New Website!

Since I last published on this blog 1.5 years ago, a whole lot has happened! I had a wonderful senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated in May with a BS in Geophysics. I then spent summer 2015 working as a Geoscientist-In-The-Park at Mount Rainier National Park where I got to work in Interpretation and explore the amazing backcountry of the area as much as possible. I’m now living in Cambridge, England where I’m pursuing my MPhil in Polar Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute as a Gates Cambridge Scholar

I’m no longer updating this blog, but if you’re curious what I’m up to, you can check out my new website/blog at sarahwcooley.com. Thanks for following!

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Saying goodbye to an incredible summer

While my friends and peers were all interning at major companies or innovative start-ups, volunteering with NGOs or conducting independent research, I spent my summer working for a small tourist company in Reykjavik, Iceland. I was not looking to improve my job prospects, make valuable work connections or pad my resume; rather I was there simply to learn, explore and try something entirely new. Two months of amazing experiences later, I simply cannot express just how much I gained from my summer in Iceland. I worked my first 9-5 job and developed customer service skills from working in the sales office. I experienced what it is like to be the only American and to be constantly surrounded by people from several different countries. I pushed myself to constantly explore, to always visit new places and never let myself get too comfortable within my new city. I connected with people who are very, very different from me, and I discovered just how easy it is to bond with someone while traveling. I reaffirmed to myself what makes me happiest and came to a much greater clarity about what I want to do after I graduate from university. And perhaps most significantly, I fell absolutely, madly in love with Iceland.

Myrdalsjokull and Goðaland

How can you beat views like this?

Now I’m not saying that it was easy, and there were many days when I felt very lonely and isolated. In the beginning, I occasionally questioned why I had chosen to spend my summer working in Iceland, far from my friends and in a job quite different from my career interests. But the more time I spent living in Reykjavik and exploring Iceland, the more I came to love my summer internship. I am very grateful to my advisors back at UNC who were fully supportive of my decision to intern with IG Tours despite the fact that it was a bit ‘out there’. This summer also made me very appreciative of the American higher education system that values exploration and trying new things. Though it might mean that we take a bit longer to get our degrees than our European counterparts, I think the opportunity to spend time doing something somewhat unrelated to my general career path is extremely valuable. I definitely have returned with lots of new skills and a greater understanding of what I would like to do moving forward.

Mt. Esja as seen from Hallgrimskirka in Reykjavik

Reykjavik from above with Mt. Esja in the foreground

Though I thoroughly enjoyed my job, having the chance to explore Iceland was easily the highlight of the summer. Over my two months in Iceland, I worked a lot and learned a ton about customer service, running a small business and the tourism industry, but I also took a boat ride through an iceberg lagoon, went horseback riding, hiked 20 miles in one day for the first time, tried fishing for the first time, snorkeled between two tectonic plates, visited countless incredible waterfalls, and saw (and even walked on) more glaciers than I can count. I mountain biked, ran and hiked through lava fields, discovered running routes all over Reykjavik, tried several traditional Icelandic foods, hiked Mt. Esja three times, mastered the pronunciation of Icelandic place names (Eyjafjallajokull, get at me), and watched the midnight sun ‘set’ over the Arctic ocean. I completed some of the truly greatest hikes of my life, drove a Porsche on Iceland’s Route 1 (yes, that really happened), experienced Reykjavik nightlife when it’s bright outside at 2 am, discussed geology with loads of people, and met so many wonderful Icelanders and fellow travelers. It’s no wonder I fell madly in love with this country!

Leaving Iceland was easily one of the toughest goodbyes I’ve ever had, as unlike past departures from Copenhagen or Peru, I did not feel at all ready to go home. The scenery, culture and people of Iceland all completely stole my heart, and I’ve had a very hard time adjusting back to ‘normal’ life without my daily adventures in Iceland. Though I’m excited to start my senior year at university, I also can’t believe that my years of life-changing summers and constant traveling are almost over. I know that the end of university certainly does not mean the end of my adventures, but I’ve been very spoiled to have so many funded adventures the past four years, and I’m naturally quite sad about it all ending. From Alaska to Peru to Alaska (again) to Copenhagen to solo traveling in Europe to Iceland and many, many more places in between, I’ve had an incredibly blessed college experience, and I am a completely different person than I was when I embarked on this four-year adventure. Sometimes I forget that even just three years ago, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Traveling has been absolutely vital in my discovery of my passion for polar science. I’ve caught the travel bug, big time, and I know that it will now play a significant role in the rest of my life. So to anyone that has been following this blog, thank you so much for reading and for your support. I’m not sure what form this blog will take in the future, but I know that if I’m traveling, I’ll be sure to be writing about it and taking lots of photos somehow.

Thanks for an incredible summer, Iceland!

Thanks for an incredible summer, Iceland!

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Vatnajokull Backpacking: Part II

This post presents part II of my amazing 9-day Vatnajokull Backpacking Trip. The second half of the trip was even more spectacular than the first, and like my post about part I, I’m primarily using photos to describe the four days.

Day 6

Because of the weather problems in the first half of the trip, the second half of my Vatnajokull Backpacking Trip began with a bumpy super jeep ride over rivers to reach the start of the Nupstadaskogar-Skaftafell route. We began hiking towards the canyon of the Nupsa river, hiking through one of the rare native Icelandic ‘forests’ still around today.

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After about two hours, we faced our first challenge: a short but significant climb up a steep cliff face. With the help of our guide we used a harness and climbed up one person at a time using a metal chain bolted into the cliff.

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The view from the top of the climb, looking down towards the ocean

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Guide Robert belaying from the top as other group members wait below

We then stopped at an spectacular waterfall that is particularly stunning for the contrast between glacial and freshwater rivers. The freshwater, on the left in the photo below, appears blue, whereas the sediment-filled glacial river is a muddy brown. The combination of the two in the pool below the waterfall makes for quite an unforgettable scene.

