Iceland - The Fimmvörðuháls Pass

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The Fimmvörðuháls Pass is one of Iceland's most famous hiking routes, starting in Þórsmörk (sometimes written 'Thorsmork') and running between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers to Skógar on the south coast of the country. In clear weather the route offers expansive views over the two glaciers and out towards the North Atlantic Ocean - but more often the summit is covered in cloud making route-finding extremely difficult. Despite the large bright yellow markers excellent navigation skills are required - this is an active volcano after all and straying off the path is ill-advised. Do not count on a GPS working here either. The trail can be completed in a single long (10-12 hour) day, or by splitting it at the new hut built on the pass (these need to be booked in advance). The old hut, more of an emergency shelter, is in poor condition and I would not like to spend a night there (as we will see).

The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull caused all kind of disruptions in this area, but the route was open again thanks to temporary bridges over the newly routed rivers in the Þórsmörk area. 

Temporary river crossing in Þórsmörk
The path climbs quickly above the valley, with some steep sections having steel cables embedded into the rock to help walkers. Apart from these few exposed sections though, the first hour is a relatively easy walk with beautiful scenery. One tricky part is the thin ridge known as The Cat's Back. With long drops in each side this would be a dangerous undertaking in windy conditions.

The Cat's Back
As the greenery stops and the "mountain proper" starts, the Morinsheiði plateau is reached and - unfortunately for me - the weather closed in, with freezing fog dropping visibility significantly.
Climbing up to the Morinsheiði plateau, the weather closes in
There is something strangely calming about walking on a very faint footpath over featureless terrain in low visibility.
Morinsheiði plateau
At the far edge of the Morinsheiði plateau is the most exposed part of the walk - travel=ling across the top of a steep slope with slippery ascent at the far end. Again cables have been placed in the rock here, but care needs to be taken not be meet people coming the over way as passing would be difficult and dangerous.
In clear conditions (hah!) the next section would offer views of the surrounding glaciers - instead,it was a long trudge through snow, struggling to stay on the path and frequently checking navigation.
Looking up or looking down?

In the section most affected by the 2010 eruption the path breaks up completely, ducking and darting over hardened lava between steaming vents and thin looking lava. At times it feels like the Earth could easily open up and swallow you.

Mind the gap
The path here is marked by high fluorescent yellow markers every 50 metres or so, but the visibility was so poor that seeing these markers was not always possible.
About halfway across the plateau a signpost directs you to the Útivist where you can spend the night. Carrying on, the route reaches an older hut called Baldvinsskáli which is unattended and suffering somewhat from the environment - damp and full of mould. Not the kind of place you would want to spend the night unless you really had to. As I arrive, two hikers find the hut after being out in these conditions - lost - since the previous morning. Good job they had a tent with them. They are understandably happy - and very lucky - to have found the hut in these conditions.
Baldvinsskáli hut
From Baldvinsskáli it is about 4 hours down to the camp site at Skógar, with the option of following the road down (easier in poor visibility) or taking the walking path. Many waterfalls and streams are passed on this route (again, I could barely see them because of the visibility).
Skógar camp site
Skógafoss waterfall, about 60 metres high, right next to the campsite


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