Going to Landmannalauger is like leaving the real world and entering some science fiction wonderland. The bus takes you out of the small towns of the south coast, and begins north, climbing upwards into the centre, and into the lava filled, geothermal paradise that is the mountains.
Cal and I were arriving a day later than the rest of the group but quickly found their tents in the rocky campground. As we pondered where to set up the tents, a close camper came over and said ‘are you thinking of setting up here? Just, this group are really loud!’ We laughed and cringed as we apologised for the rest of the excitable team.
We decided a prepatory stretch of the legs was in order and began walking up the Laugevegur trail, which steeply climbs from the rocky camp into steaming earth of many colours. The mountains around delineate blues and greens, reds and oranges. Holes spout steam and hint at the unsettled world underneath. The lava field is remaining from a huge eruption in the 14th century and each craggy rock is feather lite to the touch. With huge amounts of sulphur around, it all smells, as Nina put it, like the armpits of the earth, but by simply imagining boiling eggs it removes some of the sinister connotations.
As we climbed up and up, the calves protested and the eyes grew. Each peak revealed new folds beyond. We climbed the peak and sat for a view, the earth dubiously warm beneath us.
The path continued down into the Green canyon where cotton grass plants danced in the boggy ground. In the small lakes, a perfect image of the mountain behind was captured, and we paused for a moment of reflection. (Pun intended.)
Back in camp the others had returned from various explorings and we shared a coffee in the sunshine. Our ever growing appetites demanded carbs and a night of rest before the mornings departure.
In civilisation, where things like money are commonplace, I made a trip to the Mountain mall for a coffee and pastry. The novelty and luxury was well worth the small mortgage I had to take out. In two groups we began to climb, 54kms home.
Beautiful scenery made a perfect excuse for the slow plod as we climbed through the lava field, up and out into more geothermal activity. With such height, there was patches of year round snow streaking across the otherwise multicoloured hills. The smell of sulphur was accompanied by the hot wafts of steam coming out of the ground.
The first hut, 12km in was Hraftinusker, where we had a special welcome from the wardens who were previous trail team volunteers. The pots of coffee and being allowed to invade their warm space was such a delight to our tired feet, and after almost two hours rest it was hard to prise ourselves away.
From Hraftinusker the direction was mostly down, and homeward bound. We crossed snow fields, which had shrunk considerably from when I did the walk in June of the previous year. Still, the satisfying crunch of crossing snow, and the ability to slide certain sections was greatly enjoyed. Walking in larger groups there was a slower pace, with ample time for selfies and plenty of singing. Someone would start with one line and the song would develop into the full bloom of chorus, before someone interjected with another, usually 90’s cheesy classic.
Eventually we got to the end of the highlands, and dropped steeply over into view of Alftavatn, and beyond. In the far distance we could make out signs from home, the Rhino mountain and our adjacent valley. The steep descent was ongoing, made longer by the slow pace of the group infront, and with rain emerging hoods were up, distinctions between people made by the colour of their rain covered packs, turning us all into an army of multicoloured turtles.
Alftavatn was a campground on a beautiful lake, at the base of a satisfyingly cone shaped mountain. With warnings of strong winds in mind, but tired by the thought of walking on, we pitched our tents to battle the wind, huddled together. Paired up in our cooking groups, we found sections of overhang from the hut roof so we could protect our packet pastas from the wind. It was a comic moment as Brad, James, Cal and I sat in a line huddled in the 4inches of overhanging roof, trying to enjoy the delights of packet pasta, strung together with copious amounts of cheese.
After a wet and blustery night, the group were slow to emerge from their tents the next morning. The second day of porridge, even disguised under several lumps of chocolate, was getting harder to stomach. With the tent packed away, we spent our life savings on a cup of coffee in the warm, playing a dice game whilst the others packed up.
As it was only a 15km day, we could afford a slow start and we made for the river and then passed through the section we spent a week working on last year. Stopping at Hvangil, only 4km on, we took up the offer of using the stables for a cosy cooked lunch. There were now no barriers to the weird food combos, and noodle wraps with cheese was totally happening. By 2pm, we had only managed 4km and had to persuade ourselves out to stretch the muscles and plough on.
The day was undulating but mostly through a desert of black sand. The artificial look of the luminous green moss on the shadowy hills was an amazing panorama, but still the short day did not feel short, and the consistent jukebox effect of group singing was keeping the group motivated.
Eventually we dropped down into Emstrur, a strange campsite with very little flat ground. Despite lots of people, we managed to find a valley area on a slight slope where our group could congregate, and decided to deal with the definite incline. Another meal of packet pasta was prepared, and then disguised in cheese. We played cards and then marvelled at the pinkish sky.
Waking in the morning having slept on such a slope, Cal described his night as having climbed hundreds of metres on his stomach in a sleeping bag, and certainly, before I was even out of my tent, a few pegs came loose and the fabric collapsed around me. Before setting out for the final section, we had a much need stretch circle and a game which involved us tying ourselves in knots and getting a few raised eyebrows.
The trail wound down into the canyon where powerful gushes of water forced their way through. This part of the trail was becoming increasingly familiar as we paused at the 15km and 10km long range camp spots. The sun was out and sleepy sunbathing lunch breaks were in order. There was the intrigue of seeing our work one year on, steps that had survived the winter and seeds that had taken root. Memorable but moveable landmarks such as Fred’s musical rock from the year before were still where we had left them, a strange thought that in this place, our time is so temporary and the surroundings are so enduring.
Walking the trail in reverse, and also later in the summer, the panoramas struck me in different ways. Close to home, large sheep were grazing on the vegetation. The grasses were red and gave the valley an alien feel, like the inspiration for some sci-fi movie. By late afternoon we were home and Chas was there to greet us with warm soup, bread and coffee, the luxuries of camp life.
Photos courtesy of Sophie Doubovetsky, a warrior 6 week volunteer and intrepid traveller!