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Hiking up to stick my hand in some lava - Fimmvörðuháls/Eyjafjallajökull

Pictures are at the bottom...


LAVA. On Saturday the 20th of March, a cute little volcano near Eyjafjallajökull began erupting. (The new mountain forming is as yet unnamed) For the first few days it was scientists only, and the area was mostly closed, but it quickly became apparent that it was basically going to be a nice little tourist eruption. By day 3 the snowmobilers had gotten up there, with some stunning photos, and by day 4 or 5, the organised tour operators were offering trips, by helicopter, by jeep, by snowmobile, by light airplane, and by day 6, even on foot.

I was still at work, but I'd been waiting five years to see some eruption fun in Iceland, so with Saturday coming, I planned a trip up to have a nice look myself.

Me and half of iceland of course. The volcano erupted right on the walking track between Þórsmörk and Skógar, an area called Fimmvörðuháls (Five Cairn Pass) so although it was still only march, and it's normally only a summer route, it was definitely within the realms of sanity(?) to hike right up to the lava. Only 15km each way. Only about 1000m vertical. Only about -10C up top.

Iveta, Julia, Vaidas and I took off from Reykjavik just on 6am, and started up the track just before 9. The carpark at Skógar was crowded, and you could already see a steady stream of people up the track in front of us. The weather was basically as good as we could possible get. Cold, and windy, and more so up to Baldvinsskáli, but crystal blue skies, perfect visibility.

Baldvinsskáli was conveniently open, making a nice, if crowded, lunch spot, then onwards to the top of the pass, where we got our first view of the lava fountains. Walking up the last slope everyone coming the other way had giant grins plastered on their faces, and when we reached the top, well, so did we :) Fountains of glowing red lava 1-200m high are COOL. REALLY COOL!

It was obvious from pictures in the news over the week that things were rapidly changing. The previously mostly white snow now had a nice blanket of ash on it, broken only by the tracks of snowmobiles and jeeps. Of course, ash on the snow wasn't going to stop us. So closer we went.

Totally surreal to come over the ridge and see just how many people were there. Jeeps, snowmobiles, the helicopters that had been flying overhead the whole day, and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people on foot. And giant fountains of LAVA. Did I mention that? Vaidas summed it up really well, some things are much more interesting and dramatic in a good documentary video. Sometimes, no video or picture compares to being there. And volcanic eruptions fall squarely into the latter. Grinning ear to ear, this was truly a fantasic spectacle. So we went a bit closer.

There was a nice platform with about 50 people on it that looked like a good lookout, so we went there and took some pictures. (We being Vaidas and I, Iveta and Julia had had the fear of god put into them the night before about poisonous gases and dieing slowly. A friend of there's was really just jealous that he couldn't go.)

This wasn't really a great place to stand. Exciting yes, but it had rather a lot of rain. And not good rain. Pointy sharp rain. There was a reason the platform was black. Periodically a good shower of ash would land on it, and volcanic ash is sharp. And it doesn't wear down smooth. And it gets everywhere. I was glad I had my sunglasses on. Not really feeling close enoug yet, we headed down to the snow, to have a look at the fresh lava up close.

This is not running lava. There is running lava, but to go and see it, which I realllly wanted, would have been an extra 3-4km each way, on top of the 15 we already had. We simply weren't up for that today, and with changing conditions (There's now two streams of lava) we weren't even sure which way to head to see it. So, we were looking at the "old" (3-4 days) lava. From a distance, this looks like pretty ordinary Icelandic geological features. A lumpy ridge of differently coloured rock. Except for the heat shimmer. And the heat. And that rocks were constantly rolling down it, and falling apart, as the whole thing was slowly growing outwards. And that everytime some rocks gaveway, you could see the glowing red interior.

It was really quite pleasant here. We were out of the ashfall, the wind had almost stopped (or at least, we were sheltered from it) We were standing on (sandy/ashy) snow, and it was nice and warm (from the lava) under blue skies! Just needed a bbq stand, some sunscreen perhaps, and maybe some music.

I really should have thought about some long sticks and marshmallows or something to grill, but who really thinks of those things? To be honest, I wasn't even sure we'd get up there! Vaidas smokes though, and we managed to light a cigarette on some lava, holding it in the end of my tripod. A neat trick :) We met some young icelandic boys marking their territory, and had fun throwing snowballs on the lava. (They boil off _rather_ quickly)

I got myself a nice sample here, still warm, but then put it down to put my gloves back on, and then completely forgot about it. The wall of lava was constantly changing, just so much to look at. And the whole "I'm standing beside some LAVA!" excitement the whole time.

But all good things come to and end. With a long walk back down the hill yet, it was really time to be getting going. I'd LOVE to stay up there for dusk, the pictures of the lava at night look fantastic, but none of us really wanted to be coming down the icy snow in the dark. It was a long enough day as it was.

The stream of people on the way up was still going strong, though we met a lot less still on their up after we started down from Baldvinsskáli. Quite a few of the people we passed looked pretty tired though, and I think more than a few people had a long cold tired walk back down later that night.

Not us though, we got back to the car in good time, around 7:30, or about 10.5 hours car to car, including a good look around up top.

So, some track notes? We were lucky with the weather. The cold meant that the mud and deep snow of the days before were frozen over, but not so frozen to be just ice. We could see some deeep footprints in mud and snow, but we were mostly on perfect walking snow, or solidly frozen mud. The road from the hut down to the bridge was pretty icy in the afternoon, but no big deal if you had sticks. It's long, but never very steep, so with the right clothes and enough food, more a matter of stamina than anything else. Without fresh snowfall, the track is now VERY clear, from the thousands of hikers. I highly recommend some form of eye protection. Good for the wind, and especially good for combatting stray ash. Ash goes everywhere, and is prickly. I had my hood down a few times, and ended up with rather annoying bits of ash down my back. (I also woke up with ash on the pillow this morning, from my hair)

The deadly poisonous volcanic gases alluded to above are a real threat, but if you avoid depressions, and stay hgiher, and in the wind, it's not as much of a threat as, say, slipping on ice while tired on the way home. The lava flow is _really_ unstable. We saw more than a few people who had to jump out of the way of tumbling blocks of bright red rock.

One of the coolest things I've ever been able to see for myself. Up there with a total solar eclipse (even though it's completely different)

(My vote for a name for the new mountain is whatever the icelandic word for Jugular is, because it's bleeding from the neck! or alternatively, Blóðhálsafjall, bleeding neck mountain)

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