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Climbing Iceland’s Highest Summit

Climbing Hvannadalshnukur peak on the Vatnajokull Glacier is a little bit like climbing Long’s Peak insofar as you have a really long hike before you reach anything technical, and it’s best to leave by around 4 a.m. Luckily, on the southern coast of Iceland, it is already light at that time of day making it much easier to get up and get moving. In fact, the area averages about 19 hours of daylight during the month of May, making it great for staying up late and getting up early but not so great for sleeping. As I mentioned before, Iceland is a small country with a small population—about the size of Kentucky with little more than 300,000 people. They have no standing army but many villagers and citizens belong to the all volunteer national search and rescue teams, inspiring confidence in those of us playing in the country’s oceans and glaciers.

The climb to the glacier and summit begins at approximately 100 meters above sea level. It tops out at 2110 meters above sea level (6900 feet). The peak itself is located above the northwestern rim of the Öræfajökull volcano, within sight of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted about this time last year and caused months of air traffic delays and coated the region with ash. The climb begins socially as there are many of us climbing today. Twenty-five guides from Icelandic Mountain Guides are on hand to guide and assist the more than 100 climbers who will attempt to summit on this unbelievably clear and beautiful day. It was blue bird skies and temperatures hovering around the 50’s—something that locals told me was somewhat rare, and again it reminded me of climbing in Colorado on a perfect spring day.

Stopping about 400 meters up the trail to fill water bottles from the glacial run-off is something those of us from the States could especially appreciate. Iceland is proud of its natural resources and provides most of its power from the volcanic activity, hot water and steam produced underneath the island. This trip was partially inspired by the Icelandic clothing company 66 Degrees North to remind locals to get out and experience first hand the natural wonders of their own country, and to bring awareness to the region worldwide.

A rough trail hike on volcanic rock gave way to snowfields by about 6:30 a.m. As snowfields turned into glacial ice and snow, groups divided up into teams of eight and roped in together. As the glaciers are constantly moving and changing, the dangers of crevasses are fairly high. The next stage of the climb was a somewhat grueling 800-meter snowfield. It wasn’t so much the pitch of the slope that made it hard, just its unrelenting nature and the bright sun beating down from above and the constant reflection from below. Needless to say, everyone was smearing on lots of sunscreen, especially the fair skinned peoples of the North. I was extremely happy I had my trekking poles for this section of the climb. At the top of this pitch begins the rim of the volcano Öræfajökull. After a short break we traversed the rim of the volcano to reach the base of the summit pitch. Here we again took on some calories, traded trekking poles for ice axe, and strapped on crampons for the short 300-meter climb to the top.

As we begin the ascent to the summit, it starts to become clear why Icelanders have more than 100 words for snow. We are not even halfway done with the day and I’ve already experienced a number of varying conditions. This is a semi-slushy slog to the top up a relatively steep pitch. We negotiate it slowly, as other teams are already descending and passing us. Cresting the gently sloping ridge, we share the summit with about 4 other rope teams, but it doesn’t feel crowded. Clear skies with some weather moving in and out around us and 360-degree views keep people busy celebrating and taking pictures. My favorite views are south overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean and the western views to the adjacent volcanoes and crags. I chat with my guide Johan about other climbs in the area and his experience as a seasoned climber and Icelandic national.

The down climb begins quickly and easily, staying roped in and working together across the snowfields that have been changing with the warming daytime temperatures. We reach the end of the volcanic rim and begin the descent of the long snowfield, that has now become slush. We posthole our way down to the rock outcropping marking the bottom of the glacier and unrope, rest briefly, and start the final descent. It has been about 11 hours now and I am ready to trade mountaineering boots for something a little more comfortable. The hike out is a great way to reminisce about the day’s climb, the scenery, and to chat with fellow climbers from around Iceland, Europe, and the U.S. I reach the glacial creek just in time as I had exhausted my water supply and was really beginning to warm up. The view of cars in the parking lot is all the motivation I need to high tail it down the trail. At the bottom, the staff of 66 Degrees North was there to welcome us with hot soup, clean t-shirts, soda, beers, and Icelandic chocolates. It was a summit and an experience that I will not soon forget.

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