar to Fimmvörðuháls and down into Þórsmörk, with an overnight stay at the Fimmvörðuháls hut in June 2014.

And the hard way up from Þórsmörk to Fimmvörðuháls and back down again (with an unexpected addition…), staying at the Básar hut in September 2017.

Different options

From Skógar to Þórsmörk it’s about 25 kilometers, with an altitude gain from near sea-level to 1060 meters up to the Fimmvörðuháls passage. It takes about 8 to 9 hours to complete the entire walk. Some people do it in a single day. But it’s much more enjoyable to split it in 2 sections, and have the chance to see an epic sunset over Eyjafjallajökull glacier from the Fimmvörðuháls hut, near the highest point of the pass. The biggest distraction is the overload of mind-blowing scenery all along the route. You will want to have plenty of time to enjoy it, take photo’s, and have some leisurely picnic stops too. And you definitely don’t want to feel rushed because you have to catch a bus at the end of the track – the walk might very well take longer than you expected.

Another good option is to stay in Þórsmörk and base yourself at the Básar hut for a couple of days. You’ll be in the middle of the spectacular valley, with several walking tracks going off in all directions. If the weather turns out to be no good to take on the long haul up to Fimmvörðuháls, there are plenty of other walks you can do.

Þórsmörk is also the starting point (or the finish) of the well-known Laugavegur hiking trail to Landmannalaugar.

Fimmvörðuháls routes and the Básar hut in Þórsmörk.

Practicalities

With the extremely unpredictable weather in Iceland, it can be a bit complicated to plan a specific day and necessary hut reservations for this walk. It’s notoriously fickle on Fimmvörðuháls, and the track can become rather impassable in bad weather. When a massive fog or a giant dalalæða settles down, it’s easy to become disoriented on the high plateaus and snowfield-covered upper parts of the track. If there are nasty winds funneling through the gorges and raging snowstorms howling around the top of the glacier, it is definitely no fun to do this walk.

But reservations for the huts are required, and strongly recommended to do well in advance if you don’t want to haul your camping gear up and down the mountain and spend the night freezing in exposed glacier-surrounded terrain. Especially at the Fimmvörðuháls hut, with limited availability (20 people) and a small window of opportunity. It’s only open from 15 June to 31 August.

In 2014 I booked the Fimmvörðuháls hut two months beforehand, and already struggled to find an available date to fit in the travel schedule. Then the big tourist boom in Iceland happened. Already well on its way in 2014, but exploded out of proportions in the last few years.

If you go in the off-season, you might have more options and flexibility. The Básar hut is usually open from early May to the end of September, and has more space to accommodate people. I booked this hut only a week beforehand in September 2017.

Here’s my experience of both walks.

Fimmvörðuháls - Walking up from Skógar

Skógar-Fimmvörðuháls-Þórsmörk (the ‘easy way’)

In June 2014 me and my friend did the one-way hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk. It’s about 15 kilometers from Skógar to the Fimmvörðuháls hut, and another 10 down the other side into Þórsmörk – the significantly steeper part of the track. We were a bit apprehensive about how the weather would turn out on the day we started the walk and booked the hut. It would not be a good idea to go up the mountain in case of howling rain or other atrocious conditions. But we got lucky and had nice & sunny weather – at least on the way up…

Fimmvörðuháls- Skóga river

Skóga river, just before it plunges down into Skógafoss.

The way up to Fimmvörðuháls

The track starts at the bottom of Skógasfoss, one of the most famous and iconic waterfalls of Iceland. You can stay overnight at the nearby village of Skógar, or take the early morning bus from Reykjavík. If you have a rental car, you can leave it in Skógar and take the mountain truck out of Þórsmörk to Hvolsvöllur, connecting with the regular Stræto bus back to Skógar. The benefit of staying in Skógar the night before is that you can explore the waterfall at leisure during the endless evening, without the usual crowds during daytime. When I was at Skógafoss in 2006, I had to wait for nearly half an hour for some people to arrive, so I could ask them to take a picture of me in front of the rainbow waterfall. Nowadays it’s no longer like that.

Beside Skógafoss there’s now a comfortable set of iron staircases going up to the ridge above, complete with a lookout platform for some great views onto the mighty waterfall. Beyond here, the track starts sloping gradually up the mountain across lush green pastures along the east banks of the Skóga river, plunging down all the way from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. The river is filled with countless bubbling waterfalls, interspersed with many lookout points into crumbly gorges.

Skóga river and its many gorges & waterfalls.

