On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

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3 September 2019

Walking in silence around the Kerlingarfjöll mountains

Three days of hiking on the Kerlingarfjöll Trail.
Kerlingarfjöll mountains, Highlands, Iceland © Claire B. - Please do not use without authorization

I did not see the petrified ogress in a rock above the waterfall at the entrance of the massif. The mountains of Kerlingarfjöll stretch next to the Hofsjökull glacier in central Iceland, at the mercy of strong winds. “Kerling” in Icelandic means “old lady” or “ogress”. It is from the legend that the massif takes its name. The wind is too strong to continue the bicycle crossing of the center on the track F35. The ogress may be angry. This is an opportunity to go hiking in the area. Most people just take a few hours to go to Hveradalir, the geothermal area at the heart of the massif surrounded by rhyolite. The famous red-orange rock already crossed at Landmannalaugar. But I lean for a three days tour of the mountains, a complete immersion in the particular environment of the Highlands. The path is little frequented and the two huts are not very expensive. Better be wary of the weather in the area. I leave my bike and my tent at the Mountain Resort and start the track under a bright sun.

The path marked by wooden posts at more or less regular intervals leaves the gravel road and enters a large valley at the edge of the massif. I think of my hike on the Hebridean Way in Scotland a few weeks ago. There, too, the trail was marked only by posts. I like this return to a trace little marked. An impression of crossing the landscape through without being completely without landmarks. Two silhouettes pass me. The Canadian couple I met last night at the Mountain Resort. They are walking around Iceland for a few weeks. Like me, facing the strong wind, they arrived tired yesterday at the Mountain Resort. We talked, sharing our experiences. They are very friendly but I prefer hiking alone. I let them go away, to overtake them further and distance them at last.

Mount Keis glows in the sun. Big black mountain with a white top. The eternal snow that until the 2000s was Iceland’s only ski area is now silent. Global warming has put an end to the exploitation. A mineral desert dotted with fluorescent green spots make up the landscape. To my left, the Hofsjökull glacier spreads its tongues and a very strong cold wind. My legs hurt a bit because of the monumental effort I made yesterday against the wind. Fortunately the trail stretches across plateaus and small valleys without great variations in altitude. I walk along a small gorge where a multi-armed river flows, cross several fords and watch wild geese fly in the sky. I wonder what do they find to eat in this harsh environment?

The small Kisubotnar hut appears in the distance in the middle of a small windy valley. Up close, it looks more like a construction hut than a shelter. Some beds, hotplates and heating. Rudimentary but that will do. “Could we come into your castle?” ask the couple who arrive after me. They plan to continue 11km further to the next refuge but the prospect of warming a little attracts them. The gas heater warms gently he shack as we discuss. The couple must shake themselves to leave. I watch them walk away through the immensity in the light of the late afternoon. The wind blows hard in the interstices and I have some anxious thoughts at the idea of sleeping there, alone, in the middle of this desert circus, surrounded by pebbles. The impression of being on Mars or on the Moon. But it is my mind that plays tricks on me. There is nothing here, except for the great calm and harshness of the landscape.

Rain hammers the window of the shelter and I open my eyes. Summits are covered with snow. Looking closer, it is melted snow that falls on me. The clouds are low but the big rainy mass passes slowly and I head for Klakkur, 11km further. Kisa sinks into a small gorge before mixing its waters with other streams in a large open valley. “Kisa” means “cat” in Icelandic. Funny name for a river. I cross a large ford and arrive at a post where many footprints have trampled the ground. A big zigzagging track climbs a small hill and I am a little surprised to find a vehicule track here while I was expecting a trail. At the top, the track sinks into a large black valley in the direction of the South and my instinct pulls the alarm. I am not on the right path. Almost having trouble standing up because of the very violent wind again, I scour the landscape looking for the trail or signpost. But nothing. There is another track that goes to the right and after studying the map multiple times, I realize that I have taken the wrong direction. The trail went up the Kisubotnar gorge where I crossed the ford. Yet I did not see any signposts. Well, no worries, the track going to the right seems to find the trail higher. I start on the track, a little worried but thanking the elements that it is just windy today and not rainy or foggy. It would have made things much more difficult.

