The Volcano Adventures – Climbing Esja

Last year I celebrated my birthday by climbing a mountain.

Esja is actually a mountain range, apparently some 10 x 15km in area. In fact, really, she’s an extinct volcano. She’s across the bay from Reykjavik and a view of her pushes property prices up in the same way that views of Browsea Island do here. I go down to the seafront and talk to her every time I’m in Reykjavik. I’ve been known to call her my Icelandic wife.

Here she is in her winter clothes.

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And here she is in summer, crowned by fluffy clouds.

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Reykjavikurs love climbing Esja. Evidently on nice days in summer, she’s just swarming with hikers. But they’re clearly born knowing how to do it because finding information for outsiders is really difficult. Maybe there’s abundant instructions in Icelandic and it’s just the English that’s lacking.

There’s a cafe and parking spot called Mógilsá just past Mosfellsbær and the trail departs through the vegetation just to the left of the cafe. Then follow the trail until you reach the top, basically.

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At first it’s just an uphill path through a nice bit of greenery. Along the way you meet a few streams, which you can either step over or which have miniature bridges laid over them. There are steps cut into some bits. It’s a nice, family-friendly one-out-of-three-boots difficulty path.

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Then you reach point three. I didn’t take a photo of the sign, so have point two instead so I can explain what foolish thing I did.

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Well, at point three, the path splits. I assure you, the sign does not tell you this. Or maybe it does, if you can read Icelandic. I’d seen everyone else go up the path to the left so off I went to the left, following the directions but seeing everyone below me tending towards the path to the right, down that bridge and up the longer route.

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It turns out that what I’d done was take the direct route, just going straight up the mountain from three to five, completely skipping the gentle slope up via four. A little way past three, I got to a very steep, very loose part where I hardly dared move for fear of falling flat on my face and then falling down into the valley between the two paths. And I was wearing my good shoes, my Iceland shoes. These are my scrambling shoes, halfway between trail shoes and proper climbing shoes and very good for awkward terrain such as Iceland does so well. They have proper rubber grippy zones at toe and heel and even so, I couldn’t get a grip on some of the loose gravel. It was only coming back down that I realised as I struggled very steeply uphill, I’d failed to notice the true path which was no less steep but was much less gravelled.

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My camera has some kind of spirit level in so this photo truly does show how steep this section was. I don’t think it does justice to how slippy it was.

It got a bit better after that, or at least underfoot conditions did. It became no less steep but it moved onto slightly muddy path or slightly muddy grass or rock. It also became clear that this is the road less travelled because as I got closer to the top, it became less of a path and more of a vague route around which people are tried to stick.

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It’s at this point that I feel the need to point out that I’m not going to the highest point, or even to the summit. The highest point (914m / 2998ft) is some three km to the north-east, I think, probably along quite an exposed and loose ridge and evidently with no direction or path. The summit of this particular walk, Þverfellshorn (780m / 2559ft) is best reached only by people who know what they’re doing and aren’t afraid of falling to their deaths on the compressed ash ridge. The majority of normal people only go to Steinn (587m / 1925ft) which is a big rock on the plateau below. It took me two and a quarter hours to get to Steinn because I’m nowhere near as fit as I’d like to be and when I reached it, I took a photo of myself collapsed on it in delight at actually getting there. And I climbed every foot of that 1925ft because I started at sea level.

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 It was chilly up there. Yes, it was a beautiful day – thank you, Iceland, for making my birthday the best weather of the entire fortnight – but it was also very windy, even down at sea level. It seemed a shame to come straight back down again so I took a few photos of the view, right the way over Reykjavik and most of the way along Reykjanes, looked at the city with my binoculars and then decided I was cold and I still had a long walk back to the car.

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What I discovered on the way down is that descending a steep mountain is actually a bit difficult, especially when said mountain is covered in a fine layer of gravel. Getting a decent grip when you’ve got gravity pushing you on is impossible. I sort of tripped from embedded rock to embedded rock and kept finding loose rocks. Quite possibly no one has sworn so loudly or so angrily at the mountain when they’ve lost their footing six times in the last twenty yards.

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Then, do you remember that perfectly serviceable path over the very difficult bit that I mentioned? Well, I discovered that and discovered that it’s even looser than above and in fact, getting down it was certain to end in death. At one point I stopped absolutely still, too terrified to move, made a noise a little too much like a sob for comfort and pleaded with the sky to just get me off the mountain. I was picking my way down, millimetre by millimetre when a hiker came up the other way. I hope he didn’t hear me nearly crying; he certainly stopped to ask if I needed help and in terror and misery and desperate independence, I refused in a way that may have sounded a little ruder than it was really meant to and I added that I hate his mountain. And then I realised that I sounded rude and horrible and added “No offence…. but thank you for the offer” and continued to pick my way down, swearing and muttering under my breath and much relieved when I finally reached point three, where my evil route meets the main path. Wikipedia, in fact, has this to say on the subject:

At sign 3 experienced climbers can choose to climb directly to the top, instead of following the path which goes off to the right.

Yes, I inadvertently chose the path that is not just steep and difficult but also for “experienced climbers”. No wonder I struggled so much. If you run back up to look at the photo of sign two  you can see just how steep my path was as I cut directly from three to five, which is Steinn.

My other problem was my shoes. Trail/climbing shoes combo, beautiful. But if you’ve ever worn climbing shoes, you may see where this is heading. There’s no cushioning in them whatsoever. And they lace right down to the toes and crush my feet. They took months to break in and they’ve actually been fairly comfortable ever since I’ve been in Iceland. But climbing Esja was apparently a little too much for them. They were uncomfortable as I slithered over the loose gravel near the top and then they really started hurting as I got further down. By the time I reached the bottom, I was actually hobbling and hugely relieved that they’d at least saved the hideous pain until I was descending. Lesson learnt. Even though the shoes seem a good idea for the terrain, wear your hiking boots if you’re going to climb a mountain.

I finished off the day by going to the pool at Borgarnes because a post-mountain swim seemed like a great idea. It was. Icelandic public swimming pools always feature hot pots and Borgarnes has three, of varying temperatures. I also swam fifty lengths in the lane pool, which is 25m long, warm enough to be pleasant when it’s sunny but windy and has views of volcanoes ringing the entire horizon.