Climb to Iceland’s highest peak
"In my grandfather's footsteps I summited and returned to basecamp in a single day, with the help of the midnight sun"
Written by Eydís María Ólafsdóttir. Photos by Benjamin Hardman.
As a young kid, I remember seeing photos of my grandfather with his friends on top of Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest peak in Iceland at 2110m. In an effort to become the highest summiteers out of all Icelanders, they took a big ladder with them to the top, fastening it with ropes into the ice and waving a big Icelandic flag in celebration of their achievement. Seeing these photos of my grandfather standing so proudly on top of the country, I began to dream of reaching the peak myself, to stand where he had stood so many years before. During the summit season this spring, I finally had the opportunity to attempt the climb myself and make my life long dream a reality.
With the midnight sun beginning to drift over the horizon, we set our alarms for 1am to begin the climb at ﬁrst light.
The snow conditions were looking excellent, so we decided to climb a less traveled alpine route to the summit via Virkisjökull and Hvannadalshryggur. It’s a little longer than the common way up via Sandfell, but as a photographer, this route puts you at the base of incredible ice formations and sweeping glacial views the whole way to the top.
Heading towards our start point at Falljökull, I definitely felt some nerves about the long day ahead. As I took the first steps over the glacier and felt the tranquility of nature all around me, the nerves were quick to disappear.
Our goal for the day was to get up and down again in 15 hours.
The next stage was a long traverse along the ridge of Hvannadalshryggur. After a few hours of hiking, we were met with an incredible view over Svínafellsjökull, with beautiful light shining through the clouds that had engulfed the high mountains the whole way so far. Approaching the first major peak on the route, Dyrhamar, the sky opened up and we finally saw the first view of the summit of Hvannadalshnjúkur, the whole experience was beginning to feel real.
From 1500m the snow was getting deeper and deeper, it was starting to take a lot of energy to push forward. Getting to the final plateau and the face of Dyrhamar required a 60-meter high ice climb. I remember just looking up and seeing the wind blowing snow across the face, it seemed like the weather was starting to turn. It was such a rewarding experience to finish the ice climb section, and we were now just an hour from the summit. We paused for a lunch break and once again admired the silence of this incredible glacial environment.
After Dyrhamar we were hit with a complete whiteout. There was no turning back from that point.
The final 100m to the summit was quite emotional for me. It had been 11 hours since we started climbing, and I had truly pushed my physical and mental limits to reach these final steps to the top. We’d been in a whiteout for the whole summit push, but right at the last moment the skies opened up for us as we reached the summit of Hvannadalshnjúkur – we were finally on top of Iceland. Standing on the top I had a vision of my grandfather standing right on this very spot at 2110m, and couldn´t help but shed some happy tears.
We faced some really challenging conditions on the way down. A complete whiteout and wet blowing snow for over 10 kilometers. When you’re in such an exhausted physical state, it becomes a real mental challenge to continue moving. I was frozen and pushing the limits of my body, but it was amazing to see how far my mind could push me, getting me safely down to sea level after 17 hours in the mountains.
There are many reasons why I’ve begun to pursue these mountaineering challenges. The magnificent views over my home and experiencing some truly unique environments all help me to live in the present. This is a new sport for me, so first and foremost I love that it enabled me to step out of my comfort zone and learn new things about myself.
No matter how hard it can be to overcome these challenges, I sometimes forget that the pain is temporary. Once I’m back down and completely exhausted, the one question that always comes to mind - what’s next?