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Kistufell and Gunnlaugsskarð

Berry-picking and sunny tramping: a camping trip close to home

· prose

The following text describes something of a route up the mountain of Kistufell, one of the subsidiary peaks on the large mountain of Esja, Reykjavík's city mountain. It includes descriptions of what we saw, with pictures and a few maps of the route. We frequently ascend Esja by the Gunnlaugsskarð route as it's an exhilarating climb and you get a sense of a completely different mountain. For anyone who is interested, maps of the area can be found in the LMÍ's kortasafn and you can download the GPX file of our route at the bottom of the page.

My beloved Hilleberg Nammatj tent in the shelter of Gunnlaugsskarð. In the picture, the pass is behind and slightly to the left of the tent. The route takes the shoulder of fell that is slightly greener and wider than the others.

The plan was to head up the steep path on Gunnlaugsskarð before exploring Esja’s summit plateau, an expansive area stretching its tentacles far out from the main body and shaping numerous valleys and corries, and creating a mountain-mosaic with many corners to investigate.

With heavy rucksacks, we traced our usual route up to the base of Gunnlaugsskarð, with the view to camping in a wee shrub-filled gill, facing the pass and the cliffs and waterfalls that enclose it. Though the air temperature was cold, by midday, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was a hot ascent. By 1, we had the tent pitched and were drinking beer and eating lunch. The Icelandic blueberries (bilberries) were too many to ignore so we put off our continued ascent and spent a happy hour grazing and collecting for the morning’s porridge.

The benefits of hiking late in summer are plentiful berries, if you know where to look. Even high on the slopes of Esja, above 500 metres there are sheltered banks of bilberries with hardy crowberries topping the mossed mounds where the blueberries won’t venture. Outside of the hollows, all is moss or alpine grass. The moss sinks deep, usually to a depth of at least a foot and provides a soft and sinking bed, too good to resist on a warm summer’s day.

The Icelandic blueberry (bláber) is not blueberry in English but bilberry, the same ones we get in the UK in fact. They are much smaller than other blueberries but their flavour is less sweet and more interesting. The end of the summer is ideal picking time and they really are delicious, though it's hard to pick some to take home as you eat as many if not more than you put in your bag! At least I do...

The berries at the top of the picture and the right on the leafy plants are bláber. In the middle to the left are a few krækiber plants, or crowberries. These are hardier even than the bilberry and will grow in more exposed and higher places, where the bilberry will not venture, instead preferring sheltered slopes that receive the most sun. The taste of the krækiber is nowhere near as sweet, slightly bitter but with a much crunchier texture—they pop in the mouth.

Gunnlaugsskarð is one of our most frequented routes. Accessible by Strætó (Iceland’s public bus system) and yet very seldom visited, compared with Esja’s other lines of ascent. Through most of summer, its gils and ravines remain filled with snow, but after several sunny weeks in August, this had all but disappeared. The only trace of Winter that remained was the collapsed body of a snow bank, strewn at the bottom of a gully, like the spine of some great beast, broken and fragmented. Instead, two waterfalls stream down the mountainside, bringing life and green to the otherwise dry and barren upper slopes.

September 2020. Only a broken-backed snow bank, collapsed in a gully.

Snow-filled gullies on Gunnlaugsskarð on 5th July 2020 for comparison. With one of the tributaries of the Kollafjarðará river in the foreground.

Also 5th July 2020.

After our long berrypicking sojourn, we ascended into the wide bowl of Gunnlaugsskarð via a steep and narrow ridge. The path zigzags before clinging to the ridge’s crest, climbing up to the route’s most striking landmark, an intrusion of sandy-brown-coloured palagonite tuff, or móberg in Icelandic. Its enormous size intimidates the pedestrian, who must come right up to its base. It gloops over the sides of the ridge like a scoop of icecream, and suddenly it's possible to picture its molten origins.

Gnarled and striped, its surface is all coarseness, though punctuated by numerous darker stones, lending it a haphazard appearance, as though cobbled together in a hurry. This mingling of components is called breccia—in this instance, small fragments of rock are cemented in a matrix of volcanic glass.

This large palagonite rock is topped with a neatly distinct ridge of pillow lava, stretching out along its length. Dark grey in colour, and stacked in neat and well-defined blocks or "pillows", the smooth surface contrasts with the light brown tuff on which it sits.

Palagonite tuff and pillow lava are both variants of basalt, formed when molten magma comes into contact with either water or ice. The creation of the different volcanic rock types depends largely on the cooling process. Palagonite began as molten magma coming into contact with water, causing the water to superheat and "flash" to steam, which causes the magma to shatter and explode. This is then called hyaloclastite. This hyaloclastite then becomes altered by the intrusion of water, turning into the brown palagonite we have here. Pillow lava forms in deep water or beneath a glacier, cooling very quickly and forming "pillows", which overlap and burst through each other as they cool. In this instance, the pillow lava has intruded into the pre-erupted and pre-altered palagonite tuff. This is not an unusual occurence in Iceland, which is defined by the remnants from different periods of volcanic activity layered on top and around each other.

Pillow lava dyke (intrusion) on top of rounded palagonite/móberg breccia. Photo from August 2019.

