Fabien Maussion bio photo

From Skaftafell to Hverfisfljót, Day Four

Grænalón – Eldgígur

After sunset it got extremely windy. A sand storm is battering our tent and loosens a crucial herring on Fabien’s side. In a haste, we have to scramble outside to save our tent from being blown over and to check all other herrings. It’s around 3am and something that looks like white mist mystically lightens the sky. It flickers here and there and quickly changes shape - the play of Northern Lights that aren’t strong enough to show any colour. The wind is surprisingly mild and allows us to admire them a bit longer before we tighten all guylines and go back to sleep.

In the morning we’re in silent mental preparation for the river crossing. Conni doesn’t even bother with putting on socks or shoes but dismantles the tent wearing her neoprene socks and Crocs. Unsurprisingly, we’re also not very hungry so breakfast is quickly dealt with. The very few options we have to attempt to wade through the river are all a few steps away from our camp. On the river’s far side a dark wet line looms out of the water and indicates a drop in the water level during the night of slightly more than 5cm. Better than nothing, we think. Any tiny weakening of the current could make all the difference.

We quickly reiterate our river-crossing safety rules: open your rucksack straps, cross where the river is widest, don’t cross in a bend, turn around when the water level reaches up to your thighs - you have much less control when your knees are under water. Sounds sensible enough! Fabien starts a first attempt at the widest bit of river and stands knee high in the water after only four steps. He turns around with a questioning look on his face. Right, let’s drop the “no higher than knee”-rule.

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The river at the location we crossed it. The big stone in the foreground was giving shelter to Fabien when he reached for Conni's hand. The water level at that point was about 10 cm below her hip.

We give it a second try, this time together, but feel overwhelmed by the current after we’re not even halfway through. In spite of the neoprene socks, Conni’s feet have reached almost painfully low temperatures after further unfruitful waddling in the freezing water. What are the alternatives? There is one last potential crossing point to test, wider than the others but uncomfortably closer to the deep cascade just behind a bend. Conni needs to warm up her feet and is rather intimidated by now. It is therefore up to Fabien to brace himself for a sole pretest. He targets a friendly looking sandy spot on the other side of the river and sets off from where he can follow a diagonal against the current. Carefully Fabien makes his way forward and it really looks promising until he reaches the last quarter. All of a sudden his steps are slowing down as he desperately looks back, dangerously staggering for a moment. There is no point in trying to turn around now. Fighting the water masses with all his strength, he hauls himself to the other side. With a bewildered look on his face, he paces up and down the river bank, cursing loudly. And here we are, separated by a ghastly glacier river.

Okay, keep calm, Conni thinks, you can do it. You’re smaller, weaker and you weigh less than Fabi, but never mind. You can do it, Fabien agrees encouragingly from the other side, I’ll help you once you reach the last bit! Stomping around and wiggling her toes, Conni tries to produce some extra warmth for her feet before heading into the river. Huffing and puffing to keep her nerves, the eyes fixed on the sandy escape, expression glazed from concentration, she fights the intensifying current. The water reaches well up to her upper thighs - good thing she went in in panties. She is barely a metre away from the river bank when the pressure becomes so strong her leg is pushed downstream whenever she tries to make a step. She stops. Not daring to lift a leg or a hiking pole anymore, she pleadingly looks at Fabien. You have to help me! I can’t do it! With immense force, the current slowly washes away the sand beneath her feet, which start sliding sideways until blocked by a stone. Fabien stares helplessly, not knowing what to do. He doesn’t dare to step deep into the river again. He had also taken off his rucksack, thinking it would make him more agile for helping Conni, but in fact had only made him lighter and therefore less stable. In the back of Conni’s mind pictures of her being flushed away are already flashing up when Fabi shouts, Come on now! One last step, only one last step and I’ll pull you out! Give me your hand, give me your hand! And everything is just one, very fast movement after that final step. Leaping forward, Fabien gets hold of Conni’s outstretched hand and yanks her out of the river. Conni exhales in a crazed yell. Holy shit! What a stupid idea this was! Aaaaaaaaaahh!!! …

With waning adrenaline, Conni puts her numb toes back into socks and ponders about the rights and wrongs in our actions. She would’ve never crossed this river if she had been alone. But we would still sit on the other side if it hadn’t been for Fabien’s courage. On the other hand, she wouldn’t have endangered herself. But then again, she made it, we made it, we pushed our boundaries and survived. Be it stupidity, skill or luck, or in fact a mixture of all these, we were free to continue our journey.

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The waterfall 100 m below our crossing point spiced up the endeavor. Conni is happy to leave the river behind.

Having scrambled up the steep giant steps, we find ourselves in a vast stony desert interspersed with lava fields. The first we encounter is Mið-Bergvatnsá, an easy and beautiful hike.

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The lava field of Mið-Bergvatnsá and beautiful basaltic structures.
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Friendly rivers, good mood!

We’re now moving along the southern edge of the Vatnajökull ice cap and navigate through the Beinadalur valley. The glaciers didn’t leave much behind: a barren nothingness sliced by freezing rivers.

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There's not much here...
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The second problem of the day. We are too far north - where the river is carved into a gorge - and have to walk downstream for about 500 m before finding a spot to cross.

Consequently we have to cross three more rivers but none of these is even close to comparable to the first one. We even elaborate our technique by crossing at the same time and staying at the same height, with Fabien crossing upstream such that he - just in case - slightly weakens the current for Conni.

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Vatnajökull's outlet glaciers.

The scenery is so wide, rough and pure that all our exhaustion seems forgotten when we traverse the last lava field in the late afternoon. An island of green and white colours stands in what looks like a lake that dried out. The soil is sandy and we almost feel ashamed to leave our footprints behind.

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The last hours of the day seem surreal. We walk on a lake of sand, with the Eldgígur and Hágöngur mountains in the background
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Our footprints seen from space in this pristine landscape (click for a high resolution image). The red peak is Eldgígur.

With a great view of Siðujökull and the impressively black Hágöngur, we make camp at the foot of the blazingly red Eldgígur. What an amazing play of colours this landscape has to offer each day anew!

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Our shelter for the night.