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Always have a Plan B
Whatever you might think about "Ramblers" you have to own that they are an optimistic lot. On the other hand I guess if your notes say that the walk starts at the town's rubbish dump, then things can (quite literally) only get better.
Optimism in this case, however, had nothing to do with leaving behind rubbish dumps and everything to do with weather forecasts. "Plan A" was a walk up Mount Sulur – about 5km with an ascent of about 880m: enough to take us above the snow line in July. Enough to warrant repeated injunctions from our leader about altitude and how close we are to the Arctic Circle. Be fair, we were a bunch of hobbyist walkers, not professional mountaineers.
Being equally fair, I was probably the only one in the group with virtually no serious technical kit. I haven't walked for ages, generally manage with a decent pair of boots and a proper waterproof and make the rest up as I go along. Add in work-stress, a family bereavement, packing at midnight for a 4 a.m. departure for the airport and you can see that maybe I had forgotten little things like hats, gloves, top-weight fleece. Ah well. I did a trial run the night before and worked out that I could actually fit two full layers of equally sized kit one on top of the other, and thus far I hadn't even needed a lightweight fleece. No worries. No serious ones anyway. I'd wear an under-layer not needed so far, actually wear one fleece and carry the other. Extra trews also went in the pack.
Plus, I do get very warm walking: I'm not exactly svelte!
Plus we had also been forewarned that (given that we're only hobbyist walkers…etc) and frankly we were out for a good walk and not to prove a point, we weren't going to be slogging up Sulur unless the weather was perfect. Understood.
So when I woke to a view of a hill disappearing into low cloud, and the sound of rain that didn't seem to have abated for most of the night, I knew we wouldn't be doing any summiting.
"We'll see what it's like when we get to the dump" our optimistic leader was talking about "a bit of drizzle"… hmmm, felt like rain to me…
The dump is on the outskirts of Akureyrie. The rain HAD eased in the 15 or so minutes it took us to get out there, but the cloud showed no sign of lifting, visibility was a few hundred meters in some directions and shifting.
So Plan B, it was. (Whatever anyone in the group felt at this point – I didn't hear a single complaint afterwards.)
Plan B, we'd been advised is a longer walk of about 10km each way, low level
easy walking along the valley out to Lambi Hut. "Low" and "level" are as ever relative clearly have different definitions in Icelandic. The hut is at 720m above sea level, that's about 420m above our starting point (not accounting for the descents along the way).
"Easy?" – to be honest yes, most of it is, if you don't mind yomping through a bit of bog when the path disappears, and crossing the occasional stream which, if not exactly a dangerous raging torrent, is enough to actually make you walk up and down its edge a few times to see if it can be done without falling on your whatsits and/or getting totally sodden.
We faffed about a bit at the start. Low cloud and rubbish route notes had us hesitating over what I felt was a fairly obvious path (but then I was taking responsibility for anyone but me). And I should confess we never made it to the hut. Eventually we hit a stream that made those of us who got that far think… "Hmmm, maybe not". But that's jumping ahead. And these were, in any event, mere insignificant details.
It is an absolutely wonderful walk.
The Glerá Valley
If I've got my rudimentary Icelandic correct then "dalur" means valley - or perhaps dale (?) for those of us who can't help wondering about where words come from and where they go to. So to talk of the Glerárdalur Valley, as some books and websites, do is as tautological as Mount Fujiyama. It should, I think, be either the Glerá Valley or Glerárdalur. [Icelandic speakers amongst you do feel free to correct me – but bear with for the anglicised spelling – it's as close as I can get with the limits of Ciao UK's software.]
Glerárdalur, the official notice boards tell us, was formed by a combination of glacial and river erosion of ancient lava mounds some five to ten million years old. The valley runs almost in a straight south-west/north-east alignment for some 16km, from about 1000m above sea level in the mountains of the Tröllaskagi Mountains to the mouth of the Glerá in Akureyrie. The ranges enclosing it include some of the highest hills in the north of the country, including Kerling at 1538m and Trölljafall at 1471m (a.s.l).
In that context, I guess we were staying low, somewhere between 300 and 720m above sea level. My excuse is that my home county high point is 338ft. Yes, that is feet! Not metres. I'd claim to be an un-ashamed flat-lander, if I hadn't adored this particular walk quite so much. Or maybe it's because I am, that I did? If you believe the publicity, you might get the idea that Iceland is a fairly barren piece of North Atlantic outcrop. Certainly we weren't expecting somewhere more reminiscent of Scotland. The fact is that the island varies considerably from place to place. Climatic conditions and ground conditions move and shift and local conditions can produce stunning results.