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Eventually we stopped to camp at a peaceful spot near some small streams before tackling the steep canyon the next day.

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Day 7

Day 7 began with blue skies and some gorgeous but very steep hiking up the canyon. After we reached the top we continued upwards through rivers and lush rolling hills.

Looking down Iceland's 'Grand Canyon'

Looking down Iceland’s ‘Grand Canyon’

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As we gained elevation, the scenery eventually turned from green to brown, and the Vatnajokull slowly came into view. We all stopped to enjoy some gorgeous views of Skeidararjokull, an outlet glacier of the Vatnajokull and the glacier we would be crossing the next day.

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We then descended into an old lake bed that once held a large glacier lagoon known as Graenalon. In recent years however, due to the thinning of Skeidararjokull the glacier has no longer been able to hold in the water and so the lagoon has drained, now a tiny fraction of its past size. We crossed a very wide and very cold river, dodging icebergs as it flowed past us and tried to avoid sinking into sand on the muddy bottom of the old lagoon.

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Looking towards Skeidararjokull from the bottom of the lake bed

Eventually we hiked up the other side of the lake bed and made our way to our campsite, perched on the edge of the lagoon with incredible views over the surrounding glaciers and mountains. It is a truly spectacular spot and we all enjoyed a delicious dinner and amazing views as the sun set.

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Day 8

Day 8 of the trip was devoted solely to the crossing of Skeidararjokull glacier, from our campsite at Graenalon to the edge of the mountains of Skaftafell National Park, seen above in the distance. It was a very long day of dodging crevasses and traversing difficult sections like the notorious ‘Black Forest’, an area of huge piles of ice and ash formed from eruptions of Grimsvotn, a large volcano located beneath the Vatnajokull. The weather was slightly less cooperative as it had been the past few days, and our eight hours on the glacier were a little cold and wet. Nevertheless, we all enjoyed the glacier trekking, and I spent the eight hours dreaming about all my future glacier adventures.

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Entering the black forest

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Our guide navigates a particularly crevassed section

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We found a large moulin with two gushing waterfalls sending water deep down the glacier

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When we finally put our feet back onto solid earth, we were all very excited (and hungry for dinner). We then had a short but steep hike up to our second absolutely amazing campsite of the trip, located beneath jagged mountains and overlooking the broad expanse of Skeidararjokull and the Vatnajokull at the edge of Skaftafell National Park.

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Our raincoats made a rainbow!

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Our campsite in the fog

Day 9

After a gorgeous walk to begin my morning and some muesli and coffee for a very scenic breakfast, our last day began by hiking up towards our high pass of the trip. The views over the peaks of Skaftafell and the Vatnajokull were simply incredible as we gained elevation.

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Amazing colors near the top of the pass

After we reached the top of the pass, we began a very fast and very fun descent down some scree and snowfields. Our guide demonstrated some pretty awesome boot-skiing skills, and the rest of attempted as well, to varying degrees of success. Before we knew it we were heading down the final canyon and very close to the campgrounds and trails of Skaftafell National Park.

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You can tell that Robert is quite a talented skier!

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Snow, peaks and clouds

 

The final hike into Skaftafell involved walking along the edge of a river bed, passing forests and beautiful glaciers. When we reached the park, we relaxed briefly and then all shared a few beers in front of the glacier at the visitor center. We spent that night in our tents at the very crowded campground, quite different from our pristine, remote campsites from the days before. Yet it was a very pleasant evening and a fitting end to the amazing trip.

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Skaftafell campground, looking towards the Hvannadalshnjukur, the tallest peak in Iceland

I could not have had a more fantastic time on the 9-day backpacking trip, and I think it made my departure from Iceland even that much harder. I was initially a little bit skeptical about doing a guided trip since I like being independent, yet I absolutely loved the experience. After a summer where I spent a very significant of time alone, traveling with a group for my last 10 days was just what I needed. I really connected with many of the people on the trip and enjoyed the fun-spirited and adventurous environment of the group. The guide was awesome, and after the significant difficulty and intensity of some of my past experiences backpacking, I actually quite enjoyed only having to be responsible for myself. And of course, the scenery was just beyond spectacular and it was so wonderful to see some incredible places very much off the beaten path. I probably won’t always travel on guided trips but I would highly, highly recommend Icelandic Mountain Guides and I will definitely consider a trip like this again in the future. It really was the perfect way to end my incredible summer in Iceland.

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Vatnajokull Backpacking: Part I

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve updated, but that is not for lack of adventures! After I returned from Thorsmork, I spent five days finishing up work, cleaning out my apartment and office and saying goodbye to my coworkers. Then, the following Saturday, I left bright and early for a 9-day backpacking trip from Laki to Skaftafell around the Vatnajokull (the largest ice cap in Iceland) with Icelandic Mountain Guides. This trip was my 21st birthday present and I’d been looking forward to it for months. After nine absolutely incredible days with awesome people, amazing scenery and some truly spectacular campsites, I can safely say that the trip in every way exceeded my own lofty expectations! I then spent my two last days in Iceland packing up, preparing to go home (and also finally visiting the Blue Lagoon of course), and I returned to the states one week ago. Since then I’ve been relaxing, trying to process my incredible summer and starting to prepare for my senior year at university.

I’m very excited to share photos and stories from my backpacking trip, and I thought I would split my posts into two segments about each half of the trip. I thought it would be best to describe the trip primarily with photos, so this is the first of two very, very photo heavy posts.

