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Encounters with trolls and revelations through the mist

A foggy hike to Vörðuskeggi

The following text consists of some descriptions and observations from a hiking route through the Hengill mountains, an area east of Reykjavík between Hellisheiði and Þingvallavatn. It's not as detailed as some previous posts but includes maps and pictures and (I hope) still gives some insight into the route. Maps and GPS information can be found at the bottom of the page.

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The Hengill mountains. Vörðuskeggi lies on the northernmost edge while Innstidalur is in the south-west quarter. Map after Landmælingar Íslands. Kortaflokkur: NGA C763; Kortanúmer: 1613-2; Safnanúmer: 146.12.1

Being the highest mountain in Hengilssvæðið (the Hengill area) and only half an hour from Reykjavík, I've been up Vörðuskeggi numerous times, and in a mixture of conditions. Previously, I've added it onto a two-day hike from Hveragerði via the popular geothermal river Reykjadalsá, or as a slight detour on a circular route from Nesjavellir Power Station via Dyradalur, the valley on the northern edge of the mountain range through which the Nesjavallavegur road (rt. 435) runs .

On this occasion, we took the route from Sleggjubeinsdalur (Hellisheiði) in a 14km loop coming back via Innstidalur. Despite a good forecast, the cloud was low and as we were mostly above 400m, we were in the cloud! Though this meant limited views (which are normally excellent), it made us focus on other elements of the area, such as the geology and vegetation we were in close proximity to. Through a drastically reduced "macro" perspective, the trip was by necessity one of micro-perspectives, ensuring a much narrower lens and therefore a more detailed appreciation of our immediate surroundings. This also meant the potential for spooky encounters, as rock formations loomed through the mist and seemed to come alive in the mirk. 

Though it's tempting to only venture out in perfect conditions, these rarely occur consistently in Iceland and days are more frequently "mixed", with moments of sunshine and clarity punctuated by squalls of hail or rain or snow. Though some conditions may more generally be preferable, different weather conditions can mean dramatically different experiences, and fog, in this instance made for a truly atmospheric trip, which we would not have experienced had we turned back.[1]

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En route to Vörðuskeggi: towers of rock and steep slopes to the valley below.

The beginning of the route starts up a ridge with the name Sleggja or "sledge-hammer" and for us, the air was all moisture, being gently blown against our legs as we went. Moss and mud squelched underfoot as the ridge narrowed and stone trolls appeared in front. The path snakes around these rock towers, before scrambling up a slope and through a deep ravine, often snow-filled late into the year. The trail is occasionally exposed, though this adds to the route's exhilaration and doesn't add greatly to the risk.

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Though the air temperature had been much colder the weekend previously, the dampness in the air and a faint breeze made it feel much colder and even when ascending, I was in thick winter gloves and hats, three layers on my legs, and insulation on my top half. Even with a good forecast, walking in October can often be a chilly experience.

Eventually, you climb up out of the deep gully and onto a sheltered level area beneath Vörðuskeggi's summit, which lies on a sandhill-like mound of volcanic sand and gravel, the path gently spiralling round to the top. A satisfying conical-shaped summit doesn't mean much if you can't see anything so we touched the cairn, glancing at the twisted shapes of exposed rock that dot the summit and then plodded down and began the descent to Innstidalur.

To get from the sheltered level area beneath Vörðuskeggi to the path below involves a brief scramble over a rocky escarpment, pitted and pockmarked into uneven lines of rocks, providing a moment of transition from the desolate area on the mountain top to more vegetated and sheltered slopes, the path cutting through fields of moss and grass.

Groups of socialising ptarmigan flitted and hopped over the path, flashing white against the grey sky. Though I always think of them as daft birds, spooking easily and uttering a ridiculous belching noise when flying, their snow-white winter moult is startlingly in appearance, though even better is their Autumn plumage, speckled in mid-moult with alternating flecks of brown and white like a patchwork jigsaw puzzle.

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A reassuring cairn looming out of the mist at our visibility's edge, before the path plunges down a slope towards the valley.

The visibility didn't improve as we neared the geothermal area above Innstidalur, and as we got closer, ominous screeching cries echoed through the fog, as if either dinosaurs or heavy machinery were just out of sight. Walking in a cloud for the whole day gives any small revelation a feeling of momentousness or wonder and as we walked down the ridge to the valley, the mist swirled and dissipated in front of us to reveal a series of gills, their becks glistening in shafts of sun and their slopes green beneath the cloud.

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The view looking down into Innstidalur opening up beneath the fog.

What was making the noise became clear as a colourful sulphurous valley opened up to our left with several steaming vents and one noisy fumarole. The colours changed from green moss above to baked yellow and orange with patches of grey-blue brimstone.

We found a nice grassy spot in the sheltered valley to grab a bite to eat, enjoying the meandering beck cascading down a series of waterfalls after twisting and turning across the flat open valley. The final section is a stroll across level grassy plains before descending back down the mossy slope to the carpark at Sleggjubeinsdalur and Hellisheiði power station.

A short slow-mo video of the waterfalls in Innstidalur. Watch on fullscreen and in 480p for best viewing.

[1] Note: if the weather is truly adverse and you're unsure or ill-equiped, you definitely should turn back!