Official information tells us that the vegetation in the valley is unique. The combination of the high mountains, heavy snowfall which lingers in the valleys, and near-surface bedrock counteracted by a network of springs and pockets of boggy marsh retaining and disseminating the moisture through the year produce a patchwork of plant-life.
At higher levels the number of species and degree of ground coverage obviously diminishes but in the range we were walking, below 1000m, it was lush and green – with a range of alpine flowers that none of us had expected. Of course the rock is never far from the surface, but it is overlain with moss and lichen with peeping bursts of purple, white and yellow if you look down at your feet now and then.
If you look up towards the skyline (or indeed at some points if you look down into the valley) you will see pockets of pristine snow hanging on late into the summer. If you look outward – fore and aft and to port & starboard – you will see the grey of rock and scree, the many-hued greens of cover and the dancing white-water of falls and streams and late snow-melt on its exuberant way to the sea.
We started as a group of 12+1, but lost a few along the way. The flower photographers (one of whom was carrying an injury in any event) decided upon a more lingering approach to the valley, a while later a couple more simply decided that they did not wish to press on and were happy to linger and wander slowly behind or turn back when it suited.
Of course we also had a stride-ahead youngster, and mostly we let him do so. I can understand that need to walk at your own pace rather than someone else's and besides: it is the kind of place that demands solitude. A chattering group is not the way to enjoy this magical place.
Fortunately, we middle-grounders also strung ourselves out enough to claim our own patches of silence. Conversation was intermittent – mostly in admiration of the landscape, or debate about the missing path, or advice on the best stepping-stones for this particularly water crossing. Mostly it was quiet enough to hear insects in the hidden flora, and wind in the reaches, and water rushing everywhere. The rain had given over. The cloud had lifted the tops. Layers of clothing had been quickly disbanded and stuffed into backpacks.
Pictures of Glerardalur, Akureyrie
Some days – well, some days, Plan B is brilliant enough.
The End of the Road… for us
Our slow start, unskilled stream-hopping, and maybe the fact that we did stop quite often just to look at the view, meant that we weren't making brilliant time. Would it have made a jot of difference if we'd got to Fremmi Lambi earlier? Probably not.
This one was a raging torrent.
Looking down onto the bridge that crosses the first half of the down-flow, I had my doubts – but getting down to it and indeed across it onto the island rocky outcrop proved easy enough. The second segment of the stream however was another bubbling cauldron of fish altogether.
Oddly enough in the photographs it looks far tamer than many we'd already negotiated, but it was deeper and wilder and with fewer inviting stones, moss-banks and reachable landing banks. One brave soul showed us how it should be done (sort of) – except we weren't watching closely enough – and the second attempter barely regained their balance as the water took their feet from under them. Suffering no more than a loss of dignity and sodden lower limbs, he came off lucky. The rest of us paused, thought about broken ankles and cracked skulls, and called a lunch break while we pondered whether to press on for a nominal finish point or just accept that we'd had a great day out.
The island in the stream where we crouched among the rocks to eat our cold pizza or seeded rolls with peppered cheese, and ponder the imponderables looks gentle enough upstream. Only when you wander downstream, towards the main Glerárdalur, do you encounter the double cleft with the water gushing over a twenty or thirty foot drop.
Discretion kicked in. We called it half-way and wandered back.
We'd come out for a walk, after all, not to prove a point. So we never did see Lambi hut. We'd never know what we'd missed, so why would we care? We'd been treated to a stunning route, which I will definitely be back out on, next time I find myself in Akureyrie and (by the standards of the week) even the weather had been kind.
Epilogue - What we'd have found if we'd got there
Input Lambi Hut into your search engine and you'll come up with the standard picture of the green-walled, red-doored-&-roofed shelter set against the semi-snowy mountain backdrop that adorns all of the local walking leaflets. It was built in 1975, really does look very much like my dad's garden shed (except we painted his roof green and the wood is natural-wood-coloured). It has a kerosene stove for cooking and heating (the hut, not dad's shed), is open all year round and is at the junction of several onward routes out of the valley. If you walk there in winter, you may be grateful to know this.