Day 1

The first half of my Vatnajokull Backpacking trip began in the south of Iceland, about thirty minutes from a small town called Kirkjubaejarklaustur (try to pronounce that!). Our wonderful guide Robert and the seven of us on the trip packed up our stuff at a small farm and then immediately started hiking into the mountains.

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The view from the farm. The mountains in foreground are part of Skaftafell National Park, and Hvannadalshnjukur, the highest peak in Iceland is visible.

We walked along a gorgeous canyon filled with powerful Icelandic waterfalls such as this one. We then camped along the banks of small stream that night.

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Day 2

We began the day by crossing a few small streams and rivers before leaving the bright green vegetation as we gained elevation.

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As we approached the glacier, the scenery quickly took on a moon-like appearance. We also passed several large craters known as Raudholar. Eventually we set up camp on a very exposed gravel bar a few hundred meters from Sidjujokull.

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Day 3

On Day 3, we were supposed to head up onto the glacier as we crossed Sidjujokull. Unfortunately, we awoke that morning to a serious wind and rainstorm. Though normally it would be safe (but very unpleasant) to hike in that kind of weather, due to the increased risks and exposure while crossing a glacier, we were forced to instead just spend the day stuck inside our tents, waiting for the weather to clear. To top things off, the brand-new tent I was sharing with two other solo female travelers was not seam-sealed, basically meaning that it was not waterproof. We all woke up soaked so we removed the inner tent and spent the next 10 hours sitting on dirty gravel in a tent so small that we could not even sit up. It was fairly unpleasant, but fortunately Bianca, Anke and I were all in good spirits and passed the time by talking, reading and playing cards.

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The dirty, wet and cold inside of our tent

Fortunately, around 10 pm, the rain cleared briefly, so Anke, Bianca and I decided to hike up the nearest peak to get a view of the glacier and surrounding terrain. The views were simply incredible as the sun set, and we were very, very excited to be outside of the tent!

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Anke hiking up with our campsite in the background

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Very happy to be in front of Sidjujokull!

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More views of Sidjujokull and surrounding mountains

Day 4

We awoke to vastly improved weather, and all of us eagerly packed up, very excited to be outside of our tents! Because of our inability to cross the glacier the day before, we had to change our route to instead head down a nearby canyon in order to make it back in time. We started by hiking just south of the glacier where we were treated to some amazing views of the surrounding mountains and Lakigigar, the craters responsible for the 1783 Laki eruption that killed over 6 million people worldwide.

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In order to avoid some river crossing, we headed up onto the toe of the glacier and continued across the glacier for an hour or two. Everyone was very excited to get some glacier hiking experience!

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Icelandic glaciers are very dirty from volcanic ash and other sources, making them often look more black and gray than white and blue

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After we left the glacier, we continued down a beautiful valley known as Djupadalur. We hiked through lava fields, alongside dramatic canyons and through a freshwater waterfall paradise before finally reaching our campsite underneath a waterfall. Despite the fact that this hike was the ‘back-up plan’, the scenery was extremely spectacular.

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Day 5

We woke up to blue skies and continued our hike down Djupadalur. The original plan was for us to camp in Nupstadaskogar (a nearby valley) where those who were doing only the first five days would be picked up and the rest of us would be joined by some more people for the second half of the trip. However, due to our change in route, Icelandic Mountain Guides arranged for us to hike to a nearby farmhouse where we would have a good meal and spend the night, and then the following morning we would be transported to Nupstadaskogar for the start of part two. It was a beautiful but surprisingly hot hike to the farmhouse, and we were all very happy to have a comfy place to sleep and a good meal!

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Curious sheep with the ocean in the background

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At the farmhouse

After a delicious meal of salmon, potatoes and beer, we all went to bed feeling quite refreshed and very excited for Part II of the trip. Despite the bouts of bad weather and the non-waterproof tent, it was still a spectacular five days of backpacking. Considering just how incredible Iceland really is, I would expect nothing less!

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Fimmvörðuháls

I’ve been very lucky to go on some beautiful hikes in my life, but nothing has ever quite compared to the epic adventure I had a few days ago. My hike up and over Fimmvörðuháls was truly mind-blowing and definitely the best hike I’ve ever done. It honestly might even rank as one of the very best days of my life.

Loving life at the top of Magni crater

Loving life at the top of Magni crater

Fimmvörðuháls is a famous hiking trail from Skogar to Thorsmork that climbs the pass between Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers. It is truly one of the world’s greatest day hikes, passing through extremely diverse scenery and countless glaciers, waterfalls volcanoes over the course of 25-35 kilometers depending on the exact route. The hike can be thought of as having three parts: the waterfall and canyon sections heading up from Skogar, the volcanic pass filled with snow and lava between the glaciers, and the stunning descent into Thorsmork through the sharp valleys and glaciers of Godaland. Fimmvörðuháls is a particularly epic hike for geology lovers like myself, as it goes right across craters and lava formed in the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption – the pesky eruption that disrupted air traffic in Europe for a few weeks.

Map of the trail

Map of the trail

While traditionally attempted from Skogar to Thorsmork, I decided to go the reverse route when the weather forecast finally looked good for my last day in Thorsmork. I’ve wanted to do this hike for a very long time yet sort of expected to end up doing it in typical Icelandic rain and wind. Naturally then, when it looked like I might actually be able to do the hike in good weather, I was ecstatic. I also fortunately happened to meet another American solo traveler in Thorsmork who was also planning on tackling Fimmvörðuháls on Sunday so we decided to do it together. So basically, after days of solo hiking in the rain, I got about as lucky as I could get for this hike.

