Packrafting in Iceland

In Trip Reports On Thursday, January 28, 2016

If I had to pick a favourite day in Iceland this cloudy hike up Skalli and packraft down the Jokulgilskvisl would be right up there!

I’ve been visiting the Highlands for the last 5 years, it a very special landscape to me – beautiful scenery, remoteness and fantastic hiking all in one place. This year I went with my girlfriend Emily, prior to a workshop at Langisjor, to have a mini adventure and try out some new Packrafts I had bought for a trip to Greenland in August.

We headed to Landmannalaugar  on the bus where we had planned to spend the best part of a week doing hikes around the area. The highlight was to be a perfect loop starting at Landmannalaugar, heading up to a nearby mountain, down the opposite side and then inflating our packrafts and padding down the river back to where we started.

The Jokulkvisl river (center) Skalli (top right) and Landmannalaugar campsite (bottom right)

The Jokulgilskvisl river (center) Skalli (top right) and Landmannalaugar campsite (bottom right) taken from a hill the evening before.

We started our hike fairly late in the morning. With grey skies overhead and the peaks in cloud we were in no rush to set off, particularly with such long daylight hours. As it began to brighten we left our tent and packed our packrafts into our rucksacks.

From the campsite you have to cross some small streams (that you can see in the image above) in order to get on the route to Skalli. We had some picking routes through the streams which endlessly split and rejoin. Crossing them, without taking of your shoes, is an excercise in imagination!

A bubbling fumerole on route. The smell of sulphur is now something I strongly associate with Iceland!

A bubbling fumerole on route. The smell of sulphur is something I strongly associate with Iceland!

The path over the ridge is pretty poorly marked and unlike the popular trails (which are in some cases heavily worn) it would be easy to lose your way in low cloud. Fortunately as we got higher so did the cloud but Skalli remained resolutely hidden.

The view from our lunch spot

The view from our lunch spot

I’m not one for climbing peaks without a view so Emily and I stopped for a while to have a drink and a snack. Half an hour later, as we started to get cold, the sun popped out and the top of Skalli revealed itself – time to go!

Hiking in some welcome sunshine. The snow was very late in melting

Hiking in some welcome sunshine with Skalli in the darkness.

The route to the top of Skalli was covered in old snow. This is by far the most snow I have seen in Iceland at this time of year, it was an entire month late according to those in the know. Whilst I’m pretty confident on snow slopes I could see, looking up that this was going to be a bit of a baptism of fire for Emily!

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On the snow slope after conquering her fear – to be fair it was actually a lot steeper than it looks

I tried to make the route across the snow as easy as possible by making deep steps. In reality it was fairly easy with secure footing, but given the steepness of the slope it still took some confidence for Emily, who had never hiked on a snow slope before.

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Looking back towards Landmannalaugar from Skalli

The summit view was well worth the effort. Although it lacked the plummeting nature of the peaks directly surrounding Landmannalaugar it revealed a completely different aspect to an increasingly familiar landscape. After a while on the top taking photos of eachother (I’ll spare you the cuteness) and cloud once enveloping the view, we continued on south towards Hattver.

I was eager to see down into the valley where we were headed because I had no idea what to expect. I tend to research hikes quite heavily before I do them so that I can try to determine the best peaks to climb, places to camp or detours to take. This was the first time in a long time that I would get to view something completely ‘green’.

I was 50m ahead of Emily before I knew it and finally reaching cloud level with a steep drop beneath me I let out yelp of excitement. There were two reasons to be excited: Firstly the view was sensational (see below!) and secondly our route clearly took us right down the spine of the most beautiful ridgeline I have ever seen.

Looking towards Hattver with the river we were about to packraft down in the distance

Looking towards Hattver with the river we were about to packraft down in the distance. Has a hike ever looked more inviting?

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Either side was a patchwork of jade orange and brown rhyolite

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A breif burst of sunlight part way down shows just how increadible this ridge is

We spent a long time walking down the ridge, as photo locations go it doesn’t get much better! Emily was, as usual, very patient!

Crossing a final snow patch on the way to the river.

Crossing a final snow patch on the way to the river.

Once down at valley level we had a short patch of snow to cross before we were at valley level and inflating our packrafts. I couldn’t wait to get on the water, once again the uncertainty of what lay around the corner added to the excitement.

The packrafts - inflated and ready. Our rucksacks are in the drybags lashed to the front

The packrafts – inflated and ready. Our rucksacks are in the drybags lashed to the front

 

Emily was first on the water

Emily was first on the water

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Due to their relatively wide bases packrafts are incredibly stable and easy to paddle on rivers like this

The packrafting was fantastic fun. Each bend in the river revealed new scenery and the water varied between slow and deep, fast and shallow and (the best of them all) fast and deep. Further down the river as it began to braid we found it increasingly difficult to pick suitable routes. Often we picked the wrong one, grounded ourselves on the river bed and had to get out and pull our boats into deeper water. As we approached Landmannalaugar we became separated and before I knew it Emily was so far on the opposite side of the river that I couldnt even see her!

Occasionally we passed easy rapids which hurried us along

 

A terrible attempt at an action shot. I was having so much fun photography took a back seat.

A terrible attempt at an action shot. I was having so much fun photography took a back seat.

Back at Landmannalaugar as the rain starts to fall

At the end of our trip as the rain starts to fall

Finally back at Landmannalaugar (and reunited) the rain started to fall and by the time we had the packrafts away it was sheeting it down. But if there is one glorious thing about finishing a hike at Landmannlaugar it’s the natural hot spring. We were in there a long time.

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12 Comments

  1. Amazing place. Looks great with the partial snow cover. Would love to visit again and get to the heart of it unlike our short 4×4 visit last year.

  2. Interesting story. I have not heard of anyone doing this before. Must be a first.

    • Hey Aron, thanks for the comment. Maybe? You’d certainly need a Packraft or similar, the water isn’t deep enough for a kayak!

  3. Great blog. Re-read it a few times, and great images as always. Heading back to Iceland for my 3rd time to do the 48 mile hike with a buddy. I think you’ve convinced me to give this a go. Looks like you had a blast. Thanks for the inspiration! – Robert

  4. jeremie mazet 31st January 2016

    Hi Alex, great report and beautiful shots, i’m also doing some hike/photo trips every years in Iceland. Two years ago, i slept just below Hattver and was thinking that the Jokulgil would be great to paddle one time… and you do it!

  5. Beautiful pictures! When was the pictures taken?

  6. I plan on heading to iceland next week with my packraft and this looked like a lot of fun. I am curious about the snow conditions at this time of year.

    The top of the blog says this was done in January but you said in your post there were long day light hours which doesn’t correlate. Was this done at another time of year?

    • Hi Alex, sorry for the delay in replying. The trip was in mid July and there was a lot of snow that year. Having been in iceland a month ago I think packrafting the river would now be almost impossible due to a lack of water.

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