Hiking Hornstrandir: A Cautionary Tale

It’s the first time I’ve ever not completed a hiking trip, the first time I’ve needed an emergency hut, and the first (and hopefully last) time I’ve ever had to radio the coast guard. Everything that happened also forced 6-hour, overnight drive to the airport. So when, around 3am during this drive, Barb said that Hornstrandir was her favorite part of the whole trip, you can imagine my initial surprise. But, when I thought about it, I had to agree: the scenery was unrivaled and we got to experience the kindness of so many Icelandic strangers. This is how it came to be.

As we neared the end of our 3 ½ week trip in Iceland, Barb and I were dead set on doing a backcountry trip before we headed home. After exploring the options, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve somehow came out as the most feasible, sane choice despite some glaring red flags from the guidebook, like: “There are no services available in Hornstandir and hikers must be fully prepared to tackle all eventualities…” and “passes are steep, heavy rains will make rivers impassable, fog can be dense, etc”. And, we should note that there are no roads, and the reserve is only reachable either by boat or a 3-day trek in from the nearest ‘town’. To say its remote, challenging, and sparsely populated is an understatement.

In hindsight, these were warnings that should have gotten a bit more of our attention. But, to be fair, we’re accustomed to a very safety-conscious, risk adverse society. As Americans, we’re used to hearing warnings regarding the difficulty of a hike or the prospect of bad weather that we often ignore. Do you go to your basement every time there is a tornado warning? Didn’t think so.

But, anyways, Barb and I found ourselves in the Isafjorder visitor center and coffee shops, pouring over ferry schedules, hiking maps, and trail descriptions. After chatting with the gentleman at the visitor center, we settled on a four night itinerary: catch the 5pm Friday boat to Veidileysufjorder, camp on the beach there, hike to Hornvik on Saturday, do a day hike to some bird cliffs Sunday, hike over to Haelavik Monday, and then hike from Haelavik to Hesteryi early on Tuesday to catch the 5pm ferry back to Isafjorder. We’d then spend the night in Isafjorder, and drive back to Reykjavík in time to catch our flights home on Thursday.

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Our planning session consisted of two hours of studying hiking descriptions, ferry schedules, and the map over some local brews.

Armed with our ‘bulletproof’ plan, we bought enough food for five nights (just in case), prepped meals, loaded up our packs, registered with safetravel.is, and designated our dear friend Amanda as our emergency contact. After Barb revealed the details of the trip to her mother (that I had withheld from my own mother in efforts to keep her blood pressure down and “worry hat” on the shelf), Barb’s mom offered to pay for an emergency GPS beacon should anything catastrophic happen. We happily agreed, a little uncertain of what we were getting into but much too excited (and financially invested) to reconsider. Spoiler alert: our emergency contact did get a phone call.

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Barb’s expression would be more appropriate given what was to come.

Upon arrival to the beach at Veidileysufjorder, we were enthusiastically greeted by another American woman eager to give us advice. We were just as eager to hear it: there is an actual trail the entire way and it’s to the left of the stream, there is quite a bit of snow but we could follow their footprints as they hadn’t fallen through anywhere, and we should go tonight since the weather was so beautiful.  With navigation as our largest concern, we were happy to know there was a well-marked trail and decided to set out that night just after dinner (I should note here, in summertime in Iceland it never gets dark. I even felt comfortable leaving my headlamp behind).

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Barb christening the Jetboil with our first meal of the trip: dinner on the beach.

The views of the mountains and the fjord were absolutely stunning. As we approached our first snow bank/river crossing, I found the fresh footprints of the previous hikers and cautiously followed. Not three steps in, the snow beneath me gave way and I plunged below into the icy stream. Luckily, this was a small one (less than a foot deep) but it meant that my shoes, socks, and the bottom of my pants would be soaking wet for the rest of our 6-hour hike.

We laughed as I rung out my socks, with just a twinge of concern as one of our largest fears had come true within 10 minutes of starting the hike. After Barb confirmed that the snow there was too weak to hold a human (I’m still confused by this move; was it out of solidarity that you wanted wet feet too, Barb??), we scoped out a better place to cross the river. We did find someplace, upstream, and removed our hiking boots, donned our river shoes, and waded across. Our first river crossing! Success! We weren’t even (that) grumpy about it.

Fast forward two hours and one more river and the mood had changed significantly. We cursed the woman who advised us to go at night rather than getting a good night’s rest. We cursed the group ahead of us for weakening the snow so we had to walk through the icy streams. We cursed the icy streams. We cursed the steep snow bank we were climbing to the pass. I’m sure I left some cursings out, but you get the point.