Part 1: Godaland

I awoke Sunday morning to blue skies and sunshine, and after packing up my bag, I was immediately ready to set off for the trail. Alex and I left around 8 am and began the approximately 2 hour long trip from the Volcano Huts to the Fimmvörðuháls trailhead at Basar campsite. We faced our first challenge early on, as part of the bridge over the river Krossa had been taken out the night before. Most Icelanders and Europeans bring water shoes for such crossings, but Alex and I were definitely not that prepared so we tackled the river barefoot, numbing our feet in the frigid glacial water. We then continued along the river bed for a few kilometers until we finally reached the Fimmvörðuháls trailhead.

The first several kilometers of the hike include lots of steep elevation gain, and the hike starts off fairly dramatically with the crossing of ‘Kattahryggur’ (literally the Cat’s Spine) just a kilometer or two in.  Hiking over the narrow ridge between two green canyons was absolutely spectacular in the sunshine.

We continued hiking uphill to a large plateau where we were treated to magnificent views of Godaland (Land of the Gods): gleaming glaciers, sharp cliffs and deep green mountains and sweeping vistas over Thorsmork valley. Fortunately, Alex and I are both strong hikers, and we flew up the ascent, hiking up the side of cliffs in no time as we scrambled over rocks and sharp edges. We thoroughly enjoyed the sunshine as we hiked the plateaus and cliffs of Godaland before crossing an extremely narrow ridge between canyons and steaming lava.

Part 2: Volcanoes, lava and snow

With amazing views of Thorsmork behind us, we hiked up the last major steep ascent and suddenly found ourselves in a bizarre moonscape. As Thorsmork disappeared over our shoulders, we faced a moon-like combination of snow, ice, lava, ash and huge craters. The ground was literally still steaming from the 2010 eruption, and we eagerly traversed the snowfields and climbed to the top of Magni, one of the newest craters in Iceland that was formed only just four years ago.

The view over the steaming lava and snowfields from the top of the crater was incredibly surreal. The ground at the crater was so hot that if you dug a small hole, you could literally cook a hot dog, and the waves of warm steam passing over us felt so strange amidst the frigid air up at 1000 meters between two glaciers. Never has the power of volcanoes been more clear to me than it was standing there on that crater, and I found myself mesmerized thinking about what this place must have looked like in 2010 with the fresh fiery lava and ash forming the bizarre landscape.

We continued from the crater over more lifeless ash and snow towards Fimmvörðuskali hut. Those few kilometers were completely devoid of life and color; it was as if the world had been turned to black and white. When we finally reached the hut, it was windy and fairly cold, so we took just a short break and then continue down the broad plains towards Skogar.

Part 3: Waterfalls and canyons

Unlike the extremely rapid transition from lush green to volcanoes and ice as we approached Fimmvörðuháls from Thorsmork, the change in scenery coming down from the pass Skogar was much more gradual. As we followed the river down from the glacier, gray rocks and snowfields slowly turned into green pastures and deep canyons. With numerous beautiful waterfalls and views over the plateau and all the way to the ocean, the scenery was very different from the dramatic mountains and glaciers of the ascent. Realizing we had plenty of time to spare, we took a few long breaks on the descent and enjoyed the long peaceful walk downhill past canyons and waterfalls.

After several hours of walking downhill (and lots of time spent talking about how glad we were that we did the hike in reverse and did the other section uphill), I was starting to feel a little tired and my feet were getting fairly sore. At around 6:30, I assumed we still probably had at least an hour left to Skogar, but all of the sudden, we rounded a corner and the top of Skogafoss, the final waterfall of the trail came in two view. Before I knew it, the hike was over and we were walking past the dozens of tourists visiting the waterfall. We promptly bought some snacks and drinks and then relaxed on the field in front of the waterfall waiting for the 9 pm bus back to Reykjavik, tired but also still very high on endorphins from completing such an awesome hike.

As I sat on the bus back to Reykjavik that night, I could not help but think about how lucky we were to have such a perfect day for the hike. Alex and I estimated that we probably hiked around 20 miles given the circuitous route we took as well as the added distance from the Volcano Huts to the trailhead. I’ve never hiked 20 miles in one day before, especially not with a decently heavy pack, yet I felt great the entire time. We had simply spectacular views throughout the day, and knowing the fickle Icelandic weather, we probably had more beautiful vistas than 95% or more of people who make the pass over Fimmvörðuháls. The whole day truly felt like a dream, and it made me so excited to continue my Icelandic backpacking adventures next week.

Living the dream

Living the dream

Tips:

For anyone reading this blog and thinking about hiking Fimmvörðuháls, I have a few pieces of advice. For one, this is a long and serious hike, so only somewhat experienced hikers should attempt to do the whole trip in one day without a guide. In great weather like we had, the hike really is not that difficult and is fairly well-marked, but even on a beautiful day like Sunday, the top was cold and windy with variable visibility. I would highly advise only attempting this hike if the forecast looks good – otherwise, it would just be a very long, cold and windy slog with a very high possibility of getting lost.

Also, though almost all tours and guidebooks recommend leaving from Skogar, I strongly advise going the opposite way and leaving from Thorsmork. The climb up from Thorsmork to the pass is quite steep and rocky with a few sort of exposed sections, and I was very happy to be going up on the steep parts rather than trying to navigate down steep rock with a heavy pack. Hiking up to the pass from Skogar would be a very, very long trip up a moderate incline, whereas hiking the gradual downhill was relaxing at the end of a long day.

Overall, for anyone who enjoys hiking and beautiful views, Fimmvörðuháls really is an absolute must. It so far has been by far the highlight of my summer in Iceland, and easily one of the highlights of all the traveling I’ve done in the past few years. I could not more highly recommend it!

