Our third day in Iceland, Hannah and I drove to a fjord to the SW of Reykjavik, with the goal of hiking to Glymur, the tallest waterfall in Iceland. We had pretty questionable directions from a guy at the hostel (he took Hannah to the hostel window, pointed, and said, “You will need to drive between that mountain range and the one behind it, and you’ll find it…”), and the GPS was useless since we didn’t have a destination address. So, though it was only supposed to take us an hour to get to the trail head, we ended up lost for 2.5 hours on the winding, mountainous roads along the edge of the fjord.
But that’s ok, because if I am going to be lost anywhere on earth, I want it to be in Iceland:
Eventually, we found the trail head for Glymur Falls. We had read online that we could hike up the right side of the stream, which was harder, or choose to take the left, easier side. We’d also read on various blogs and websites peoples’ opinions of the trail, which ranged from no mention of difficulty at all to the statement, “this hike is not for the faint of heart.” Thus, we had no idea what to expect, but considering ourselves regular Viking Queens after the volcano mountain hike we’d done the day before, we immediately opted for the harder trail.
The challenging trail is known as Leggjabrjótur – literally, Legbreaker. The remainder of this story is best told in pictures.
We parked our car and began following the trail, which was rocky and rough, but marked every 50 feet or so with a yellow dot spray painted on a boulder. The incline wasn’t too bad in the beginning, and we were totally enthralled with the scenery around us. Bright yellow birches, red rocks, green moss, snow-capped mountains up ahead.
The trail progressively became less clear and more treacherous.
After climbing uphill for a little while, we had an amazing first view of the valley below and, in the distance, the fjord we’d driven around to get to the trail head. Our car is down there near-ish the water, somewhere.
Soon we left the ground and began climbing higher and higher up the rocky mountain. The trail snaked along small, but ever-growing, cliffs, with a beautiful glacial stream below to our left.
We climbed that…
Whoever maintains this trail was thoughtful enough to give us a ladder up a particularly steep incline.
At one point early on in the hike, the trail went through a cave, under part of the mountain.
The cave was really awesome. I have a video of it but haven’t figured out how to upload it yet. Soon!
One of the exits took us over some rocks and then across the stream. The other exit took us directly over the stream. We decided to climb over the rocks and then cross the stream because at this point, we were still feeling like Viking Queens.
Eventually we came to a log that had been placed across the stream. We made our way across it. It was windy and slippery and there was a very loose rope to hold on to, but it didn’t provide much support…
After we crossed the river, we began a steeper ascent. Parts of the trail were so steep that there were ropes staked into the ground to help us pull ourselves up the mountain. It was rocky, muddy, and slippery, with a steep incline on one side and a sharp drop on the other.
It quickly became clear to us why this trail is the “harder” side.
We kept climbing…
We were nearly in the clouds, and felt a distinct drop in the temperature. Of course we were both in t-shirts, having removed our woolen sweaters and winter hats long ago.
It was all rock and sky up there. But we still had a lot of climbing to go…
Finally, we rounded a bend, and saw Glymur Falls at face level. When I took the below picture, we were standing on the edge of a cliff similar to the one on the right in the photo. You can even see our shadows if you look closely. We’re like two little bumps on the giant shadow the cliff has cast.
We enjoyed this breathtaking view for a few minutes before continuing on, up and over the cliffs to our right in the photo above.
I should point out that a while before this, the yellow dots marking the trail had disappeared, and we had to make several decisions as to what direction to take at different points along the most challenging and dangerous areas of the trek. It was evident that several previous hikers had done the same, as we saw faint trail traces in various directions as we went along.
[After the hike ended, I realized that this part of the adventure required a different kind of hiking navigation than I’m used to. Often, when walking on a trail, it’s easy to daze off, just watching the ground in front of you. But on Leggjabrjótur, we had to not only watch the ground right in front of us for rocks, cliffs, and slippery patches, but also keep an eye turned up ahead, to ensure we weren’t walking into a dangerous area.]
Soon, we were above the falls. I don’t have pictures from up there, unfortunately, because I was paying too close attention to the slippery trail so as to avoid plummeting to my death from the top of Iceland’s tallest waterfall.
After exploring the stream above the falls a bit, we decided we would need to come down the other, “easier” side of the falls for the hike back down. It would be dusk soon, and we thought it was far too risky to take Leggjabrjótur DOWN the mountain. But we faced a dilemma: there was no log placed over this stream to deliver us safely and dryly to the opposite bank. We decided we’d need to ford the river, as we’d read might be a possibility on a few websites before the hike.