Our anger and anxiety dissolved when we saw the other side of the pass. The views were breathtaking, and fog was uncharacteristically absent. The midnight sun on the cliffs opposite of the mountain pass cast shadows in the fjord and gave everything a distinct coloring that could only happen at this time of night. We knew we were lucky, and cursed the woman a little less.

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The way up the pass; we were dropped off by boat at the bottom.
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Cairn marking the top of the pass.
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Opposite side of the pass; this photo was taken at 2am.
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Making our way down the other side to the campsite.

Down the other side of the pass we crossed multiple large snow fields but the steady, easy decline and lack of rivers propelled us down in good spirits. After one semi-sketchy descent near the end of the hike, we arrived at the designated camping area just after 3am, tired but elated, and would end up sleeping until 8pm the next day.

The more we talked with other folks at the campsite, the more we noticed that their definition of “easy” did not match with ours. Nor even come close. A 9-mile hike to some bird cliffs was considered a “nice little day hike”, fording ice cold rivers wasn’t bad as long as you had your sandals, and tomorrow we’d encounter a small section where we’d need a rope to ascend and then descend a lava induced rock formation. But they weren’t even mentioning this section because of the rope; rather, it served as a good marker for when the trail cut up to the left. And everyone’s cited hiking times seemed to be significantly shorter than ours. We made a mental note to get an early start on our last day.

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Part of the 17.5km ‘easy little day hike’.

Monday, we set out for Haelavik from Hornvik and it wasn’t long before we encountered the rope challenge! Which, to be honest, wasn’t that tough to climb: the rope was there to give you better footing for a very steep, very gravely section. Barb offered to go first on the way down and elected to go face first (we would later learn our definitions of “rappel” are slightly different). Halfway down, she realized that this was a terrible plan, and to tried to turn around. To do that, she needed to take her pack off. Somewhere between these two very carefully executed actions both Barb and her pack fell the last 8 feet down. She immediately alleviated my fears of serious injury by bursting out into laughter. I tossed my pack down to her, and rappelled down without incident.

 

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Rope climbing; the way up wasn’t bad, the way down was a bit more treacherous.

Our second major challenge of the day came on the other side of pass, when we came to a river that we needed to cross. We could figure out three options. (1) Cross at the best spot we could find, but the current there was pretty strong and the water would be up to our mid-thigh/knees. (2) Walk down a snow bank would get us most of the way across the river, but had collapsed at the end. But that end was at a very shallow point in the river, so we’d have to hope that we would be lucky and not fall through any earlier. (3) Hike all the way back up the ridge and circumvent the river completely. To complicate things, a large storm front was rolling in and winds were picking up while we deliberated with which option we would incur the smallest chance of death. After Barb overcame a minor panic attack, we decided on option three, the ridge.

We nervously scurried across the snow banks to more steady rock islands, and eventually made it across the river. But, not without the wind really picking up. So much so, that it blew my beloved Yeti hat right off my head! Once the hat was off, it flew across the snow bank and out of sight so fast that I didn’t have a prayer of catching up to it. The prospect of being swept away by a river didn’t bring tears, but losing that damn hat nearly did. Picture Tom Hanks in Castaway when he loses Wilson. That was me. Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic here, but I was pissed. Add the wind to our cursing list.

Fifteen minutes later we were still trudging across an endless snow bank while scanning the horizon for flying hats, when off in the distance behind us, I thought I saw a tiny blue spot in the white sea of snow. Could it be? Yeti?? I persuaded Barb to let me explore despite the impending weather threat, sprinted 200 yards across the snow, and by god it was YETI! I tucked him in my coat, not chancing another tragedy, and sprinted back to Barb, feeling lucky for the first time that day.

 

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Other side of the pass on Day 3.

 

The rest of the hike that day would be relatively uneventful. We did learn that a route that is described as “impassable except during summer” means narrow, steep, and gravely with any misstep likely to lead to a fall, and a fall down the cliff wouldn’t be one that you survived. We passed a cute yellow house at the bottom and decided to call it quits for the night when we reached another river that required fording and camped there. We made some popcorn, cooked a quick dinner, and ignored the dishes. Tomorrow we’d be back in civilization with a real sink, real soap, and a real sponge to remove the rest of the coagulated butter from our popcorn bowls.

After a restless, windy night, we awoke and we prepared to ford the river where we’d seen two French guys cross the day before, not far from where it met the ocean. It looked a little deep, but knowing that someone else had successfully crossed there and pressed for time, it seemed like the way to go. The keyword here, being ‘seemed’.