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Heaven is a place called Þórsmörk

When I decided I would spend my summer in Iceland way back in March, I immediately started researching places to visit and eagerly pouring over my Iceland Lonely Planet (also known as the travel ‘bible’ of Iceland). After a lot of research, one place really stuck out to me: Þórsmörk (literally ‘Thor’s forest’, in English, Thorsmork). A nature and hiking reserve located in a stunning valley between several large glaciers, Þórsmörk is known be to a hikers’ paradise, so naturally I was very psyched to visit. There are no residents or stores in Þórsmörk; just campgrounds, mountain huts and a whole lot of crazy trails. After lots of planning, a few rescheduled trips and a last minute decision to head there on Thursday, I found myself finally visiting Þórsmörk this past weekend. And wow, it was an incredible weekend.

Þórsmörk Valley

Þórsmörk Valley

Visiting Þórsmörk requires crossing several serious rivers without any bridges, so the area is inaccessible without a specially-equipped bus or super jeep. As our bus made the way through some frighteningly fierce rivers, the valley slowly opened up to us, revealing forests, hanging glaciers and stark green mountains. Upon arrival at the wonderful Volcano Huts at around 7 in the evening, I immediately had to get hiking. I headed up towards Valahnukur, a peak not very far from the huts. I basically ran up the mountain, enthralled as the dramatic views of the valley unfolded around me. When I reached the top, I was speechless.

Myrdalsjokull and Goðaland

Myrdalsjokull and Goðaland

I’ve been uniformly impressed by the spectacular Icelandic scenery, but this was something else entirely – a place so amazing that it almost couldn’t be real. Sprawling out in every direction around me were glaciers, volcanoes, green cliffs and braided glacial rivers. The mighty Eyjafjallajokull rose thousands of feet in front of me to the south, whereas the huge Myrdalsjokull covered the horizon to the west. The green mountains and cliffs stood in surreal contrast to the white glaciers and black gravel of the river valleys. I had seen professional photos of this area before, but being there in person was awe-inspiring and overwhelming. It truly felt like I was in a movie.

In front of Eyjafjallajokull

In front of Eyjafjallajokull

The Markarfljot heading out of the valley

The Markarfljot heading out of the valley

From that first moment on top of the mountain, the rest of my four day trip to Þórsmörk was simply spectacular. The weather was a little rough on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, but I had my full raingear so I just hiked on anyways. I explored a beautiful canyon and an area known as Trollakirkja (Troll’s church), hiked up and over a ridge in the pouring wind and rain and walked for miles along the valley floor. When the rain finally ended on Saturday afternoon, I relaxed in a beautiful field filled with wildflowers beneath the glaciers. I hiked up Valahnukur twice more, still blown away by the gorgeous 360 degree views. Even without perfect weather, the area truly was a hikers dream.

Looking down the river Krossá

Looking down the river Krossá

Hiking near Trollakirkja

The trail near Trollakirkja

Tents at Langidalur

Tents at Langidalur under Eyjafjallajokull

Hiking in the rain

Hiking in the rain

Found this spot with some good views even though it was pouring

Found this spot with some awesome views even though it was pouring

I’ve traveled alone a good bit now (see past blog posts here) but this trip was perhaps the best one yet. There were moments on this trip where I felt truly alone, way out in the wilderness unable to see even a single soul. It was immensely empowering to do these long hikes alone, and I never once felt lonely or scared. There is something about hiking and camping that bonds people, and I got to meet so many people during my stay in Þórsmörk. Everyone I met was eager to talk about their trip to Iceland, about the best hikes in the area, and about past hiking, adventuring and traveling experiences. It was so wonderful to spend the days exploring on my own and then the nights meeting people and talking to other travelers about their experiences. I’ve been admittedly lonely living in Reykjavik all summer, largely because almost no one I’ve been spending time with here shares my deep love for hiking, running, biking and exploring. Getting to talk to fellow hikers who share this passion for traveling alone, working hard and pushing yourself outdoors really made the weekend for me and showed me just how easy it is to connect with people when you have a shared love for the outdoors. It made me very excited both to continue traveling but also to return to the US where many of my friends share this same love for adventure. I also loved the simplicity of staying in a hut, not having to worry about keys or wallets or money or emails or showering or makeup – just hiking, meeting people and relaxing in a beautiful place while still having a warm and dry place to sleep. This weekend to me was about as close to heaven as I can get.

Wildflowers and glaciers

Wildflowers and glaciers

Hiking on a rainy ridge

Hiking on a rainy ridge

Yesterday, a fellow American traveler I met in Þórsmörk and I decided to hike the classic Fimmvörduháls trail from Þórsmörk to Skogar as the conclusion to a wonderful trip. The weather finally cooperated, and we had a truly incredible hike, honestly, one of the very best days of my life which I will write much more about in an upcoming post. Now, today, as I sit back in my apartment in Reykjavik, my feet still a little sore from a weekend of epic hiking, all I can think about is wanting to go back to the mountains, to go back to hiking and traveling and exploring. After spending all of last week working super long days at the office running the company, I was feeling a little lonely and ready to go home. Getting out to the mountains and hiking on my own was exactly what I needed, and it reminded me why I choose to spend so much time away from home and friends. There is a great big world out there with so many wonderful places to see, and I feel very privileged to be fit, adventurous and able to explore as much as I possibly can.

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10 reasons Iceland is a little ‘different’

I’ve been living in Iceland for over 6 weeks now, and I’ve definitely had the chance to soak up Icelandic culture. I’ve been trying to keep track of all of my favorite things/the weirdest things about Icelandic culture, so I thought today I would share this list. I do apologize if some of these sound like complaints – I guess sometimes it’s the annoying quirks that I notice the most!

1. Icelanders work. A lot. Several of my colleagues have emphasized to me much Icelanders love to work. Icelanders are often not just given days off – they usually have to ask for a day off. I’ve learned this the hard way as I haven’t had really any days off in the past three weeks, but I’ll hopefully be getting some days off again before I leave.

