LangbrokToSkogar - Volcano by SuperJeep:
Yesterday was the day to see, and go inside, a dormant volcano. Today was the day to see - but definitely not go inside - a real live active one.
We booked a trip with a company called Arcanum which guide people on walks to a volcano which is an offshoot of the 2010 famous Eyjafjallajökell - one of seven or so craters that belong to the main volcano. The volcano sits between the glacier sheets of Eyjafjallajökell and of Mýrdalsjökell. The latter ice sheet covers the volcano Katla which has erupted every fifty years or so for centuries. Since it last erupted in around 1908, it is now somewhat overdue. So back in 2010, everyone was caught by surprise when it was Eyjafjallajökell which went up and not Katla which everyone had been watching and monitoring.
Before commencing the walk, we were taken by a 'Super Jeep' from Skógar to a mountain top along what is definitely a very tough 4 wheel drive track. The Nissan Patrol - the same as our car at home - was fitted with extraordinarily huge balloon tyre - not the same as our car back home. This made the travel a breeze. It truly turned the car into a 'super' 4 wheel drive.
It had started to rain as we left the base and was a moderate 7° C. By the time we reached the top of the mountain and the start of our trek, it was 5° C with a howling wind and rain coming in horizontally. Fortunately we had anticipated some degree of cold: we were dressed in layer upon layer of thermals, waterproofs, Gore-Tex boots and jackets and so on. Despite the increasing cold and wind during the trip, only our faces and hands, when our gloves were off, were cold.
What looks from a distance like black mountain interspersed with patches of ice and snow is nothing of the sort. Everything we walked on was glacial ice. The black is mostly ash from the 2010 eruption. In some places the ash is thin and the ice shows through; in others the soft black ash covers hectares to depths of some metres. Where it is thin, the ice is melting more quickly as the black absorbs the heat from the sun and little rivulets of water run in meandering streams through the ice. Where it is thick, it acts as an insulating layer and the ice remains solid.
So for the next 2 hours or so, we went down and up, and down and up. Some climbs were steep and long; others less so but still very challenging. The occasional level walk was sometimes over slippery ice or through soft ash, the consistency of fine sand. In fact walking up some ash slopes was like walking up a sand dune - one step forward and slide two back. While we trudged on, Eyjafjallajökell loomed down on us on our left.
And all the time the weather was changeable. Sometimes there was short respite from the wind, but not often enough! Mostly it was enough to nearly knock you over, and a walking pole held in the hand dangled at about 45° to the ground, held there by the sheer force of the wind. With the wind came freezing rain and, more often than not, ice pellets which made a distinctive sound hitting the hood of the jacket. The camera started to dislike the cold and the battery packed up - fortunately a spare in the pack was warm enough to keep working for me.
At last we reached the volcano and peered down into the rather small crater. The centre was simply back but the rocks all around - some of the youngest rocks in the world - were brilliantly hued in reds, pinks, oranges and greens. They were quite light being filled with air bubbles and were strewn over the surroundings. When the volcano erupted it sent a shower of this rock up to one side of the crater then lava, black and viscous and in contorted sheets, flowed out in the other directions. We climbed this hill of loose rock, smelling the sulphur and feeling the warmth of the ground under our boots. We sat on the slope until it got a bit too warm while the guide took out of his pack a grill and a packet of frankfurts. He dug a little hole in the ground next to a fissure that was particularly warm and we all had warm hot dogs to eat. And still the wind howled and the ice pellets thudded against our clothes.
But of course there was the long trek back…
After another two hours or so, we saw the car sitting on the mountain - we had made it! The distance we had walked, climbed or dragged was about 12 kilometres. Both of us were exhausted; it was certainly at the very limits of our endurance levels. With a real temperature of around zero and with the wind and ice blasting away at us, there was a wind chill factor giving us around -10 to -20° C. It was certainly the coldest cold we have ever experienced.
Russ had heard about the remains of a plane on the black sand beach near Skógar and the guide suggested he take us for a look. So in the 'Super Jeep' we drove onto the beach to the forlorn carcass of a DC3. In the late sixties, the aeroplane, flown by an American serviceman from the US Air Force base in the west of Iceland at Keflavik, ran out of fuel and had to make an emergency landing on the beach. Once he had landed, he discovered that only tank 1 was empty and tank 2 was still full. In order to escape this embarrassing situation, he asked the local farmer to empty the offending tank for him. By the time the Air Force came to refuel, a punishing sand storm had ruined the plane beyond repair. So there it has sat, minus wings and engines which they took away, since then.
The guide was keen to show us the capabilities of the car so we drove back via a seemingly vertical black sand dune, into and out of ditches at impossible angles we would never have tried at home, and then along a river and through a tunnel under the main road. Great fun!
After two very hard days, we are pretty tired. We'll be taking things a little more easily for a while now.