We had a week of vacation to do as we pleased during the middle of the ICV program.  Kate had to go back to London for an interview, so I decided to take the time to visit a home away from home, Vestmannaeyjar.  I had spent three weeks hunkered down in a local’s home during the big freeze of late December trading stories, eating their food, and drinking a LOT.

And when the ferry eased into Heimaey’s harbor, the warmth of familiarity washing over me, I knew I had made the right decision.  Although it wasn’t completely familiar.  There was less white, less spitefully cold, biting wind, and more sun.  I set my tent up at the campsite, which was nestled beneath Moldi and Eggjar, two of Heimaey’s tallest cliffs.  I name-dropped Umhverfisstofnun and scored a 50% discount for my entire stay.

I slept until 10, having already made the decision to do fuck-all.  However I did venture into town to do a bit of investigating.  I knew that my friend Bjarni’s mother, Guðrun, worked at Vinaminni Kaffihus (best café on the island), so I stopped by to figure out when I would be able to drop in on she and her husband Kristjan unannounced. Bjarni was in France climbing Mont Blanc and being cooler than me.

I grab a bottle of wine and a scrap of paper with Google directions to Bjarni’s house.  It seemed to actually take me longer to find it solely due to the absence of snow.  I press in the doorbell.  The half-second period of bewilderment to realization on Guðrun’s face made the entire trip back to Vestmannaeyjar completely worth it.

She and Kristjan welcomed me in with open arms, and we talked about ICV over several coffees.  As I predicted, they invited me to dinner, along with a couple of my teammates that decided to come Vestmannaeyjar for the holiday as well.  We had a rhubarb soup straight from Guðrun’s garden along with fresh bread, meats, and cheeses.  It was a great evening with great conversation.  We all signed their guestbook afterwards.  One of our teammates from Hong Kong recognized someone from Taiwan in the book that had lived with Kristjan and Guðrun during study abroad.  One of those moments that makes you think about the universe and how connected we are and shit like that.

I concluded my trip by climbing (well really just walking) Eldfell, a volcanic cone that erupted out of the blue in 1973, destroying over 400 homes and forcing a mass evacuation of the entire island to the mainland.  This wasn’t possible during my previous trip due to pretty terrible winter weather, or average Icelandic winter weather.  Most of the lava is oxidized, giving it a neat rust-red color.  The volcano is still cooling down from this last eruption and it’s too hot to touch in some areas at the summit.  A few people even bake bread in it - and I’m assuming - just because they can.

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Iceland Conservation Volunteers

Yes, Reykjavík, Dettifoss, Látrabjarg, Snæfellsnes, and Vatnajökull are simply wonderful.  However, my favorite place in Iceland is the peculiar little chain of islands off the southern coast, Vestmannaeyjar.  The Westman Islands were the introduction and meat of my first Iceland experience.  I lived there with the family of a friend who I had met while studying abroad in Sweden.  My stay extended through Christmas and New Year’s, which proved to be a wealth of cultural experiences.

I met Icelanders who loved cars.  American cars.  In fact, they had a lot of pressing questions for me regarding trucks, mudding, and redneck culture in general, in a way that suggested they liked this nice little institution of my Southern home that is a happy three-way of ignorance, religion, and bigotry.  I’m sure most of my friends would find it quite hilarious to picture me in this bind.  Fake it until you make it.

I’ve never eaten stingray before, nor have I eaten fermented stingray, so I had two firsts on Þorláksmessa (mass of St. Thorlak, Iceland’s patron saint) which falls on 23 December each year.  FYI Iceland is cold, so in historical times they had to preserve everything to get through the winter.  Skata is a surviving example of this tradition that rose out of necessity.  While the biting sensation of the ammonia was immediate - the shot of Brennivín helped - the dish overall wasn’t bad, and put me on the fast track to becoming an honorary Icelander.

Eventually I inexplicably found myself inside of a red jumpsuit splicing firework fuses together that I would later help wire to a massive detonation board.  The fact that I had absolutely no training whatsoever doing this did not seem to be a safety concern to the volunteer rescue team, which puts on a massive fireworks display every New Year’s Eve in an effort to raise funds for the next year.  When I asked about the legalities of my helping out, my friend shrugged and said that they told the chief I was a foreign expert.  Fair enough, although I know a LOT more about beer.

