A Travellerspoint blog

February 2022

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Geldingadalur Volcano & conclusion


View Iceland 2021 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Having been originally settled only a thousand years ago, Iceland does not have a long and complex cultural history compared to continental Europe or Asia. The most fascinating story of Iceland is in the physical birth of the country itself about sixty million years ago when mantle plumes uncovered by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates spewed vast quantities of lava onto the ocean floor. The lava eventually rose to sea level to form a large island and the volcanic activity generated by those same plumes continues to shape the coastline and the interior of Iceland to the present day. Virtually every piece of rock in Iceland is of volcanic origin, mostly various forms of basalt. Not long after Iceland made its appearance at the ocean surface another story began to write itself. This was the story of living things, a green wave that transformed the island from shades of black and grey to patchworks of lichen, carpets of thick moss, valleys of low-lying plants, and even birch forests. Although most of the trees were destroyed by the original Norse colonists the greenery of Iceland remains just as remarkable as its geology. However, the ancient tale that Iceland and Greenland were given their oxymoronic names to confuse pirates is probably an urban legend. Although the origin of the term Iceland is uncertain, the country is most likely to have been named for the glaciers and frozen fjords that the original settlers first came across when they arrived from Norway.

Over two weeks in Iceland we had witnessed countless manifestations of Iceland's diverse and changing geology, from glaciers and canyons to thermal pools and geysers. While many of these places are in rapid evolution from a geologic perspective one can be relatively certain that they won't disappear between one year and the next. On our last day in Iceland we had an opportunity to have an incredible experience that might only occur once in a lifetime, a hike within a few hundred meters of an erupting volcano. The eruption of Geldingadalur, also known as Fagradalsfjall, began in March 2021 after a series of minor earthquakes. It was the first volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula in eight hundred years. Unlike the typical explosive volcanic eruption like the famous ones at Pompeii or Mount St. Helens this was an effusion of lava from a magma dike that had extended to the surface. It wasn't spectacular enough to get much attention on a global scale but it was also perfectly safe to get within a close distance of the main cone and the lava flow. We had seen one of the crowded parking lots from which people were embarking on the hike to the lava when touring the peninsula on our first day in Iceland. My research hadn't given me a very clear picture of what that hike would be like or what exactly we could expect to see at the end, but we had a time slot open on that final afternoon and the weather was good so we decided to head to the beginning of the trail and see what came of it.
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From the parking area we could see a line of people snaking up a trail that went up to the top of a tall hill that was almost barren of vegetation. Although we were comfortable in our hoodies I insisted on packing the winter parkas, knowing how quickly the wind and temperature could change. As we set off I decided to intercept a small group of returning hikers to glean more information about what to expect from the journey. One member of the group was practically bouncing with exhilaration. He told us that there would be three hills, each one taller and steeper than the last, and that even if we thought we had achieved an adequate view of the volcano we should keep going because the next overlook would be an order of magnitude better. He kept on repeating that it was a life-changing experience and was so effusive that I eventually had to detach myself politely from his enthusiastic recapitulation. It was a relief to learn that we wouldn't be disappointed in our experience that day as I had read that on some days the lava didn't seem to be flowing at all.

