We're flirting with hypothermia, and we're lost in the fog on a featureless field of snow.
Just hours earlier, at 4 a.m. local time, my son Gordon and I landed in Iceland's Keflavik airport. The flight was a short redeye from the U.S. East Coast. We had just enough time to get to Reykjavik, drop a bag, and catch a bus for Skógar on Iceland's south coast. By noon we were on the trail.
When we planned the trip, almost on the spur of the moment, we didn't really know what to expect. We had a week, and we figured that was just enough time for six days of hiking on the famous Laugavegur trail, including a southern extension that reached the sea at Skógar.
The Laugavegur trail regularly appears in lists of the world's great hking trails. It cuts across great swaths of austere Icelandic scenery – mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, boiling springs, fast rivers, quiet lakes. And damn few trees. Still, it didn't look too demanding. Most of the segments were ten miles each, and a couple were 7.5. There are communal huts along the way, and a hundred hikers or more complete the trail each day in high season.
Driven by bus and plane schedules, we decided to do the trail south to north, against the flow of most hikers. That meant a thirty-five-hundred-foot climb the first day, when our packs would be full of six days' rations and at their heaviest. Not to mention our legs, which would never be less ready. A ten-mile climb on no sleep wouldn't be exactly fun, we figured, but it would force us into hiking shape in a hurry, and the rest of the trip would be a piece of cake after one tough day.
And that's exactly how the hike shaped up. The day started out sweet – windy with sun and fast-moving clouds. That's as good as it gets in Iceland. (When we'd checked the ten-day forecast for this part of Iceland as the trip approached, the weather icons showed rain every day and temperatures rarely out of the forties.)
Stepping off the bus and retrieving our gear, we admire the powerful falls where the great Skóga river drops straight off a cliff onto the coastal plain. It's a classic of Iceland scenery and we milk the view for a twenty-minutes delay, since the first part of the trail is an apparently endless set of metal stairs curving out of sight along the falls. Climbing stairs with a heavy pack is hot work, and we soon strip down to light nylon clothes, sweating hard and grateful for the breeze.
Our task for the day is clear enough – just keep climbing, first along the river and then into the snowfields that linger all year near the mountaintop. The trail is easy to see in the grassy fields at the head of the falls, and in any event we only have to keep the river on our left. That is a pleasure. The river dives from one falls to another. It isn't hard to imagine the landscape as a series of decaying lava flows from volcanoes further inland. Each flow stalled further from the sea and higher on the mountain, creating the cliffs that the Skóga turns into falls in its downhill race. In places, the river carves out steep canyons whose bottom we cannot see. The canyon's cliffs hide the nests of fulmars – a northern Atlantic bird that looks like a bull-necked seagull.
The wildlife of Iceland, as far as I can see, consists almost entirely of birds. We hear there are reindeer and arctic foxes elsewhere on the island, but the only land animals we've seen are occasional handfuls of sheep and a remarkable number of horses. In fact, there is one horse for every four humans in Iceland – a remarkable statistic given that horses don't actually serve an economic function in the country any more. They all seem to be kept for sport, and the occasional export. (Stubby and hardy, the Icelandic horse evolved in isolation for nearly a thousand years and it's popular in Europe and North America for its naturally smooth paces.)
But even horses and sheep are scarce as we climb along the river, celebrating every tributary we pass. Not just because the streams often enter the Skóga in spectacular falls of their own, but for a less exalted reason. Our job is to walk this river into the ground; we won't be close to our destination for the night, the hut at Fimmvörðuháls, until the Skóga has been reduced first to a trickle and then to nothing but scattered snowfields. So we march from tributary to tributary, sweating and groaning occasionally under the unaccustomed weight of our packs. Meanwhile, Iceland's weather is reverting to the norm. The sun is gone, replaced by lowering clouds and a heavy, welcome wind.
Not so welcome is what comes next. On average, Iceland's weather is a lot like Northern Scotland's, but without the balmy parts. The wind is soon driving a mist, then a rain, then a hard rain. We pull on raingear, but our warmest clothes will have to go under the outer layers, and changing out of my rainpants is nearly unthinkable. I bought new rainpants for this trip, especially because they have snaps at the cuffs to allow them to be taken off over shoes. Shoes, maybe, but not hiking boots, I've discovered. So putting on my heavy fleece tights would mean sitting down in a cold rain and pulling off my boots as well as my pants. I'd lose more heat than the fleece would supply, at least in the near term. The easier way to keep warm, conveniently enough, is just to keep climbing, which also brings us closer to the night's shelter.
At last, we climb the river into oblivion. It is nothing but an occasional snowbank now. Iceland has had a cool summer. There's more snow than usual for late August. And it's pretty clear that these snowbanks won't melt before they're reinforced by fresh snowfalls. In fact, the stuff that's coming out of the sky is distressingly close to snow already. It's gone from simple cold rain to something with a bit of internal structure – bouncing and wobbling off our parkas toward the ground. Not snow, exactly, but somewhere between sleet and freezing rain.
Meanwhile, the trail is adding to our discomfort. It has climbed to big, slanted plateaus leading toward the summit, or what we can only hope is the summit, since it's shrouded in blowing cloud.
By now, we're wearing all the clothes we can put on without stripping down in what has become a freezing gale. There's no shelter. We are above the tree line. Truth be told, all of Iceland is pretty much above the tree line. We haven't seen a tree all day.
In fact, we've practically run out of grass, and even moss. This is a sea of stones. Too many stones to show the trail. We are almost entirely dependent now on the trail markers – three-foot stakes topped with a splash of paint and spread out over an otherwise featureless plain.
We've got to keep moving. We haven't even reached the five-mile mark, and I'm already worrying about hypothermia. Once known as “exposure,” hypothermia is a gradual loss of body heat that can easily occur even when temperatures are above freezing. When the body loses heat it first cuts blood circulation to the extremities, hoarding heat for core bodily functions. Shivering is followed by lethargy and poor coordination and then by mental confusion. In the last stages, as blood flow to the cortex is cut, the deep lizard brain stem takes over, telling victims to discard clothing and burrow deep under rocks and leaves. It works for reptiles, which can hibernate, but it just kills people more quickly.