A note on the names:

Vörðuskeggi. Vörðu is the genitive singular of varða meaning "cairn", which is, in turn, the Gaelic-derived English word for a man-made pile of stones. Skeggi is a man's name, derived from skegg which means "beard". I thus like to imagine Vörðuskeggi as "cairn-beard". But it is more likely that the name here refers in some sense to something which protrudes. The nouns skegg and skeggi are cognates with English "shag" and "shaggy", though the extension of this meaning to beard seems to be unique to the Scandinavian languages. In theory, these words are derived from or connected to the verb að skaga, to project or protrude, which has obvious topographical implications and is connected to skagi, a noun meaning peninsula. Skeggi could then quite logically refer to a landscape feature that protrudes, such as, in Vörðuskeggi's case, a cone-shaped summit, a cairn, or some distinct looking rock formations that seem to emerge out of the sand on one side of the summit. 

Interestingly, the Old Norse cognate with English "beard", barð, can also be used in a topographical sense referring to the edge or brim of a hill, and is used frequently in place names. But barð can also refer to the beak or prow of a ship and skegg seems once at least to have also been used to refer to a related component on a ship's prow. So, when dwelling on the potential topographic meaning of terms that seem at first glance to refer to something obscure or confusing, such as a beard or something shaggy, it seems wise to take note of the wide range of related words in order to shed some light on the meaning of the name. 

For those who enjoy spending time in upland areas, or places with a history of human movement, cairns are an exciting landscape feature to explore and think about. Across the globe they have been used for a variety of purposes, in places as distant from each other as Greenland and South Korea. An age-old route marker, there is little more reassuring to see looming out of the mist than the next cairn, confirming that someone has indeed been here before. Cairns are one of the most enduring reminders of human-landscape interaction, a basic and yet near-universal phenomenon, reminding us that though a landscape may seem unpeopled, human traces are everywhere, if we choose to acknowledge them. Varða features frequently in place names in Iceland and often refers to upland locations or routes, such as Fimmvörðuháls, the pass between Skógar and Þórsmörk in the south. Varða is connected to several other Icelandic words, such as vörður, which means watchman or guard. Note this is masculine singular not feminine plural. The meaning of the word vörður reminds us that cairns are frequently located in prominent positions on the tops of hills or cliffs and thus serving as lookout posts. Does the general Icelandic word for cairn, varða, derive from their frequent position in these locations? It is tempting to attribute a sense of lookout post to the place name of Ward Hill on the isle of Hoy in the Orkney archipelago, though the name could of course also be explained by the several large cairns on its summit.

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Less-than-perfect photo of the cairn on top of Vörðuskeggi from August 2019.

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Also from the summit in 2019: the beginning of strange protruding rock formations on the left. Þingvallavatn in the distance to the right.

Hengill. The name itself is of unknown meaning, though hengilberg refers to a steep or vertical cliff. This topographical term is possibly connected to or derived from the verb að hanga or "to hang". Interestingly, the valleys that cut through the middle of the Hengill mountainous area, flowing east from Innstidalur and logically incorporating Miðdalur and Fremstidalur, are known collectively not as Hengilsdalir but as Hengladalir with "hengla" being the genitive plural of Hengill, whatever it might mean.

Normally with fantastic views over the whole region, even when cloaked in cloud and clag, the Hengill area rewards the patient visitor. The area is geothermally active, full of bubbling mudpots, steaming vents and whining fumaroles. The geology is interesting and varied, though largely characterised by altered palagonite, i.e. palagonite tuff (móberg in Icelandic). The route will be no problem for people with mountain experience, though there is occasionally a steep drop to one side and visibility can be poor. Route finding (in summer) is no issue as the path is extremely well marked by the energy company that runs the two power plants in the area and more information (including a map of marked trails) can be found here.

You can download the GPX file of our route here or check it out on komoot. An additional map (pictured at the beginning of the page) can be found in LMÍ's kortasafn (search for Hengill and set the "ÚTGÁFUÁR FRÁ" to 2000). It's the 2004 1:50000 map in the "NGA C763" kortaflokkur. Note: the search tools aren't the most intuitive and it searches without you pressing enter/return; if you press enter, it zeroes the search!

Additional notes on the route (in no particular order):

  • As with any mountain trail in Iceland, be prepared for changeable and often awful weather conditions and be prepared to turn back. In summer there will likely (!) be no snow on the route though it can come early (in September) and linger late (into May). In winter, crampons and ice axes are necessary and it becomes a long day, though there is no serious mountaineering. 
  • The route to Vörðuskeggi is along a high level ridge, though the final section of the day is through a lushly vegetated valley (Innstidalur), wide and grass-filled, with a picturesque stream flowing through it. 
  • On a good day, the views west to Reykjavík, the Faxaflói, the Esja mountain range, and across Hellisheiði to the Bláfjöll mountains are good, as well as the views to Þingvellir and Þingvallvatn. If it is very clear, it's possible to see the Hvítá river reaching the sea at Selfoss as well as the Vestmannaeyjar islands on the horizon.
  • To get to the beginning of the hike, you have to drive through the Hellisheiði power plant to the end of the road where there is a carpark and map.
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August 2019. What the weather can be like. The mouth of the Hvítá river in the distance; the path flowing towards Innstidalur on the right; the beginning of the less-vegetated geothermal area visible on the mid-left of the picture.

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Copyright © Jack Threlfall Hartley 2020