2. Even the kids work. Icelanders start working at a young age, and especially in the summers, it’s not uncommon to see 13 and 14 year-olds working. There is a program here where young teenagers earn money for doing basic public works jobs during the summer – things like cleaning up parks, planting trees, removing litter from roads, etc. At first when I would see large groups of 15-year-olds working on the side of the highway, I found it very confusing (in the US that generally implies that the kids are in trouble), but here, that kind of work is perfectly normal.

3. You cannot be vegetarian in Iceland. Period. I’ve traveled a good bit now, so I was expecting it to be slightly difficult to be vegetarian here. However, Iceland’s serious addiction to meat makes this by far the most challenging place I’ve been. Outside of a few of the more touristy restaurants in downtown Reykjavik, most restaurants here literally do not have a single vegetarian option. Even though I’m vegetarian in the states, I’ve been eating fish and some chicken while I’ve been here. I haven’t really had a choice in the matter – every time I eat with my boss or my colleagues, I basically have to either eat meat or eat just crackers and snacks. And after eating crackers for lunch or dinner a few (or really way) too many times, I find myself needing real food. Needless to say, I am very, very, very excited about returning to the land of delicious, healthy vegetarian food!

4. The grocery stores are never open. One of the biggest challenges of living here has been finding fresh food. The grocery stores that are easily accessible from my apartment in downtown Reykjavik are only open from 11-6. So when my hours are 9-6 and I don’t have days off, it is basically impossible to go to the grocery store. Fortunately there are corner stores where I can buy cereal, pasta and a can of beans (my staples), but getting fresh vegetables is truly a problem.

5. It is really hard to buy alcohol. Here in Iceland, you can only buy alcohol at Vin Budin, the state-owned alcohol store. And it’s not just hard liquor that’s only purchased in an alcohol store – it’s ALL alcohol, beer and wine included. There are surprisingly few of these stores, and they are only open six days per week from 11-6. Maybe I’m just way too used to being able to get beer at even the gas stations in the states, but it is very annoying if you don’t get off work until late and then cannot get drinks for the night! The store does stay open until 7 pm on Fridays, but if you walk into Vin Budin at 6:45 on a Friday evening, it will feel like half of Reykjavik is in the store. Seriously. I think I’m going to go to Harris Teeter (the North Carolina grocery store) at 1 am when I get home to buy some fresh vegetables and a bottle of wine, just because I can!

6. I don’t understand Icelandic drinking culture. I had a very funny conversation with my boss and my French and Swedish colleagues a few weeks ago about drinking cultures in our countries. I explained to them how my family likes to have a glass of wine with dinner most nights and how I often really enjoy a beer after a long day of work. I very infrequently have lots of drinks; rather I like just a single glass of wine or a beer at the end of the day, and I think this is fairly standard among my friends and family. I was shocked to hear that in Iceland, this would make me an alcoholic. Here, you do not, I repeat, do NOT, drink during the week. At all. But on the weekends, by all means, many Icelanders drink as much as they want until they black out. I work weekends here so I’m usually out the door around 7 am on Sundays, and I frequently walk outside to people literally passed out on the pavement, which in America, is very much frowned upon. It’s pretty funny how the consumption of alcohol varies and I could actually go into fairly significant detail about these two drinking cultures, but I’ll spare the lecture and simply say that I much prefer the ‘American’ drinking culture and will happily return to drinking a glass of wine at dinner when I get home!

7. Icelanders love to swim. And they like it hot. There are pools all over the place in Iceland. Every tiny village has its own pool, often complete with water slides and the mandatory hot pots (hot tubs). Even in the small neighborhood pool I’ve gone to, there were at least 8 different hot pots, all at a different temperature so you can find the one that is just the right temperature. For a cold country sitting on top of basically endless geothermal hot water, Icelanders’ affinity for hot water certainly makes sense. I’ve discovered this water is a bit too hot for me; every time I’ve gone to one of the pools and sat in the hot water, I’ve had to leave because I felt too sick or too lightheaded. I may be like the Icelanders given my toughness in the rain and cold, but I’m apparently not quite able to handle the heat!

8. Everything smells like sulfur. The first time I showered here, I was in for quite a nasty surprise. Here all hot water comes straight from the very hot ground, which makes it an extremely renewable and sustainable energy source. However, this also means that all hot water smells like sulfur. Really quite strongly like sulfur actually. I hated showering for my first few weeks because I simply could not stand the smell, but at this point I’ve gotten so used to it that I don’t even notice. Also, because all hot water is geothermal, the hot water is actually so hot that it can actually burn you. I like not ever having to worry about running out of hot water (a common issue when you have 6 roommates), but even after 6 weeks I still haven’t quite mastered the art of getting the water to the right temperature.

9. People here know their geology. In the US, I often feel a little strange when I mention that I study geophysics, as it’s such an obscure field that 90% or more of people I meet have absolutely no idea what it is. Even when I mention geology, most people just think, ‘oh yeah, rocks and stuff’ but really don’t know what a geoscience degree actually entails. In Iceland however, everyone knows geology. People are often genuinely interested in discussing geology and understanding the geology of their country. Geology and Geophysics are extremely well-known departments at the universities here, and a getting a geo degree is not at all uncommon. I even met an Icelander at a bar a few weeks ago who is also studying geophysics which would be almost completely unheard of in the states. Iceland’s a pretty awesome place to be for a geoscience nerd like myself!