As Barb and I held hands and inched further into the river, the current felt stronger than we anticipated. And the bottom slicker. And the river deeper. All of the sudden, Barb lost her footing and was fully in the water, pack and all. I held on with all my strength, and it was just long enough for her to regain her footing before her hand slid out of mine. But we were both standing in the river (or squatting, which was good enough) and we cautiously made our way back to the same bank. Of everything that had happened so far, this was the first time we had really encountered genuine danger and avoided serious consequences, and it shook our already feeble confidence. Despite it, we pressed on. We hustled (in our wet clothes) up to a part of the river that was four times as wide but much shallower and were able to cross there.

Not a kilometer after that river, we encountered another stupid river that required fording. After walking up and down the bank, we opted to straddle/shimmy across a narrow, mostly stable log one-at-a-time over a fast part of the river while the other held the log steady. As pathetic as it looked, we both made it. We knew that we needed to make up time in our ascent to the pass if we wanted to catch our 5pm boat that day and started hustling up the mountain.

Despite our troubles with them, rivers would not be the straw that broke our camel’s back. In the end, it was fog. As we ascended, the fog became thicker and thicker, and the next cairn became more and more difficult to see. After two hours of climbing, we came to the edge of a snow bank. Ahead, we could see only white: white snow, white fog, no cairn in sight. We could see and hear a river to our left, and hypothesized that there was water underneath the snow. Unlike every other snow bank, there were no footprints from previous hikers to guide us. I ventured out onto the snowbank until the consistency of the snow changed to an unfamiliar, wetter crunch that made me nervous and I still couldn’t see a cairn. And, I could barely see Barb, not more than 20 feet away.

Emotions heavy, we turned around. With everything that had happened, the prospect of taking on unknown terrain that we couldn’t see was just too much. The decision felt like both a success and a failure at the same time. We’d be safe, but we wouldn’t finish the hike. A large pit of worry left my stomach to be replaced with a much smaller pit of disappointment. Our mothers would be so proud, though.

From the emergency hut at the bottom of the fjord (lovingly dubbed, “our big orange, plastic cooler”), our spirits were much higher as we tried to decipher enough Icelandic to figure out how to use the radio. We needed to get word out that we were okay; if we didn’t show for our boat in Hesteryi at 5pm, a search and rescue effort would automatically be dispensed. Physically, we were fine, we just needed a lift from the north side of the nature reserve rather than the south.

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Inside the emergency hut. We introduced ourselves as ‘Alyssa Barbieri and Marti Chance, two American backpackers’ and this would end up being our call line for every subsequent conversation.

What we got was so much more. In an amazing chain of events, we’d get to experience the kindness of so many Icelandic strangers; it would end up shaping our feelings of the entire Iceland trip. We learned that Icelanders really look out for each other. And for strangers.

After radioing with the coast guard, they contacted the tour agency for us we had our ferry tickets with and informed them of our predicament. After a couple of hours, they had great news: they found us a place to spend the night with heat and electricity. The cute yellow summer house we’d passed yesterday was empty, but the coast guard relayed all the logistics of getting into the house and a phone number to contact the owner, Ludvig, when we arrived. They also had two boat options for us, and another number to call to sort those out.

The house was perfect. After we found the key, turned on the electricity, and figured out the satellite phone (which was an adventure on its own), we called Ludvig. He told us how to start a fire in the wood burning stove, turn on the water, and that we should help ourselves to anything in the pantry. (Extra granola bars and powdered soup got old pretty quick). We dried our wet clothes over the stove, sipped on some of the best hot cocoa I’ve ever had, and toyed with the idea of trying the hike tomorrow if the fog lifted.

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The summer house we stayed in for the evening.
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The best part of the summer home: a wood burning stove that not only heated the house, but also alleviated the consequences of our accidental swim.

The kindness of strangers didn’t stop with Ludvig and the coast guard. Karen from West Tours also happened to know a friend that was dropping off a friend off in the next fjord, and we could catch a ride with them tomorrow for a quarter of the cost of what it would have been to charter a private boat. She also contacted our friend Amanda, and let her know that we were okay, just caught by fog. The ranger from the first campsite stopped by the house on her way back from a hike and we learned about her nearly 20 years in the nature reserve and the work she’d done researching and cataloging the behavior of the areas arctic foxes.

In the end, we’d take the boat ride after waking up to an even denser fog (and realizing that we’d have to drive through the night to make our flights in Reykjavík the next day). We knew it’d be a good story once it was over.

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Magnus and Vidar graciously gave us a lift back to Isafjorder.
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The celebratory burger and Coke before the middle of the night, 6 hour drive back to Reykjavik.

 

 

 

 

 

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