Though its size, shape and texture merit inspection, this huge wart must be skirted, and to do so involves descending to the right of the stone into a scree filled shoot. The rest of the ridge is on a treacherous surface of loose rock, only occasionally covered with grass or moss.

The top of the ascent is marked with a cairn, following which a large bowl opens out at an elevation of around 650m. This bowl is a small oasis of life, sitting just beneath the wind-scoured plateau of the Esja massif, where even moss finds it hard to find a foothold, and where large boulder fields are covered with snow for most of the year. In the Gunnlaugsskarð bowl, two streams begin, formed from groundwater and snow-melt and turning the brown fellside green. Moss abounds and the grass is surprisingly long, though berries are sparse, and small trees and birds completely absent. The long grass can be attributed to the bowl’s sheltered position and absence of sheep, which must have been put off by the steep ascent and greener pastures below.

The cairn at the top of Gunnlaugsskarð. July was warmer but not as sunny.

Nikola improving the view. July 2020.

Beneath the remaining snow banks on the flanks of the bowl, snowmelt has penetrated deep into the accumulated gravel and surface rock to create a strange shifting quagmire that looks stable, but to step on it is to reveal that this is an illusion. Approaching the bottom of the snowbank, my feet disappeared from underneath me as I tried repeatedly to stay above the sinking mud and earth, my frantic steps as if on an ever-descending escalator before I managed to hop onto a large boulder. When there is no vegetation to hold the earth together, water saturation can create treacherous conditions.

On Esja’s wide flat top, we began the trudge over boulder fields towards the top, planning to traverse the summit and explore the areas further east, such as the summit of Hátindur, with views into the valleys either side of its ridge, Grafardalur and Þverárdalur, and especially onto Móskarðshnjúkar. But we quickly became tired of this weary scrambling over boulders; it seemed to take hours to traverse just a few kilometres. So instead, we decided to make a tour of the wide summit of Kistufell, which spreads out from a narrow opening into a wide plateau, so that on the map, it resembles the tail of an enormous whale.

The whale's tail of Kistufell. Map after Landmælingar Íslands. Kortaflokkur: NGA C763; Kortanúmer: 1613-3; Safnanúmer: 146.13.1

The whale-tail plateau is a big area and tracing its extent proved to be an enjoyable exercise. At 800 metres, moss grows still, though shaped by wind and cold into strange circular patternings, intricate and webbed, like bacteria multiplying in a petri dish. The far corners of the tail are topped by substantial cairns, reminding that though the barren expanse may seem completely unpeopled, human traces still mark the landscape. Gazing out from the easternmost cairn, the lake of Þingvallavatn glistens in the sun, and in the distance beyond the Lake, the high peaks of Hekla and Tindfjallajökull glimmer on the horizon. The Tindfjöll are a group of mountains clumped around a glacier, the highest of which is called Ýmir, and the notorious volcano Hekla is also topped with a glacier. So, on a clear day, they catch the sun and shine like beacons across vast distances.

From this height, it’s also possible to see the numerous gullies and fissures carved by water on the Esja range, grooving all its flanks, so that the green vegetated slopes are always marked by lines and channels, either grey and brown or shining with a beck at the centre. Such views impress on the viewer the ever constant role of water in shaping the places we know. Water is the ever impatient sculptor, constantly shaping the environment in new ways as it flows from felltop to valley bottom.

Numerous water channels carved down the hillside. The view across Þverárkotsháls with the rivers that flow into the Leirvogsá, the Grafará and Þverá. Móskarðshnjúkar in view with Þingvallavatn in the distance and Leirvogsvatn to the far right.

Looking East to the light-coloured Rhyolite peaks of Móskarðshknjúkar and the largest freshwater lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn. Móskarðsknjúkar, like the rest of the southern side of the Esja range, are visible from Reykjavík and their light colour makes them appear as if perpetually bathed in sunlight. The name: "mó" presumably refers to the reddish colour of the pass (skarð) which adorns the peaks (hnjúkar). Mórauður is a kind of light/rust brown colour.

Multiplying bacteria-like moss on the top of Kistufell, patterned as if at the whim of aliens.

Kistufell means box/coffin mountain and tramping over this wide expanse, it’s possible to sense the feeling of walking along the top of a wide, flat box. Its name lends an air of grave impressiveness, looming over the lowlands below, a coffin on a towering plinth of crumbling rock.

Brief exploration of the names: It’s tempting to attribute the name of Kistufell to the wide shape of its top, resting like a huge chest on a pyramid of stone. Kista can mean chest or coffin and the word exists in numerous dialects of English as kist, most notably in Scots, but also in Lakeland dialects where it usually refers to a chest carved from oak. Such a chest may have been with the same family for generations and are usually inscribed with the original owners’ initials. But what are we to make of the small valley that carves Kistufell’s eastern flank, Grafardalur, translatable with an English cognate as Grave-Valley. “Grave” is in the singular genitive case; Grafardalur means Valley of (the) Grave. Of course, Grave-Valley could implicitly encompass more than one “grave”, and gröf can and does often refer to a hollow, as in a natural dip rather than a man-made grave. It is interesting to note that the river in the valley took the name from the valley rather than the opposite, which is more common. The next valley to the East is Þverárdalur, the dale of the Þverá river. The name Grafardalur does not refer to the river, however, which would be Grafarárdalur. Instead, the river takes the name of the valley, Grafará,[1] suggesting that the “grave” in question is located within the valley.