Snowfields

At about two thirds of the way, the lush green slopes give way to more barren terrain. You cross a bridge over the river and enter the stony desert of the upper part of the track. Not long after, you have to traverse the first snowfield. Just when you think you’re almost there, another one comes into view, going down and back up again. There will be at least one or two snowfields more to conquer before you get to the ridge leading up to the welcoming sight of the Fimmvörðuháls hut.

One of several snowfields before you reach Fimmvörðuháls hut.

Fimmvörðuháls - Midnight sunset and giant dalalæða

Midnight sunset and a giant dalalæða coming in.

Change of weather

The next day, the weather had changed and was not in our favour. During the night the wind picked up and came howling around the hut and the exposed ridge it is on. I was nearly blown off the veranda when I opened the door.

We had to put on all our layers, hats & gloves and rain trousers. I had a leaking shoe as well, and had to wrap some provisionary plastic bags around my socks to keep them dry.

Not long after leaving the hut, the Fimmvörðuháls fissure comes into view. It really is an intimidating sight – a maze of giant lava flows, spread out over an enormous length and piling up several meters high. The nearby Magni and Móði craters were still steaming at their edges. I had wanted to go up to the craters and bumble around in them, but the wind was just too brutal to even try & attempt. Unfortunately we had to abandon this little side-trip and focus on battling our way down instead.

Signpost almost buried in the snow, Magni crater still steaming at its edges, and ropes down the slope on the way down.

The way down into Þórsmörk

After the lava flows the track plunges steeply down into Þórsmörk along a series of plateaus and a multitude of gorges and folded valleys. Some truly epic views unfold before your eyes – if you manage to see through all the wind-induced tears.

We were struggling to stay upright, even with the added weight of 10 kilo backpacks. I had to literally sit and bumslide down some steep sections in order not to be blown off the mountain. Luckily a tour guide came along and offered us some help by providing walking poles. I’m not such a fan of those, but in situations like these they really do come in handy!

Then we had to slide our way along chains on the sides of steep ravines, until we reached the giant Morinsheiði plateau. Things finally became a bit more pleasant once we got across the plateau. The wind decreased as we descended down onto the sheltered forrested slopes of Þórsmörk. There were still a few tricky sections along the way, but there are ropes attached to help you down steep and rocky inclinations.

My walking shoes – already burnt by Pele in Hawaii – did not survive the walk down Eyjafjallajökull 😉

Fimmvörðuháls - The ridge

Þórsmörk-Fimmvörðuháls-Þórsmörk (the ‘hard way’)

In September 2017 I came back to Þórsmörk and did the return hike to Fimmvörðuháls from the Básar hut. This area is just so beautiful that it’s worth going back any time. And I still wanted to explore those Magni and Móði craters. It’s a bit more challenging to go up the Þórsmörk side – the significantly steeper section, but it’s definitely the most spectacular part of the mountain. I would have liked to stay a night at the Fimmvörðuháls hut again, but it was already closed for the season. So if I wanted to go up to Fimmvörðuháls, there was no other way than to brave the hardcore 8 to 9 hour walk all the way up and back down again on the same day.

I stayed in Básar for 3 nights, and I got extremely lucky with a late Autumn spell of warm, sunny and almost wind-free (!) weather on the crucial day I climbed up to Fimmvörðuháls. September also offers a dazzling array of Autumn colours, and a bountyful harvest of bláber and krækiber in Þórsmörk 🙂

The start of the track

Fimmvörðuháls - Start of the track

The weather was so nice I could walk all the way up without putting my jacket on. Even when I reached the snowfields, it was still quite balmy due to the near absence of wind. What a difference with the first time!

Folded valleys, chains down the track, and a natural high! 😉

Fimmvörðuháls - Katla glacier

Katla glacier.

Fimmvörðuháls fissure and lava fields

I reached Fimmvörðuháls after almost 4 hours, and blissfully bumbled around the lava fields for at least 3 hours. I walked around and to the top of the Magni and Móði craters. Their slopes were full of colourful lava rocks, and the views were truly out of this world.

Fimmvörðuháls - The fiery pass across Eyjafjallajökull

Eyjafjallajökull craters. Looking towards Móði from the colourful top of Magni.

Fimmvörðuháls - Frozen plateau

Frozen plateau.

Crater tracks and colourful lava.

Sunset would be at quarter to 8, so it was time to make my way back down again around 4 o’clock, to be safely off the mountain before darkness settled in.

