Tourist route to the top of Þverfellshorn then across plataeu to the true summit of Esja (914 m, 2999 feet), and then down to the north trending ridge to reach the lake Kjos and the summer house.
Doing this route requires two cars, or somebody willing to pick you up at the end.
Videos (may contain some swearing and general messing around - turn the sound down if you are easily offended):
Before setting out. Dark cold alpine start, and some swearing.
First light. Below the snow line.
Just about the snowline on the way up Esja.
After getting the crampons on, just below the cloud base.
Crampon failure. Strap broke requiring a quick bit of improvisation.
Approaching the snow gully. Rubbish camera work!
Crossing the snow gully. Filmed by John and Tim after they had already crossed.
On the minor summit of Þverfellshorn . Mostly flat from here to the true summit.
Near the summit of Esja.
Descending the ridge. Just after a minor navigation issue...
Coming off the ridge. Visibility improving. Still a steep bit to come.
View from the hut the next day
Our goal was to reach Tim's family summer hut at Kjós, via a walk over the prominent mountain range of Esja. First we drove out of Reykjavik to the summer hut where somebody else met us and gave us a lift to the start. It was still very dark at 09:00 when we started to ready our kit at the car park for the tourist route at Lágafell.
By 09:30 it was still dark as we set off up the well marked tourist track up Esja. It was just above freezing, but the steep climb some had us panting and sweating as we laboured up the wide track. As we got higher, we could see the lights of Reykjavik spread out below us. Sunrise and sunsets are gradual affairs in this near arctic location, so the light slowly improved as we slogged up. By the snow line the gradient eased off, and we were able to enjoy the view, as we walked across the boulder field towards the base of the cliffs. We took the well sign posted track across the side of the mountain below the fearsome looking rocky cliffs that guarded the summit plateau. The fresh snow, combined with patchy frozen snow made the path pretty slippery, so we decided to kit up for snow and ice at the prominent stone called the 'steinn'. Here is the point where inexperienced walkers will generally stop and return, as beyond this the path becomes much harder.
After getting crampons on, and adding a few more layers that had been removed for the steep climb we started up the steep nose of the hill. The path was heavily iced, as we all the rocks so the crampons were essential. After climbing steeply we hit the base of a rocky section, where the tourist track carries on up over rocks with the odd bit of chain to help secure difficult bits. We decided, given the poor visibility and iceing, to abandon this approach and instead sweep left to find easier ground. The traverse across was pretty difficult as there was lot of snow, ice and no sign of any path. The growing feeling of exposure to a huge drop on the left made this even more scary.
We reached a snow gully that blocked progress. Although we were well equiped with poles, crampons, and ice axes, we decided to cross the snow gully rather than climb it as we lacked ropes and harnesses. Tim went over first, kicking steps and encouraged John across. I hung back and photographed them crossing. The wind and the sound of spindrift (small ice crystals) cascading down the gully, although with the obvious but unseem exposure made this a scary crossing. I decided I would have a go with the ice axe, and crossed the gully diagonally, as I longed to play with the axe. Once we had crossed, a short but steep rocky climb took us over the lip and onto the Esja plateau.
Using the GPS and waypoint we'd prepared previously, we headed to the trig point at the top of the Esja tourist route. Conditions were horrible. 5-10 m visibility, strong winds and lots of snow and rocky ankle breaking ground. Just as we paused to eat chocolate, a figure appreared from below. He was the first person we had seen since the road, and had just come up the tourist route that we had previously rejected as being too hairy. He was dressed in jeans, a light jacket, no crampons, and a chelsea hat. We spoke to him and he told use he climbs the tourist route 100s of times a year, which lessened the blow to our pride. Just because somebody who knows the way well decides they are safe in the level of kit they have, it doesn't mean we didn't need our kit.
After he turned down the track we turned the other way and begain our snow plod to the summit. Visibility was poor, the wind was strong, and we were utterly dependant on the GPS. The snow was at times just a light layer between volcanic rocks, and sometimes quite deep. Predicably progress was slow at times. At this time we all remembered that proper mountain gortex jackets feature a decent hood, and used the hood in combination with hats to try and keep the cold off our heads, as the wind was really bitter with nothing to shelter us. After an hour and half of steady but slow progress we reached the summit cairn, the first man made thing we had seen since the trig point at the top of the tourist route. Most of the time the visibility was very poor, but for just one moment the cloud lifted and we could see a brief flash of blue sky, and sunlight, before the clouds rolled back in. Tim said that the cloud was probably low cloud sliding over the summit, so the cloud itself was thin, and broken in places, so from the ground the peak would only show a cap of cloud.