10. ‘Closed for weather’ means its sunny outside. Icelanders do not complain about the weather as much as you might think they would, as cold and rainy is pretty average here. Many Icelanders I’ve talked to have told me to just forget about ever checking the weather and always prepare for cold and rain – if on the slim chance it’s ever nice, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! It’s nice outside so rarely here that a ‘closed for weather’ sign on the door of a business actually means that it’s sunny outside. If the sun is finally shining, many companies close and all Icelanders go outside for that rare chance to actually get some Vitamin D and feel sun on their skin. And after living here for even just six weeks, I completely understand that feeling!

 

 

 

 

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Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Yesterday, my roommate Tanja and I had the opportunity to go to Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the west of Iceland. I’ve been looking forward to seeing the west of Iceland for weeks, but unfortunately, when I finally had the chance to go, the weather did not cooperate and it rained the entire time. At this point, I’ve stopped even checking the weather, because it rains every day so there’s really no reason to even worry about it. That being said, it was a little disappointing to not have many views of the mountains. I still enjoyed the tour, however, despite the poor weather. Fortunately, Iceland is still beautiful in all types of weather.

Mounds and cliffs

Mounds and cliffs

Our first stop was Arnarstapi Bird Cliffs, a beautiful walk along seaside cliffs. It was quite stunning even in the rain; the contrast between the dark basalt cliffs and green vegetation was quite striking. We even saw some baby birds and their mothers nesting.

Beautiful rock formations at low tide

Beautiful rock formations at low tide

Arnarstapi Cliffs

Arnarstapi Cliffs

Entrance to the abyss

Entrance to the abyss

Mama and her chick

Mama and her chick

Next, we stopped at more seaside cliffs at Hellnar, and then continued to Djupalonssandur. Twisting rock formations, crashing waves and remnants of a stranded fishing trawler greeted us at this strange beach.

Djupalonssandur

Djupalonssandur

Strange beach

Strange beach

Rocks and waves

Rocks and waves

The real jewel of Snaefellsnes Peninsula is Snaefellsjokull, a glacier-capped volcano found on the western tip of the peninsula. Part of Snaefellsjokull National Park (one of only three national parks in Iceland – I can now say I’ve been to all three), Snaefellsjokull is thought to have special powers and serves as a dramatic climax to the mountains and volcanoes of the gorgeous peninsula. It is also the location of Jules Verne’s journey to the center of the earth. The low clouds and rain meant that we had extremely limited views of the glacier. Fortunately though, as we drove through the incredibly scenic small towns of Hellissandur and Olafsvik, the clouds lifted a little bit, giving us a glimpse of the mystical glacier.

Redefining 'the beautiful game'

Redefining ‘the beautiful game’

The mountain in the clouds

The mountain in the clouds

Olafsvik

Olafsvik

As we continued along the coast of the peninsula, we passed Grundarfjordur, another scenic small town known for its defining mountain, Kirkjufell. Perfectly round and sitting on a tiny peninsula between two small bays, Kirkjufell (literally church mountain) is the star of many of a famous Icelandic photograph, but of course when we visited, our views were clouded by heavy rain. Nevertheless, it was still quite a beautiful spot.

Kirkjufell in the rain

Kirkjufell in the rain

We then drove back towards Reykjavik, making several briefs stops along the way to see more clouded views of mountains, volcanoes, craters and lava flows. The clouds started lifting a bit more as we exited the peninsula, and we were treated to some gorgeous views of Borgarnes, the largest town in the region, on our way back to the city. Reykjavik greeted us at the end of our long day with even more pouring rain. Iceland is a very wet (and beautiful) place.

Perfect crater

Perfect crater

Icelandic roads

Icelandic roads

Mountains and fields

Mountains and fields

Borgarnes

Borgarnes

Harbor views at the end of the day

Harbor views at the end of the day

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Summer of Running

Yesterday the sun was finally shining and I had a few free hours so I decided to try to run/speed hike up Mt. Esja for the third time. I pushed myself pretty hard and made it up in around 50 minutes, but of course, right as I reached the top at 700m, the clouds pulled in and it began to downpour. It was ‘hot’ in Reykjavik so I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but fortunately I had stuffed a raincoat in my small backpack last minute giving me at least some protection from the cold. Realizing that I did not have enough layers and did not want to have to wait around for the later bus while soaked and cold, I decided that my best option was to basically run down the mountain and catch the next bus. So, tired and cold and very bad at downhill running, I did my best to run the steep descent down to the bus station as fast as I could, making it in time to catch the bus back to Reykjavik. It was quite an experience, much more of an adventure than I was anticipating, yet I couldn’t help but feel grateful as I finished my long and exhausting run/hike. I was sore, soaked and tired and all together very happy.

The view from the top, seconds before it started pouring

The view from the top, seconds before it started pouring

One of the highlights of my summer has been getting back into the habit of running or hiking or biking every day. Though I’ve always loved running and usually stay fairly active all year round, the reality of school during the year means I often do not exercise nearly as much as I should. Here, when I am done with work every day, I have no homework to do and no meetings to attend, meaning, especially given the basically unlimited daylight, I have as much time as I want to run, bike or hike! I’ve discovered numerous beautiful biking and running routes along the coastline, through the city and around trails. The entire coastline of Reykjavik is covered in paved bike paths, so you can literally run for miles and miles without leaving the water. There are several areas with lots of trails easily accessible from the city center like Perlan and Heidmork, and there is also great hiking to be found at nearby Mt. Esja and Mosfellsbaer. The options are more than enough to keep me busy exploring and always trying new routes and places.

Hiking in the rain in Mosfellsbaer

Hiking in the rain in Mosfellsbaer

Especially after a long day of sitting at the office, nothing feels better than getting outside and going on a run, bike or hike. I’ve run, biked and hiked on the few rare beautiful sunny days we’ve had, but I’ve also run in the pouring rain and wind and cold. I find that every day that I go outside and enjoy the gorgeous scenery or even the lack thereof, I feel that much better and more refreshed. Living abroad can be lonely and difficult at times, but nothing picks up my spirits quite like a nice long run or adventure.