Mount Keis on the left.

Kisubotnar valley and hut.

The path is there, at the top of the hill, where I thought it was. All is well, danger avoided, call back the cavalry. At the bottom of a gigantic gorge the Kisu River flows dividing the landscape. No one. Just me and nature. The impression of being alone in the world. The black rocky plateau stretch out in silence and I wonder what drives me to hike here. Why does this empty immensity attract me when most of time I do not feel welcome in this inhospitable terrain and that the slightest mistake can lead to disaster? Would walking in this black desert, empty, without noise, at the mercy of the elements, leads to combine will of adventure and search for inner peace? The rain falls on me suddenly and interrupts my reflection. I had felt the droplets for a while. I press the pace. At the top of a pass, an isolated mountain appears, Klakkur, with a small red roofed refuge at its feet. It looks so close and so far at a time. A last ford is waiting for me before the house but I do not bother to remove my shoes. Not in the rain. The refuge is bigger and better equipped than the previous one but the gas for heating is empty! Only the wood stove remains to try to warm up the place. I try the hatchet but I can not cut the large pieces of wood spread at the entrance of the shelter. The remains of an old bed. Some branches will do the trick. The fire is heating slowly but not as much as the gas heater. The end of the afternoon is cold but I am safe. Voices pull me from my torpor in the early evening. Four Belgians have arrived followed a little later by a person camping outside. What is all this crowd? They cook couscous with fish, raise the fire and speak loudly in a language I do not understand. Fortunately the night sends them to bed and I find my peace again.

Not a sound when I wake up this morning, the others are still sleeping. The sky has regained its blue color and the wind is still there. I move away leaving the company to their dreams. After two days around the massif, the path is finally changing direction towards the inside of the massif. I climb the rocky slopes of a mountain to reach the small pass of Sléttaskarð. I can see towards North and South and the long interior plains stretching as far as the eye can see. Behind me is the Sprengisandur, where runs the track F26, land of serious adventurers. In front of me, is the continuation of the F35, the track that I will resume cycling tomorrow. A small mountain with a snowy summit stands out in the distance. I go down in the scree and the dominant black gives way to orange variations. I have arrived at the heart of the massif, where the rhyolite and the geothermal zones are. The little Hverabotn circus smokes around me. A variation of colors in the middle of the snowfields. Small geysers emit smokes that change direction depending on the wind. Big holes of bluish mud are bubbling dangerously beside the road. Traces of footsteps wanting to approach a little too close have sunk almost a meter into the soft ground. Here the temperature of the water can rise to 140°C.

Here I am on my knees, clinging to the pebbles barely holding up the extremely steep and eroded sides that separate Hverabotn from Mount Kerlingarskyggni. I am very hot under the sun and my stomach tells me it would like to stop. But I need to finish the climb. Rest after effort. From the top, it is the inner geothermal plateau and the high mountains of the massif which are spreading out before me. It is beautiful. I forgot fatigue and hunger, too busy to lose myself in the contemplation of the wonderful landscape. The cracked plateau is covered with a mixture of orange colors mingling with the snow. And small blue lakes shimmer in the distance. It looks like a painting. In the distance, further down, in the heart of the fumaroles, I distinguish a crowd of small figures. But not here. For now I still have the place for me alone. The cold tears me away from my contemplation and I eat quickly. I walk along the small glacier Langafönn and go down in the middle of the tourists in the heart of Hveradalir. The area is superb with small trails along small ridges in the middle of multiple fumaroles. A group of Asian people are taking pictures with a drone of a married couple. The young woman in white dress seems to be cold. The search for the extraordinary superficial again and again…

I leave Hveradalir behind me, turning frequently to water my eyes on the beauty of the plateau. Once out of fumaroles, the calm is back. The path is almost finished, the loop soon completed. A few kilometers more and I will be back at the Mountain Resort. I am happy to arrive but I do not want to leave the beautiful landscapes of the massif of the ogress. But it is a little less windy than four days ago, so it is a sign that it’s time to leave.

Klakkur valley and hut.

The Hverabotn circus on the left and the magnificent Hveradalir geothermal area on the right.

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