The day I climbed Iceland’s deadliest volcano

I’ve climbed a few mountains in my time. Small ones, easy ones, sometimes only halfway up and always slowly. Sir Edmund Hillary I am not. Climbing Laki was entirely unlike any mountain I’ve ever climbed before.

Laki is a volcano. That’s not what makes it unusual. Actually, it’s not “a volcano” in the traditional sense. Technically Laki is a 25km fissure which poured forth thin lava and noxious gases in 1783. It did very little physical damage, as it happened in an uninhabited part of the Interior but the gases killed crops and livestock, which contributed to the decimation of the Icelandic population of the time. And when I say decimated, I mean that the Danish government, which owned Iceland at the time, considered evacuating the survivors to a village in Denmark. The surviving population of an entire country would have fitted in a village.

Two hundred and thirty-odd years later, the volcano is still and quiet and cold. The fissure formed multiple small craters and a larger central volcano, which for the purposes of our trip into the Interior, was referred to as Laki. It’s 818m and it took hours to drive out there across the lava field. Laki’s legacy was the third biggest lava field in human history, which does not make for easy driving, even in a 4×4 coach.

Lakahraun - Laki lava field

We parked in a dusty dish at the at the bottom of the central volcano. The bus would remain there for one hour and we had the option of either climbing the volcano or eating our lunch at the benches at the bottom. While it was pleasant to look at the volcano, there really was no question. I was going to climb the mountain but I was going to be doing it on a time limit and wearing sandals.

The bus parked at the bottom of Laki

Climbing Laki in sandals

I’ve never done anything so difficult in my life – except possible ice-climbing. My calves burned and I watched small children and old ladies overtaking me and all I could think was that the bus was going to leave without me. It’s not even a particularly big mountain but every time I thought I’d reached the top, it was just another fold and the mountain carried on above me. I slowed to a crawl. I slowed to the point where I had to take a break before I walked to the next post on the rope fence marking the path. I slowed to the point where I had to summon my invisible mentor to come and help me up the mountain.

Climbing Laki

Climbing Laki

Climbing Laki

And I have never been so proud of anything as I was of reaching the real summit. To stand there, in Iceland, under the summer sun, sweating buckets in a t-shirt and sandals. I grabbed a stranger, who didn’t speak English and didn’t seem to really comprehend what I wanted, and got him to take a photo of me on top of the mountain, so hot and so tired and so proud.

Standing on top of Laki

You know what? From the top of Laki, you can see for miles. You can see all the little craters formed along the absolutely straight fissure, in both directions. All you can see is lava field, right up until it hits the big glacier in the distance.  And down at the bottom, the bus parked in a dustbowl.

The view from Laki

The view from Laki

The way down is much easier. It’s just a track going straight down the mountainside. It feels like a semi-natural ladder. I grant it’s probably steeper than the path up but it’s so much quicker. I was down in well under ten minutes. It didn’t leave time to eat my lunch there and then but it left time to scurry round reading all the info boards.

The path down Laki

I have that summit photo printed out in poster form in my room. I printed it to show my invisible mentor, who mistook it for me giving it to him, because it never occurred to me at the time that you can put photos on your phone to show them to people in the twenty-first century. Climbing Esja a year later felt like more of an event but Laki definitely felt like the greatest achievement.