New Year’s Eve in Iceland is a pyrotechnic orgy, simply put.  I’ve never seen so many fireworks for such a long period of time in my life.  I’m not even referring to the aforementioned fireworks show where thankfully no one died at my inexperienced hands.  No, average folks were shooting huge rockets off from their back yards, driveways, and streets. This went on for a half hour before climaxing at midnight in an almost frightening display that may have given me PTSD around fireworks for all time.  Was anyone on the island sober?  Probably not.

That’s Vestmannaeyjar.

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Hábarmur is the mountain we never meant to climb.  Our ambitions were set on Torfajökull, a small glacier southwest of Eldgjá.  We drove for a couple of hours until we arrived at Lake, and in true Icelandic fashion, just started walking with only a GPS (and Ranger Róbert) as our guide.  As I mentioned before, Icelanders don’t do trails, but there were some small paths, created by years of sheep traffic, if we wanted to create the illusion in our heads that we were on some type of high-traffic hiking path with easy access to help if something were to go wrong (how cute).  

We hiked up and over a ridge and down into a valley filled with electric greens.  Glacial melt shot out tendrils of water, all lined with very bright moss, until they converged in an explosion of vitality on the valley floor.  Small pieces of lustrous obsidian occasionally littered the ground, probably from Katla’s last major eruption.  We began walking up Hábarmur proper - or what we thought was Torfajökull proper - and the combination of physical exertion and constant vigilance in regard to safe footing was exhausting.  We eventually arrived at a small dip between ridges where a huge wall of glacial ice clung to the mountain like a sentinel, waiting for us.

We stood around for a bit, wondering what to do.

Róbert basically ran up this vertical boulder scree and yelled, “It’s okay!”  We just stared.  He bounded back down and asked if we’d rather try the snow instead.  Yes.  He picked up a sharp, flat stone to use as a spade and carved out footholds for us in the steep snow bank.  My boots were shit and I couldn’t kick in any myself.  

Once we stepped off of the snow and back onto gravel, we were surprised to find that it wasn’t gravel, but just a thin layer of mud on top of glacial ice.  There were gaping crevasses and holes all around us.  At this point I put all of my trust in Róbert, who had been a farmer in this area for 40 years before becoming a ranger.  

He started climbing up the small canyon of pumice ahead of us, using massive obsidian boulders as hand and footholds, turned back, and shouted for us to follow.  This was one of the most exciting, and probably most dangerous, scrambles of my life.  The pumice actually lay on a thick layer of glacial ice with the whispering of melt streams flowing down it, turning it into loose mud.  It was very difficult to find solid footing because the pumice was mush and the obsidian was so smooth.  Every handhold was a one-off, so everyone had to find their own way.  At one point I looked back to check on a team member to find that the place I was just standing was no more than a thin layer of mud on six inches of ice with a gaping hole to the underworld and beyond underneath.  I turned back around and walked into the sun with one hand over my eyes.

The summit view, as is almost any view in Iceland, was a transformational experience.  Landmannalaugar was fully visible in the distance.  Torfasjökull, the mountain we thought we were climbing, loomed directly in front of us with rippling glacial ice that had trapped the ash of thousands of years of eruptions, memorialized in thin black layers.  A small mountain had a pale green tint to it from some type of strange oxidation.  The surface of the summit was completely covered with glassy obsidian, some pieces too large to move.  Anyone would be safe from the Others up here.

I used enough adrenaline for a week on that hike, and the trip back was a blur of exhaustion.  I would never have a proper weekend’s rest in Iceland as long as I had friends like Róbert.

I’ll endear the roughly defined gravel paths for cars that spiderweb the highlands by calling them roads. Each winter and subsequent thawing provides ICV volunteers with freshly damaged roads to repair during the summer. The problem therein being that you can only travel around 20 mph in even the most tank-like vehicles to get to the spots that need repairing. The solution is to move the camp closer to these trouble areas.

So Róbert let us move into his cabin just on the shore of Langisjór, which is a huge lake at the foot of Vatnajökull glacier. We still had about an hour’s commute, but Queen’s Greatest Hits made the incredibly turbulent ride bearable, however wildly inappropriate a soundtrack it was for the apocalyptic scenery.

The other ranger that isn’t Róbert decided it would be a good idea to take us hiking up Sveinstindur, the tallest mountain in the area. One thing you learn after hanging out with Icelanders after a while is that they don’t do paths. They can go wherever the fuck they want, especially if there’s a sign telling them not to. So we start walking/climbing up the side that DOES NOT have a trail, essentially scarring my girlfriend and another team member for any future hikes in Iceland. But I’d be lying if I said the danger wasn’t worth the phenomenal view.