Fimmvörðuháls - Snowfield

Útigönguhöfði – the alternative route

I thought it might be fun to take a different route on the way back. Someone at the hut had mentioned another track leading back down from the Morinsheiði plateau, towards Útigönguhöfði (try to pronounce that…), with even more spectacular views on the way.

It was also marked on the map I had bought. It looked like a shorter route, so I figured I had plenty of margin left. That turned out to be a little different than what I expected…

Halfway across the plateau there was a signpost pointing to the Útigönguhöfði route. The track went down the side and into broad mossy meadows. There were marker poles to indicate the route, but they became progressively fewer and far between as I walked further towards the humongous big mountain rising up in front of me.

Fimmvörðuháls - The alternative route

The alternative route. It can’t possibly be going over there…

How not to get lost on Útigönguhöfði mountain

I expected that the track would weave around this mountain and back down the valley the other way. It couldn’t possibly be going over it. The steepness was just too intimidating, and it looked nearly impossible to actually go over there.

At some point, I lost track of the poles and couldn’t see the next one. I wandered around for a bit towards the side of the valley, hoping to see a reassuring pole to confirm that I’m going in the right direction. It was nearly 6 o’clock, less than 2 hours before sunset, and I was still way out in the wilderness. There wasn’t a pole to be seen anywhere. So I backtracked back up the hill again to find the previous pole, and scanned the surroundings carefully for the next. Then I finally spotted it. It was halfway up the Útigönguhöfði mountain.

Fimmvörðuháls - Marker pole on Útigönguhöfði

Nooo! You have got to be kidding me!

A slight panic was starting to take hold.

It was too late to go back up the Morinsheiði plateau again and continue on the conventional route – as it would still take another 3 hours to go that way. There was no other choice than to crawl my way up this humongous big & frightfully steep mountain, hoping to make it back down the other side before it got completely dark. Luckily there’s a long twilight zone in Iceland – after the sun has set, darkness moves in slowly, and there will be at least another hour before it gets completely dark.

I checked my phone and saw that I only had 4% of battery left. That might be a bit of a problem if I had to call 112 in case of getting stuck on the mountain in total darkness.

Fimmvörðuháls - Up the mountain

View back down from the top of Útigönguhöfði, its terrifying shadow looming over the valley.

Terrifying & terrific views

So I crawled up the Útigönguhöfði mountain like an animal, while the sunlight was already leaving the valley behind me at an alarming rate. And I made it to the top just in time to see a breathtakingly magical sunset on the other side, lighting up a mind-boggling array of gorges in translucent shades.

Fimmvörðuháls - Magical sunset

Magical sunset.

Fimmvörðuháls - Top of Útigönguhöfði

The surprisingly flat top of Útigönguhöfði.

From here, the track became easier to follow. At least there were chains & ropes on the way down, and you could actually see where the path was going on this side. There was even a signpost on the top!

Fimmvörðuháls - Signposts

Signposts, with the one pointing to Básar lying on the ground…

Chains on the path going down, almost there!

Back just in time

I got back to the Básar hut at about quarter to 9 – just before it really got too dark – after nearly 12 hours of walking up and down two great big mountains. It might not have been the most logical decision to choose an obscure path two hours before sunset… But it was worth it in the end!

It was comforting to hear that the hut warden had already checked to see if I was back half an hour before. If I still hadn’t returned at 9 o’clock they would have raised the alarm. Fortunately they did not need to.

I did have to sacrifice another item though; I lost my hat somewhere on the way up to Útigönguhöfði mountain.

Survival rule number one

Always bring shitloads of food on long walks like these. You don’t want to find yourself running on an empty battery & out of energy when the walk takes longer than anticipated. It’s better to carry it around for nothing than finding yourself in a dire situation without it. And because I had plenty of food with me, I still had more energy than the phone battery to scramble up another 800 meter humongous mountain, even after walking up and halfway down an 1100 meter mountain already.

Plenty of water is essential too, and of course a Wilderness Coffee to keep you warm 😉

Fimmvörðuháls - Wilderness Coffee

(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High

Autumn colours & blueberry harvest!

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Video

View over the Fimmvörðuháls lava fields from the top of Magni crater.


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Fimmvörðuháls - The fiery pass across Eyjafjallajökull
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The fiery pass across Eyjafjallajökull into the fabled valley of Þórsmörk, full of big mountains, glaciers with volcanoes underneath, huge river valleys and gorges. The Fimmvörðuháls walking route between Skógar and Þórsmörk, the easy way and the hard way. And: how not to get lost on Útigönguhöfði mountain.
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