Battling The Elements On Icelandís Mt. Esja
Anyone who has spent any time in Reykjavik will be familiar with the dark hulk of Mt Esja dominating the city skyline.Reaching 914m above sea-level, the mountain range frames the cityscape from the north, visible from every corner of the city on rare clear-sky days.
Esjan lies just 10km across Faxaflói Bay, a mere half-hour drive from downtown Reykjavik, making it a favourite with locals. It’s the go-to spot for an impromptu afterwork trek or even a spot of ultra-marathon training, but just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s easy. The further you climb, the harder the route becomes, culminating in a steep scramble up a rocky cliff face aided by steel chains. In fact, the Icelandic Touring Association claims that Esja holds the country’s record for the most hiking accidents.
Walking socks: your best ally
According to my Icelandic hiking partner, if you can hack Esjan you’re fit enough for anything Iceland’s highlands can throw at you. So, what better way to put myself and my new pair of Cambridge Blue Alpaca-Blend Murray Walking Socks to the test?
The first half an hour of the ascent is surprisingly pleasant - the sun shines, the incline is barely noticeable and everywhere we look there are tall blue Alaskan lupins in full bloom. Icelanders vehemently dislike the invasive plant, but there can be no denying that they add a magnificent splash of colour to an otherwise drab landscape. (Polly, our canine hiking companion, puts me to shame practically skipping up the slopes and frequently disappearing amongst the wildflowers.) The path intersects with a river at several points, giving us the chance to refill our bottles with fresh mountain water.
After an hour, we reach the imaginatively named steinur (literally a stone named stone) and this is where our fortunes change. At this half-way point, the hike becomes considerably more challenging. The incline rapidly increases, and the neatly conserved soil path disappears, replaced by huge black basalt boulders, an instant reminder of Esja’s distant volcanic past.
Given the terrain, both I and the socks have our work cut out for us. As my Icelandic colleague explains, in mountainous regions you need to trust your feet, they’re the only thing that can keep you safe. So good boots and durable socks are an absolute must. I’m still learning to have faith in my exceptionally clumsy feet, but the Murray sock’s cushioning technology provided much needed support, keeping me mercifully blister-free.
Icelandic unpredictable weather
Weather in Iceland is an all-powerful force. There is no negotiating Odin’s wrath. You know you’ve been living in Iceland for a while when the Icelandic meteorological office’s website is your most searched page. Weather reports rule our lives, which is why when dark clouds start gathering as we near the summit, misgivings set in. And they’re well-founded: hail in June – something my Icelandic hiking buddy reassuringly informs me that he hadn’t seen in decades. And when the hail subsides? Rain. But not just any old rain, Icelandic rain, a particularly vicious species that defies the laws of physics to ensure that you’re soaked from every angle. The trail instantly dissolves into sludge and the rocks into impossibly slippery obstacles.
Any sensible person would’ve turned back. But we are by no means sensible and the summit is irresistibly close. So, we tighten our raincoat hoods, squint our eyes and continue climbing.
We haul ourselves up rock after rock, fingers numb from the cold chain and caked in black mud. Even Polly stops enjoying herself. But finally, after a gruelling half an hour, we reach the top. And the reward? More rain.
Google tells me that on a different day we would have been greeted with panoramic vistas stretching as far as the Reykjanes peninsula to the South and Snæfellsnesto the North. Instead we can just about make out the neighbouring ridge through the thick clouds. Welcome to Icelandic summer!
Despite the anticlimax I can’t help but feel a little smug: my first Icelandic mountain conquered! On to bigger and better hikes (armed with my new favourite socks of course).