Walking along the tops southern edge, the views over the Hengill mountains as well as over Reykjavík and the Faxaflói are excellent. Moreover, the way in which the area is pieced together is more obvious from this vantage point. It’s possible to see exactly how Reykjavík blends into Mosfellsheiði, which eventually rises into the Hengill mountains, topped by (Vörðu)Skeggi and bordered by Nesjavellir power station. One can see how closely the several lakes that border Reykjavík’s eastern edge sit in relation to the city, and also the equally important roles of the mountains and sea on the Reykjanes peninsula, both imposing their influences on the shape of the land. The natural route from Mosfell to Þingvellir via Mosfellsheiði also becomes obvious. The way is sheltered between two mountain ranges and punctuated by several large lakes. It’s not so often that the landscape perspective opens up in such a way and it’s good to stop and investigate with the eye.

View towards Reykjavík and Reykjanes.

On the Westernmost tip of Kistufell’s coffin, there is another cairn and what looks like the beginning of an exciting mountaineer’s ridge. In reality, the rock is extremely bad, flaky and very loose, quickly deteriorating from passable to deathly. On the return to a wide cairn that marks a steep but manageable descent back to Gunnlaugskarð, we came across the remains of an old structure, half overgrown with moss. Roughly square (c3x3m), it had three walls with the open end pointing away from the direction of the prevailing wind, as would be expected. But it’s so far above sea level (over 800m) with no real reason as to why a structure would be here and not in the sheltered bowl, that it’s location is perplexing. Of course, it's a good vantage point, so could it be a temporary shelter for a lookout? It doesn’t seem the sort of place a shepherd would want to make a habit of sheltering; there’s really nothing for sheep to eat up here. It makes me think that someone got into trouble in bad weather and had to hurriedly build a shelter out of the wind. But this is also perplexing; you would have to be really unconfident of your location to make a go of sheltering in this exposed spot. But it happens up here—the terrain underfoot really all looks the same! The amount of moss built up around it suggests it's been here for some time.

Three walls protecting from the prevailing easterly winds.

The structure is facing due West. The Western slopes of Esja are to the right with the Faxaflói bay stretching out to the left.

Before descending, a group of playful ravens entertained us by tumbling about in the air, gliding on thermals and reminding us, when they were landed, how large and intimidating birds they are. They are the only creature that could possibly enjoy living up here. Indeed, their jubilant aerobatics seem to mock other would-be mountain-dwellers.

We took a detour on our descent to explore the waterfalls, newly freed of their snowy mantles, discovering that the northern side of the Gunnlaugsskarð ridge is all green grass and made much easier going than the usual scree. We returned to our tent about 6 in the evening, just in time to see the remains of the sun shining beneath the cloud over the Faxaflói, spotlighting small circles of silver light on the ocean surface. We made the most of the sun and picked some more berries before the forecast cloud rolled in and the sunny weather came to an end.

The next morning, the mountain couldn’t have seemed more different; the weather had changed abruptly in the evening and we’d been kept up most of the night by squally gusts of wind. We knew adverse weather was forecast though and decided to camp anyway; it makes for a varied adventure, I suppose! We packed down the tent as the rain started to drive in bands, and our thoughts of some more berry-picking quickly evaporated as we descended through the swirling downpour. We didn't miss the bus back to Reykjavík this time (!) and could spend the rest of the day drying off and drinking hot chocolate, remembering the sun and berry-filled day that preceded.

[1] While Icelandic place names have often changed relatively little since their inception, it is of course entirely plausible that this valley name once was Grafarárdalur, but it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Shortening it to Grafardalur therefore would be an entirely regular place name evolution.

Bright points of light floating on the surface of the sea.

Nikola descending towards our camp as the sun sets.

You can download the GPX file of our route here. Note: the route clearly shows the beginning of our trek towards Hábunga, the summit of the Esja range, before we decided to explore Kistufell instead! The waypoint marks the small 3-walled structure. The route is also on Komoot here.

Sources:

  • My good friend and geophysicist, Léa Lévy, currently a post-doctoral researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark. She opened my eyes to geological complexity. Even when I thought I understand and knew what to call it, I realised my knowledge will only ever be an approximation.
  • My little brother, Adam Hartley, who's just finished his undergraduate degree in Geology and Geography and who is just about to start a research Master's on the hydrology of peatland. He helped explain the processes underlying different types of volcanic eruption and helped me to understand why different types of rocks form in different places. 
  • The fantastic book and an excellent reference guide for Iceland's geology, Icelandic Rocks and Minerals by Kristján Sæmundsson and Einar Gunnlaugsson with photographs by Grétar Eiríksson, published Mál og Menning. It also helpfully includes the Icelandic names in the main text, which not all translated guides do. 

Copyright © Jack Threlfall Hartley 2020

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