Heidmork

Heidmork

In high school I ran cross-country and track and skied, so for those four years exercising 6 days a week was my normal. However, a combination of injuries and lack of a team has led me to lose much of that motivation, and I’m still trying to learn how to be active again in a sustainable way. Exercising so frequently over the past five weeks here has been really wonderful, and I’m learning how to love running without the added pressure of competition.  I had forgotten just how much I love that feeling of being slightly sore, a little sweaty and a little tired, and how good your body feels when you get a lot of serious exercise. I’ve got a few long and difficult hikes planned in the coming weeks, and I know I’ll be very grateful to be in shape.

Esja trail

Esja trail

Most of all though, I just feel very grateful to even be able to run, to be at a point in my life where I actually want to run everyday. When I’m at university, I’m surrounded by people who exercise frequently, but among the people I am with here, I am somewhat unique in my daily desire to run. It has made me realize just how lucky I am to be able to go run 6 miles without even thinking about it, to be able to tackle a long hike without much fear, and to have found within myself the motivation to make myself get outside and do something every single day. In high school competition always colored my views of exercising, but after taking some time away from constant running, I’ve realized just how much a gift being able to run really is. I know it sounds cheesy, but to anyone reading this who has the time and ability to run, hike, bike, or do any other form of serious exercise every day, appreciate it. Seriously. Exercising is an integral part of a healthy life, but to a certain extent it also is very much a privilege. And for anyone reading this who does not exercise regularly, just remember – it’s never too late to start! It really is amazing what a difference getting outside every day can make.

Evening run at Perlan in the sun!

Evening run at Perlan in the sun

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Glaciers + Icebergs

This week I had the opportunity to take a tour to Jokulsarlon, the famous glacier lagoon on the South Coast of the Vatnajokull, Iceland’s largest glacier and the largest ice cap outside of the poles. Jokulsarlon features prominently in many images of Iceland as it is one of most accessible places to see large icebergs in the world. It has also grown in popularity due to the filming of several movies there, namely Batman Begins and a few James Bond movies. It is a very long day tour (around 14 hours) including 9 hours of driving all the way from Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon. However, it is absolutely, incredibly worth the long trip.

Myrdalsjokull

Myrdalsjokull

The drive to Jokulsarlon winds along the edge of the southern highlands, passing numerous gorgeous waterfalls, volcanoes and lava fields before reaching the edge of the Vatnajokull and its numerous outlet glaciers. Though I have driven along the South Coast before, this was my first time going all the way to Vatnajokull. I was seriously awestruck as we drove along huge tongues of ice and jagged mountains, giant glacier capped volcanoes and mountain glaciers hanging off impossibly steep slopes.

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Like all glaciers in Iceland, Vatnajokull sits on top of volcanoes and mountains like a cap, with the highest points ice-covered. Sub-glacial eruptions are thus very common here, and they can be devastating to the surrounding landscape. Miles upon miles of gray sand reaching all the way from the glacier to the sea surround the southern edge of the Vatnajokull, and the somewhat regular jokulhlaups (glacier outburst floods) prevent any vegetation from growing. The contrast between the white glaciers and gray sandar is quite dramatic and it is truly an extremely inhospitable landscape. These were real serious glaciers, fingers of heavily crevassed white and blue ice intersecting with the broad outlet glaciers. After passing countless glaciers and huge braided glacier rivers, we eventually reached Breidamerkurjokull and drove along the edge of a large moraine.

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All of the sudden, the moraine opened up and we were treated to a simply unbelievably view of Jokulsarlon – the glacier lagoon. Hundreds and hundreds of icebergs floated in the large lake at the edge of Breidamerkurjokull, eventually making their way out to sea through the short but fast river connecting the lake and the ocean. Even in the clouds it was just spectacular.

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Jokulsarlon was formed when Breidamerkurjokull began to rapidly retreat around the end of the 19th century. As it retreated, it began to calve icebergs into the river at its terminus, and eventually this grew into a glacial lake surrounded by its large terminal moraine. The glacier is still retreating today, meaning the lagoon is continuously growing as the glacier edge moves further from the ocean.

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Unable to resist the chance to get close to icebergs, I took a 40 minute boat ride in the lagoon itself. The views of the icebergs were mesmerizing, with their diverse shapes and stripes of dirt demonstrating the sheer power of glacial processes. Though huge icebergs are common in Greenland and Antarctica, the sheer number of icebergs in Jokulsarlon is fairly unique outside the poles, and even though I’ve now traveled to a lot of glaciers, these were the most impressive icebergs I had ever seen.

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As the lagoon is connected to the ocean, many of the icebergs eventually make their way down the river to the black sand beach. The powerful waves often push the icebergs back to shore, creating an incredible landscape of black sand and white icebergs along the shoreline. The movie Chasing Ice (a documentary about glacier photography, science and climate change) prominently features some gorgeous footage of these icebergs on the beach. As an aspiring glaciologist, I’ve seen that movie several times and it had a significant impact on me, so being able to actually go to that famous beach was perhaps extra special for me.

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After a few hours at Jokulsarlon, we made the long 4.5 hour trip back to Reykjavik, passing those same beautiful glaciers and waterfalls on the way back. As we drove by glacier after glacier, I started thinking a lot about why I get so excited when I’m around glaciers. I’m currently planning on applying to graduate school to study glaciers in the fall, and I think it is very important for me to be able to express exactly why I am so interested in glaciers as I start those applications. So I’ll be thinking a lot about my interest and love for glaciers as I visit several more Icelandic glaciers over the next few weeks! I am so lucky to be here.

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