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Iceland Conservation Volunteers

The journey to Eldgjá alone convinced me that it was a place I would never have been able to go if I was an average tourist.  Having already made a trip to Landmannalaugar from Reykjavík in a Mitsubishi truck crammed with five people, enough food for 10 people for two weeks, and tools for two teams, I thought the intense part was over.  Not so.  It took us around an hour to go 15 miles on to the camp (Hjólaskjól), fording stream after questionably deep stream, the driver tearing around hairpin curves all the while as we rattled deeper into the volcanic desert.

Eldgjá is a massive volcanic fissure, the largest volcanic canyon in the world, as a matter of fact.  In 934, It unleashed the largest flood of basaltic lava in recorded history.  That’s all well and good, but the important thing is the magic spring.  Yes, there is a magic spring in Eldgjá that has the best water on earth and will add 20 years on to the life of the drinker (unverified).  

We set out for this spring one day after work.  Róbert, our fearless ranger guide, drove us over the barely passable roads that weren’t even marked on our maps.  We bounced over a particularly large rock and landed with metallic crunch, and the 4x4 came to a complete stop.  Róbert jumped out to inspect, and said “Shit!” barely out the door.  When Róbert curses in English, you know it’s serious.  One of the wheels was crunched inward, and some type of fluid was spraying out.  Shit indeed.

This was the very definition of the middle of fucking nowhere.  If you didn’t know exactly where the few cabins in the area where, you’d be screwed.  We just called another ranger.  Two hours later we were driving in a river (read: in a river, not simply crossing it) to a little bank of land where water was shooting out of the rocks like perfect fountains.  I climbed up and drank deeply.  It was the sweetest water I’ve ever tasted.  We’ll have to wait and see how the 20 years thing pans out.

Dynjandi is one of those tucked away enclaves that exist throughout Iceland, hidden behind the variable grays that color the volcanic ruins of a volatile geological past.  Once the curtain is parted, however, there are vibrant greens, bubbling springs, waterfalls, rainbows, flowers, and hell, maybe even an angelic chorus or two.  That’s if you ignore the midges.  Fear not, for with each tier of Dynjandi climbed, these pests are less and less as they hate the mists rising from the falls.  There’s an amazing view of the fjord below once you reach the top.  Am I going to write three paragraphs about Dynjandi?  No.  It’s beautiful, it’s typical Iceland, go there now, not much more to say.

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Snæfellsnes is a magical place.  No really, a bunch of 1980’s new age pilgrims flocked to it, claiming that Snæfellsjökull glacier was one of the world’s seven great energy wells.  The glacier is also famous as the entrance to the center of the earth in Jules Verne’s classic novel.  The almost perfectly round glacier dominates the entire peninsula and can even be seen from Reykjavík on a clear day.

I can’t blame those hippies for believing some mystical power emanated from Snæfellsjökull.  It’s always visible, so in a way its presence is almost felt.  Kate and I hiked around it after work one evening with only a map to guide us.  Our proximity to the glacier proper made it ever more intimidating, while the ice was bathed in hues that seemed to change every few minutes from the rolling midnight sun.  It remains one of our best memories.

Of course there’s more to see in Snæfellsnes than Snæfellsjökull (although you’ll probably always see Snæfellsjökull when doing the other things in Snæfellsnes).  I saw a dead sperm whale, which was actually more of a profoundly enigmatic experience than it was gross.  You can also visit Vatnshellir, Iceland’s only cave/lava tube open to the average tourist.  You get to feel like a real journeyman, wearing a belt and headlamp, as you can see in the photo in which I’m acting way more badass than I actually am.

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Iceland Conservation Volunteers

Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and it is indeed pretty fucking impressive.  I don’t think you would so much drown if you fell in as much as you would be crushed to bits.  It’s part of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, and like Ásbyrgi, was created by a crazy, apocalyptic glacial flood that shot out from Vatnajökull glacier after the last Ice Age.

While it’s definitely the most impressive waterfall in Iceland, I wouldn’t say it’s the most beautiful with it’s silty, gray glacial water.  It’s a natural embodiment of visceral power.  Even the rocks in the surrounding area radiate this feeling that pushes you, a pathetic human being, into submission to nature.  Those rocks, some bigger than 4x4s, were pushed there by a force beyond comprehension during that flood, and Dettifoss is a memorial to the event.

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