Three days into a trek across the volcanic highlands of southwest Iceland, it occurs to me: This is Tolkien's Middle-earth. With its obsidian lava fields and steaming hot springs, its moss-covered foothills and treeless valleys, Iceland is Mordor one minute and the Shire the next. It has a magical quality to it, this Land of Fire and Ice—as if it has been plucked from the imagination and placed here, somewhere between Europe and North America, to be a playground for the adventurous traveler.
A thousand years ago, Iceland's Viking settlers sent criminals to the island's inhospitable interior, where they were forced to survive for 20 years before earning a pardon. Most never made it. I only have to survive for a week, though, and I have some help: a rugged British guide named Kelso, who's lived in Iceland for five years "after getting his mid-life crisis in early," and Helgi, an Icelander who transports our overnight gear from hut to hut each day. Together they're responsible for our food, our emergency transportation, and most of our comic relief.
I've booked my trip through Adventure Center, the U.S. sales representative for a British adventure outfitter called Explore. There are 12 people on the trek, and it's a boisterous group that includes a Scottish schoolteacher, a Kiwi doctor, a Canadian, seven Brits, and my wife and I—the only two Americans. We prefer it this way. British-run groups tend to have more of an international flavor than those assembled by American companies.
Life in the highlands
Our trek begins in the shadow of Mount Hekla, Iceland's famous volcano that was once thought to be the mouth of Hell. We walk about 80 miles over the next six days, although it's hard to know the exact distance because there are no trails, no markers, not even any other footprints for most of the week. It's not until day three that we meet anyone outside of our own group. On day four, we see our first signs of a trail. On day five, our first trees in almost a week.
Each day reveals a different side of the highlands. Bubbling pools of sulfuric water greet us from behind sandy red mounds of volcanic ash before making way for glacial rivers, broad valleys, and snow-speckled mountain ridges. The scenery changes not just daily, but by the minute. With 24 hours of sunlight in these summer months, and no trees to obstruct the view, visibility extends for miles. What appears to be a small hill in the morning reveals itself as a 4,000-foot peak by mid-afternoon.
That's on a clear day. Icelandic weather is notoriously temperamental, though. "Expect rain, sleet, hail, and snow," says Kelso at the start of the trip. "Maybe some sun." And this is summer? Over the course of the week, we get every kind of weather imaginable—from freezing rain to sweltering heat—sometimes all in the same day. The weather, we soon realize, is as much a part of the trek as the landscape itself.
Our days begin with breakfast, usually muesli and jam, and conclude with dinner, usually fish, after about 10-12 miles of hiking. We spend three nights in mountain huts—clean, comfortable, and cozy—and pitch tents on two other occasions. Helgi brings our gear and food to the campsite or hut each day. Kelso does the cooking, but we're expected to help out as well. One night I chop onions and potatoes for a soup. Another, I wash the pots and pans. A third day, I make the coffee and sandwiches.
This may not sound like a vacation, but it's a simple way to keep the costs of a trip like this manageable. At $1,770 a person, plus a $330 local payment and mandatory medical insurance, Explore's "Icelandic Volcano Trek" still comes in about $1,000 less than a similar (but shorter) trip sold by Mountain Travel Sobek. Both offer luggage transfers between huts, but Explore's trek is cheaper because there's less overhead. For one thing, we've all signed on to help out with the daily operation—which also makes for better camaraderie between the guide and the travelers. We're all in it together, and that makes a difference.
The trek meets up with the way-marked Laugavegur Trail on the fifth day of hiking, but before that most of the areas we explore feel as if they've never been visited by other hikers. These highlands are different than, say, the European Alps, which are so well-traveled that it's easy for experienced hikers to go it alone. Here, a good guide is essential.
Explore's trip dossier rates the trek as Grade B/C, or somewhere between moderate and strenuous. That seems about right, although the grading tends to gravitate toward each extreme. The easiest day of hiking is about five hours, which anyone with a little hill-walking experience can probably manage. The hardest day, a 15-mile walk that crosses between two glaciers before dropping back down to sea level, takes about 10 hours. Most days fall somewhere in between.
Perhaps the most difficult parts of the trip are the river crossings—this is when you roll up your pants, tie your boots around your neck, and plunge into knee-deep freezing water. Imagine sticking your bare feet into a bucket of ice and you'll get the idea. No one thinks this kind if thing is fun, of course, but if it doesn't sound tolerable then this trip's probably not for you.
Most Americans, I'm told, opt for cushier (and more expensive) trips. That's fine if that's the kind of experience you want. Me, I prefer the Explore-style: fewer amenities, more discovery. After all, that's the reason I've come to Iceland in the first place.
'You shall be the Fellowship of the Ring'
By day six, the Lord of the Rings comparisons take on a life of their own. We begin at Thorsmork, the woods of Thor, and climb up, up, up along a narrow ridge, resting only briefly before crossing between two glaciers and descending into a waterfall-filled valley that ends at the famous Skogarfoss falls.
About halfway through our uphill climb, we rest for a minute.
"Gandalf," says Gareth, a burly Brit who seems to share my appreciation for Middle-earth, "we could always take the Mines of Moria." We laugh, but there's a poetic truth in his words. Like Tolkien's heroes, our group has become something of a family over the course of these six days. We eat, we drink, we joke, and we hike together.
For one week, anyway, we are a fellowship all our own.