Lunch was a hasty break where we shovelled sandwiches, lifrar pyslar (a sort of liver sausage) and yet more chocolate into our mouths, before the cold got to us. We were starting to get covered in rime ice, with our kit, poles and everything becoming covered in a heavy layer of ice. At this point we swapped normal gloves for full on mountain mits to keep the cold at bay, as we were all starting to feel the cold. Even with highly technical kit, like good mountain jackets, fleece salopettes, mountain boots etc, the cold gradually seeps into you. Tim said he was aware that your life is ticking away in these conditions, and you have to move precisely and quickly to get off the summit in time, as survival in these conditions is hard. We made for a waypoint set on a small saddle between the main Esja peak and a secondary summit. As the area featured huge cliffs, and visibility was even worse we resorted to following the GPS, rather than any features on the ground. We reached the saddle after wading through much thicker snow, and began our next leg to the minor summit. In good visibility you can save a small climb and contour around, but we opted for the longer and harder but more reliable summit waypoint. At the minor summit we really did look like we were from a polar expedition.
After the minor summit our next waypoint was on a neck of flatter ground on a north trending ridge line. The neck of land was surrounded by cliffs on the west, and steep ground on the east, so good navigation was vital. Due to the way point being slightly misplaced, a lack of visibility and our tiredness we started to drift to the east of the highest point of the ridge. By the time we worked this out, we were below the ridge on an obvious easterly slope. We had noticed in time, but still had to climb up very hard ground to regain the high ground. Without a GPS such mistakes are almost unavoidable. Even with a GPS, it's possible to drift from where you want to be. Thankfully Tim's GPS had much better batteries for cold weather (Sanyo Eneloop) than mine, as my GPS failed due to the cold as we started to descend. It just goes to show that spare batteries and two GPS units are pretty essential in harsh conditions. If our only GPS had failed, we'd have been in a lot of trouble at this point.
The neck was flat at first and we were able to walk towards the edge to examine the scarily overhanging cornices, before we started to descend. Visibility started to improve as we decended, and just as the snow started to become patchy and the feel of the snow hinted we were around the freezing level, the cloud lifted and we had glimpses of the lake below. Carrying on down the ridge, we started to feel really tired, but slightly elated at our goal being in sight. The light was starting to fade, but true darkness was some time away yet. Tim kept reminding us about the sobering statistic that 85% of accidents happen in descent.
As we descended we could see the lake before us, and the montains beyond and even breifly the next range with the
Rather than do the extra distance and walk out to the end of the ridge, we decided to drop east off the ridge down a stream towards the top farm. The stream proved easy to follow and it seemed we had just a little more steep but easy enough ground to reach the farm. However, Esja still had a one more trick to play. We came to the top of a small but impassible cliff down which the stream fell in a waterfall. Fortunatly Tim had been this way before, and knew that a gap in the rock bands lay slightly to the right. Once past a steep but doable bit we were back, bounding through the gathering gloom to the farm. One our right lay impressive waterfalls, as the stream we had seem before joined others in a series of cascades. Once we hit the farm track, we made fast progress along the gravel road to the summer house by the lake.
The hut was an old boathouse, and was very basic, lacking heating, light and running water. However, we soon had the food we had brough with us cooking, and spent the evening recounting our trip over food, and copious amounts of 12 year old malt whisky. Despite the cramped and chilly nature of the hut, sleep came very easily despite the hut becoming filled with snoring and the smell of damp outdoor kit. The temperature was just above freezing at nightfall, but dropped during the night as the cloud cleared. In the morning half light (dawn is at 10:00 AM!) the lake and mountains were stunning, but the air was very very cold. Even inside the hut it was cold. Down jackets and boots came in very handy when lounging around. A shame the northern lights didn't oblige with a light show, but you can't have everything.
The next day we packed and headed back into Reykjavik for a soak in one of the cities many excellent public pools, followed by several pylsa at Baejarins Beztu, the town's most famous hotdog stand. As we ate the lovely but sleazy food we could see Esja standing over the town in brilliant sun shine.