We walked up the stream a bit to ensure we were a safe enough distance from the edge of the falls. The stream was quite shallow, but fast-moving and cold. We tried to strategize how to make it across by stepping on rocks, but there weren’t enough to carry us all the way without getting our feet and lower legs soaked. We decided we’d have to cross barefoot, carrying our shoes.
I tried to comfort us by saying, “Oh, well, you know, it’s been sunny all day, so it’s probably not as cold as we think it is, plus it’s really shallow, and we can just run across really fast…” Wishful thinking, to be sure.
We timidly removed our shoes and stepped into the icy stream. It was colder than any water I’d ever been in. The rocks were slippery, and the water came up to my lower calves. It was incredibly painful. I remember feeling my mind and body immediately going into overdrive, as I hobble-ran across the stream with Hannah. We both almost fell a few times, but thankfully, never all the way down. Hannah was cursing all the way across, but I couldn’t make any sound – I just heard myself gasping in disbelief. It was incredible, in a terrible way.
Finally making it to the bank on the other side and jumping out of the water, I found my voice and I’m sure the mountains around me have never heard such a string of expletives.
As we pulled on our shoes on the mossy banks of the opposite side, my toes completely numb, I looked far up steam and saw a whitish patch in the mountain where the stream originated. I said, “Oh my god, Hannah, is that a GLACIER right there?” She looked, nodded, and replied, “Yes…that’s f*cked up.” We knew the water came from a glacier at some point, but didn’t realize it had literally JUST MELTED OFF A GLACIER MOMENTS BEFORE IT FLOWED OVER OUR FEET.
Invigorated, adrenaline pumping, we settled ourselves on some mossy rocks for a break and a snack before heading back down the other side of the trail. As we ate, we watched two other hikers come up around the bend on the opposite side. We observed them curiously, as we could tell they were contemplating how to cross the river, as we had moments before. We relaxed, munching on Icelandic cheese and crackers, as we watched them remove their shoes and socks. I’m not proud of what happened next. We just sat there, commentating from afar, as they clumsily crossed the icy stream. It was like we were spectators, being entertained by these poor souls undergoing horrific pain inflicted by freezing glacial water. They eventually made it across, and we continued eating. The hikers walked below us and continued down the mountain ahead of us.
Eventually, we packed up and decided we’d better get going, as the sun was beginning to peek down over the mountain opposite us. Unfortunately, the “easier” trail we were promised was barely less treacherous than Leggjabrjótur.
We soon learned that there were no markings on this trail, and though there were some cairns here and there, there was seemingly no order to their placement. Bits of trail were visible here and there, but we had to make our own way for much of the descent – which was tricky, since the descent seemed to have been created not by Parks and Rec officials, but rather by an avalanche or rock slide.
We wound our way around cliffs, over boulders, through thick underbrush, over small streams, down, down, down the mountain.
Dusk was rapidly approaching, so we tried to be hasty, but the going was rough.
In the below photo, you can see the trail to the left of that bright bush. And to the left of the trail, a steep, faaaar drop into the ravine below.
Eventually, we came to the bottom of the mountain. I have a great little video I shot after we were once again on level ground, but haven’t had the connection required to upload it.
We thought we’d easily spot our car when we got back down to the fjord area, but ended up getting lost in the dusk for another 30 minutes or so. The trail back had no markings, and cairns proved useless. We backtracked and re-backtracked multiple times. Luckily I had my headlamps with me, in case we needed to walk all the way out to the highway in order to find our way back in to where our car was parked. We didn’t need them in the end, but I was grateful that I had them just in case!
At the end of the day, this hike was easily my greatest physical feat in a long time. It was challenging in every way, and still so, so incredible. I would do it again in a heartbeat. As I collapsed back into the driver’s seat of the car, I gave a special thanks to my legs, for carrying me up and down those mountains, and to my feet, for carrying me safely across that glacial stream. And I thanked my dad, from afar, for giving me all those protein bars and his extra head lamp before I left for Iceland.
So, fellow adventurers, take note: if you plan to hike Leggjabrjótur, be sure to do the following:
- Start the hike with at least five-six hours of daylight.
- Wear shoes with the best treads you can find.
- Understand that Leggjabrjótur is really not an exaggeration…it. is. hard.
- And finish the hike feeling like a Viking Warrior Queen, totally covered in mud and moss and rock, thanking your stars that you made it down unscathed.