Just as we had been promised we could already see the cone and the lava flow once we reached the top of the first hill. It was an amazing sight and more than I had expected as I would have been satisfied with just a trickle of lava. The wind was much stronger at the top and the temperature had begun dropping as well so I was grateful for my decision to bring the heavy coats. We could see a long walk ahead of us along the ridge to the base of the second hill and there's a good chance we would have turned back here if not for that chance encounter with the exuberant returnee. Given what he had told us we had no choice but to keep going.
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The view from the crest of the second hill was similar to the first but a little closer and more intense. I was so focused on watching the bursts and waves of lava flowing over the sides of the cone that I didn't really pay much attention to the third hill until we were almost at its base. This was a much steeper climb than the prior two hills and the trail switched from a straight line to a series of switchbacks. Even with that modification it was very difficult to get purchase on the muddy slope and I had to teach the kids to brace their feet against the rocks that were embedded in the mud. Even so we were constantly slipping and our boots and pants legs became caked in mud. The temperature continued to drop so that the wind chilled us even through the winter coats. The struggle to get to the top of the final hill seemed interminable but eventually we made it and had an absolutely stupendous view of the cone from the shortest distance possible. The sight of the glowing red lava sloshing around and overflowing from the cone was hypnotizing especially with the knowledge that just a splash of that molten rock would be enough to incinerate us. Overhead a helicopter circled precariously through the plume of smoke that emanated from the cone. I had given some thought to this ultra-expensive way of seeing the eruption but learned there was a weeks-long waiting list despite the prodigious cost. At this point I was very glad we'd had no choice but to do things the hard way as the whole experience had been quite rewarding.
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Once I was sure we'd absorbed everything we could from watching the cone there was no choice but to return. I wasn't thrilled about retracing the whole trek but at least there would be more downhill than up this time. When we got to the bottom of the third hill we saw that several people had clambered down the side of the ridge and were standing at the edge of the recently solidified lava flow. This was quite far away from the flowing red lava and didn't seem particularly unsafe so we decided to get a closer look as well. This was the lowest section of the ridge and it was easy to get down at this point. The fresh lava was truly remarkable, a substance with a shape and texture I had never experienced before. At the bottom it looked like congealed black mud but was dry and hard to the touch. This seemed to be lava that had flowed underneath an older upper layer which had cracked and fragmented and resembled the mature lava fields we had seen except without a speck of vegetation. I was nervous about climbing on top of the lava, knowing that there was molten rock flowing underneath the benign-appearing upper layer, but it seemed unlikely that it extended all the way to the edge. Others were venturing out much further and I hoped they wouldn't find out the hard way that mother nature can be very unforgiving.
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My instinct was to climb back up to the ridge and return to the car the same way we had come. It wasn't very exciting but at least we knew exactly how long it would take for us to get to the car and we did have a dinner reservation in Keflavik although we still had plenty of time. On the other hand Mei Ling wanted to follow the lava trail along the bottom of the ridge. I had some misgivings because I wasn't sure exactly where that route would take us but she was insistent and I gave in. At first this seemed like it had been the right choice because we got a much better look at the river of glowing red lava from the lower level.
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As we made our way along the base of the ridge some uncomfortable developments began to take place. The route continued to progress downward while the ridge next to us became taller and taller. The ground became more slippery and irregular and a light rain began to fall which worsened the muddiness of the ground and the coldness of the environment. It seemed that continuing to follow the lava might take us further and further away from the car and actually deposit us in a completely different parking area. From there I had no clue how we would eventually make it back to where we needed to be. I looked at the side of the ridge and while it seemed like a daunting climb it appeared doable. People were making their way along the top of the ridge and I ached to be back on a familiar path so we decided to set off up the slope. At first we did fairly well on the grassy area but as the footholds disappeared and the steepness increased parabolically we began to lose our purchase on the ground. I realized that even though the top was temptingly close the climb was only going to get more treacherous and would ultimately put us in serious danger of injury if we continued. Regretfully I made the decision to turn around and descend back to the trail down by the lava. The thought of returning all the way to the spot where we had originally left the ridge was unbearable so there was no choice except to continue onward and hope for the best.
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For the next three quarters of an hour we straggled along the muddy path under the cold rain. I have to give credit to the kids for continuing onward although they frequently slipped and were obviously suffering. We helped them as much as we could and Mei Ling eventually put Spenser on her back. The other two were just way too big to be carried. Finally with an enormous sense of relief I could see that up ahead the trail led to a flat area across from which was the base of the first hill we had climbed. We were going to get back to our car after all. We were all totally muddy, chilled, and exhausted but I knew we had completed a once-in-a-lifetime experience none of us would ever forget. Not only had we seen an erupting volcano but we had done it the hard way with blisters and scrapes to show for it. Even though we technically weren't allowed to take any souvenirs I did pocket three tiny fragments of that fresh spongy jet black lava for the kids as a memento of their enormous accomplishment that day.

