Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Exploring "Fossagil": More Water Than Rock

Public transport mishaps and a claggy mess on the mountain

In connection with the last few posts on my "proper" blog, I went on another adventure with the aim of writing up the route, but it didn’t quite turn out as intended. Making use of Iceland’s public bus system, Strætó, I had a 25km circuit planned, from Laxness in Mosfellsdalur (east of Reykjavík, on the way to Þingvellir), up Móskarðshnjúkar (the two rhyolite peaks on the eastern side of Esja), and then along the Esja plateau before descending down Gunnlaugsskarð and to the busstop at the bottom of Esja. Clearly, this was an ambitious day with not only a lot of distance and elevation, but extremely tiring ground conditions (the plateau is mile after mile of treacherous boulder field). Moreover, I was wedded to the bus schedule, which meant I could only arrive in Mosfellsdalur by about 12.30 in the afternoon. The forecast was mixed, with rain in the morning but sun and little wind in the afternoon. I decided to go for it.

The morning didn’t look good; the rain was heavy and didn’t let up even a little bit. The bus into Mosfellsdalur is so seldom used that you have to order it in advance, and true to Strætó’s lousy record, my ordered ride never showed up. After several phone calls, a ride eventually materialised but when I arrived at the start of the hike, it was 1.15pm and still chucking it down, though thankfully with no wind.

Autumnal colours beneath Kistufell, late September 2020.

Trying to make the last bus from Esja at around 10.30pm was now pretty ambitious, and this, coupled with the weather, made me less than keen to try. After hiking 6km along a track into the shadow of the mountain, Esja’s flanks and summit were still cloaked in clag, and I was wet to the bone. My planned route clearly wasn’t to be, but it was still a chance to explore the southern and eastern slopes of Kistufell, the subject of a previous blog post. I wanted to explore the valley of Grafardalur between Kistufell and Hátindur as well as get a closer look at the numerous waterfalls that poured over Kistufell’s craggy southern cliffs.

Map covering Grafardalur, east of Kistufell and north of Leirvogsá. Map after Landmælingar Íslands. Kortaflokkur: NGA C763; Kortanúmer: 1613-3; Safnanúmer: 146.13.1

These cliffs proved bountiful subjects of inquiry (more on this later), and I stumbled upon a gem of a gill with a riotous beck at its centre, lined with waterfall after waterfall after tumbling waterfall, so many that the mountain was more falling water than stone or rock. In my head, I think about this place as “Fossagil” or Gill of Waterfalls. Note the one L in Icelandic and two in English. "Gill" is a borrowing from Old Norse and features in several dialects of English, including the topographical terms of Lakeland, where I grew up.

I will write more about the route in a separate post, but for now, enjoy a picture from towards the end of the day, when the clag was still rolling in bands but the rain had stopped. The cloud cleared in sporadic bursts to reveal a blue sky and warm evening light. I had to cross several rivers on the march back, but one in particular caught my eye. I was struck by this perspective on the mountain, with a lone tree eking out its living on an isolated rock at the edge of a beck, with no one to sing its praises.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Tendrils of awareness--of being in the world and walking on it

When I plan an expedition or hike I sometimes spend hours, weeks or even months planning and thinking about the routes. What will the conditions will be like? What do the place names reveal? Will there be any unsuspected treasures, cultural or natural or something in between?

When I return I write pages and pages about the trip, what I saw, discovered, felt, experienced. But I also write technical information, a precise record of the route taken, the conditions underfoot and any points of interest, topographical, geological, ecological or historical. I’m endlessly fascinated, too, by the weather (even when soaking wet after hours of horizontal rain, an Icelandic speciality drenched), a fascination that both British and Icelandic cultures seem to share. The clouds and skies here and endlessly variable and consistently beautiful. 

Wisps of cloud looking south in Friðland að Fjallabaki towards Áltavatn and Eyjafjallajökull. August 2020. 

Getting out and about like this is part of how I feel connected, and how I strive to maintain that connection, to the world around me. As I explore both by mind and foot, I feel my awareness seeping outwards, tendrils of knowledge and experience snaking their way through time and space and constantly enriching my experiences.

Sunlight sparkles on glass in glisten of cloud. Hrafntinnusker, August 2020.

I enjoy the wonderment of natural beauty or cultural interest equally as much as the technical elements of map-reading, navigation and all-round survival in places off the beaten track. It’s a nerdy appreciation for both statistics (distance travelled, elevation gained) as well as equipment and how to use it. For me, this is about combining the desire (the need?) to get out there and see with the limitations of the human body (and mind). If it’s blowing 60mph will I be able to gaze in one direction long enough to see the landscape I’ve come to experience; if I’ve hiked 20km through mist and snow and hail, will I have gained anything from the experience, other than being able to sleep like a log at the end of it, and really enjoying that burger? I fully believe that desk-bound knowledge is only one element of the things we have to learn and share; the rest of it comes from getting out there, being, feeling, talking, seeing. This is true for someone like me, who researches landscape and place names, but really for anyone who is interested in people and place, no matter what your specialism. Can you really be said to understand something until you’ve seen it in the flesh; can you understand a person until you’ve seen the place they live(d) in and walked their landscape with your own feet? 

Exploring the fjord just north of Qaqortoq in south Greenland, close to the Hvalsey church, one of the most striking and lasting remains from Norse Greenland. July 2019.

Despite all this, it took me a long time to put something together that I wouldn’t mind sharing. Surely all this research/thinking could be useful to others as well, right? Part of the final push was realising that I had nothing to lose, that if no one read or understood it, the world was no worse off than before; and if, by some miracle, it encouraged someone to head out their front door and explore somewhere new, then I would have achieved something. Also, like all creative people, producing material to share can feel like a huge pressure and the temptation is to make it perfect before letting even one person read it. This is of course a load of bollocks, nearly impossible to do, and even if you think you’ve achieved it, I guarantee you’ll read it again the next day and find something wrong with it. No. Experiences and knowledge are to be shared, and by sharing, we can keep some of the things we experienced; we can develop our thinking, our analytical skills and make it clearer in our minds what we know and what we think. 

So last month, I wrote up a small piece about hiking on of the lesser known routes on Esja, Reykjavík’s city mountain. This was an obvious choice, as I’d hiked the route countless times before and had a wealth of knowledge and stories to draw upon. Also, being back in Iceland, but only ever temporarily, I have to make do with public transport and Esja is one of the most accessible places from the city.  It's not perfect, but it's out there, I did it. You can read the post here, on my "proper" blog.

Exploring the Esja plateau. August 2019. 

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