Iceland Adventure

One woman’s Iceland vacation: a 50-mile hiking trip across a lunar landscape.

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Iceland’s famous Geysir
Photograph: Photo by: Jes

A Mountain Hut

On my second night in Iceland, with the July sky showing no signs of sunset at 11 p.m., I slept with a couple of 28-year-old Spanish men who had, an hour earlier, produced two bottles of earthy Rioja from their backpacks and poured the wine by candlelight. After that, conditions only improved.

I should explain. The candles took the place of electricity in the cramped mountain hut that served as my introduction to eight days of Icelandic adventure travel. (The wooden hut, located on the edge of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, also lacked plumbing, running water, and the possibility of making tea until the hut warden melted a huge pot of glacial ice on his gas stove.) The sleeping arrangements were head-to-toe on a wooden floor, with each of us insulated in as many thermal layers as we could scrunch into our individual sleeping bags. Curled up next to me were two German women, a British couple who had teenage children back home, a middle-aged French-speaking husband and wife from Montreal, and a gnarled hickory stick of a 70-year-old doctor from North Dakota (bred of Icelandic stock) whose wife had passed on the rigors of the itinerary. With no coercion, we had united as strangers to spend our vacation time and money hiking up to 15 miles a day across rough terrain alien enough to be mistaken for a galaxy far, far away.

What’s more, we put our faith — our lives, really — in the care of a spry Icelandic guide named Siggi, whose pale blue eyes glittered with benign madness. We trusted in him as he negotiated our group over glacial ridges, deciphered paths through rock and water, maneuvered the vehicle that carted us from trail to trail, and downed his morning muesli mixed with thick, sour milk. "Crazy Icelanders!" he would cackle about his countryfolk.

Arriving There

Before our international potluck group convened, I had plunked my hiking boots down in a cheery, dorm-style hotel in an old part of Reykjavik, ambled the capital’s cosmopolitan streets, drunk a $10 beer at a pub packed with spiky-haired 20-year-olds, and let the mystery of sunsetless summer nights and the music of Bjork wash over me. But it was on that second night in the mountain hut that I knew I’d arrived where I really wanted to be: in the middle of a pristine, raw nowhere, making my way step-by-boot-step across treeless mountain stretches, with fellow adventurers for company.

That night, I learned to pee in the hut’s Rube Goldberg-rigged unisex urinal and discovered that I could sleep even when surrounded by five champion snorers. In the days that followed, I also learned that in the middle of the journey of my life, with a cosmetics bag dedicated to Advil and knees grateful for compression bandages (and little more than two pairs of hiking pants, three long-sleeve T-shirts, six pairs of wool socks, and a fleece hoodie that doubled as a pillow), I felt as radically free, as adaptable and as bold as Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Only later would I learn that NASA once trained astronauts on Iceland’s otherworldly terrain. One small step for woman.

All Trails Lead to Iceland

This woman is not one who falls into strange sleeping bags easily. I take my bath oils seriously; I’m only half joking when I say that the most effective technique with which to extract state secrets from me would be to confiscate my tweezers. But my life, and its comfort requirements, changed when I discovered the lures of guided group adventure trips some 13 years ago. With their promise of exoticism and convenience, I found an ideal way to travel — and hike, my passion. I love the notion of ending a good, hard trek with a hearty meal in a simple hotel. I like carrying a daypack while a support vehicle (to use catalog-speak) transports my duffel bag from inn to inn. But even more, I love the liberation of packing minimally and covering territory by foot maximally.

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