Thanks to the long detour and our failed attempt to scale the ridge we had barely enough time to make our dinner reservation. We piled into the car without even changing and raced down the peninsula as fast as I dared. When we arrived at the hotel restaurant it was still raining and I stopped under the hotel canopy so Mei Ling could bundle the kids inside. I parked across the street and realized my muddy hiking pants and boots were completely unacceptable. I changed into jeans and shoes in the rain next to the car, way past caring about what passing drivers might have thought. I needn't have worried as the dreary wet street was devoid of traffic. Mei Ling had already ordered once I finally made it inside. I saw the kids were also way too muddy for an upscale hotel restaurant so I returned to the car and unpacked clean pants and shoes for each of them as well. I shuttled them individually to the restroom and got them changed. It was a process but it was the last time we would be dealing with the consequences of Iceland's unpredictable terrain and capricious weather. Dinner was the typical underwhelming presentation of old standards we had become accustomed to with a tasty sweet reward for the kids at the end.
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Our final night in Iceland was spent in a grungy motel in the colorless town of Keflavik. There was one final formidable obstacle to overcome, one that we had absolutely no control over. Living in Florida I'm used to keeping a watchful eye on the paths of hurricanes during the summer but ironically the one that was presenting a problem for us now wouldn't even have been on my radar at any other time. Hurricane Henri had started out in the mid-Atlantic, nowhere near Florida, but was projected to make a direct impact on Boston right about the time that our plane would be arriving there. It would be the first hurricane to hit Boston in thirty years which left me feeling quite unlucky even though we'd had plenty of good luck so far on the trip. I had no idea if our flight would even take off so I was constantly refreshing the hurricane tracker as well as the airline site to see if we would find ourselves spending an extra day or two in Iceland. When I awoke at dawn to make sure everything was packed and prepared I saw that the hurricane's impact had been pushed back a couple of hours which gave us a much better chance of arriving in the US as scheduled. Our flight from Boston to Miami was another matter entirely but at least we wouldn't have to worry about being stranded in a foreign country with expired COVID tests.

Mei Ling was unperturbed about the probable disruption to our return, perhaps because there was nothing we could do about it anyway. We returned our car smoothly and the agent failed to notice a scraped bumper on her cursory inspection. The kids got a thrill after boarding when the flight attendants recognized them from the volcano hike and got them some special treats for their toughness. Our flight took off as scheduled and upon landing in Boston we learned that the hurricane had made a last minute turn inland which had caused it to fall apart fairly quickly. It seemed the weather was no longer a threat and we had another uncomplicated flight on the domestic leg. It was a final stroke of good fortune in a trip that had seen several potential disasters culminate in miraculous positive outcomes. Being back in Miami was quite disorienting at first because over two weeks in Iceland it had begun to seem like we had always been there and our previous life in Miami had been a dream. Now we were looking at Iceland in the rear view mirror and that experience seemed completely unreal. Had we really walked on a glacier, rafted a turbulent and freezing river, and gazed upon an erupting volcano or had it been some kind of wild virtual reality experience? I couldn't really compare this two week journey to our month-long road trips in continental Europe but it seemed like this might have been our greatest short trip yet. The only one that might have been comparable was our tour of Sicily four years previously. There weren't enough memorable meals to rank them but the outdoor experiences more than made up for the lack of culinary pleasures.

10. Ásbyrgi Canyon
9. Reynisfjara black sand beach
8. Rauðhólar red hills
7. Downtown Reykjavik
6. Rafting on the West Glacial River
5. Fjallsjökull glacier walk
4. Snaefellsnes
3. Eldfell crater hike on Vestmannaeyjar
2. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
1. Geldingalur volcano

I chose these ten out of at least sixty individual outdoor sights and adventures that we had in Iceland, a stunning number for a trip just two weeks long. Even though we managed to circle the entire country I know we missed many amazing places between lack of time, lack of knowledge, and lack of courage. Will we be back? I certainly hope so, but probably not until the kids are all in their teens and ready to tackle the more challenging exploration of the interior. I don't know if we'll ever be up to doing the famous multi-day hikes but I would certainly love to see places like Askja and Þórsmörk. Of course there's so much of the world left to see it's really hard to look that far into the future. I feel that between Iceland and the incredible road trip we took in the American Southwest immediately beforehand our family made enormous progress in terms of our ability to explore and appreciate the natural world along with the cities and restaurants that typically form the backbone of our trips. That opens up an entire new dimension of travel for us both in Europe and in the developing world.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:13 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel travel_blog friedman tony_friedman family_travel_blog fagradalsfjall Comments (0)

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