How Not To Die While Hiking in Iceland

Psyche! I know nothing about hiking, especially in the natural Icelandic conditions (i.e. cold). In fact, I tend to be foolhardy, so I would probably die within the first few minutes of any serious attempt. The thing is, I like to climb. It’s practically an addiction. If I see a good tree or a lumpy wall or a rocky ledge, my body starts moving towards it while my head says, “Yes, good, this could not possible end well, so let’s do it!”

On a family vacation to Colorado, I nearly gave my mother a heart attack after leading all my siblings on a precarious climbing trail up a rocky outcropping, only to discover that there was no way down… short of jumping a great length onto a sloped and slippery stone floor. It was my turn to be the problem child that day.

In Italy, I freaked out my traveling companion by taking off up the fortress wall of the small city of Sienna. We got pictures of that one, not that I can find them in the acquired mass. As usual, getting down was more difficult.


At the stunning site of Seljalandsfoss, I observed the tiny forms of people walking along the towering ridge from which the cascade of water fell. I thought, they must be professional photographers who were helicoptered up there, or perhaps they are hiking groups that came up from the other side of the mountain. And then, I discovered the truth, and instinct set in.

When continuing down the path (as one always, always should) past the first large, noticeable, and tourist-surrounded waterfall, you will pass a succession of three small falls. Certain times of year, they may not even exist. There’s this whole scientific theory about them being fed by melting snow when the weather gets warm, but ew, science, right? After seeing a sight as grand as Seljalandsfoss, you may be unimpressed with what we shall call Namelessfoss 1, 2, and 3 (my greatest stride in the Icelandic language was realizing that “foss” must mean waterfall). If so, I’ll thank you to keep your waterfall snobbery to yourself. They cry far too much as it is.

You may have observed the nasty green sign in that middle photo and questioned my ability to crop, so let me assure you that I included it on purpose. I wanted to document the thing that was keeping me on the sidewalk rather than clinging to the side of these cliffs or testing my spelunking skills in that cave. However strong my climbing addiction may be, I am a rule follower at heart. But then – ah ha! – I found a loophole. Let me repeat, I am a rule bender at heart.

In a rather large gap between two of the signs, I saw a chance to scramble up the steep hill and settle myself on a small outcropping of rock, rejoicing in my lawyer-like shrewdness. I was rewarded with the view below, made all the more interesting by a sudden entourage of large while Hummers crossing the planes in a single file line.


When I had finished admiring the view and being proud of myself, I slid back down the hill, walked about ten yards further, and found an actual path all the way up the mountainside, fully intended for the daring tourist to utilize in order to reach the top of the cliff. Sometimes you just have to explore a few steps further to realize you are an idiot.

There were very few tourists or even hikers in this area, probably because the route was a bit concealed behind crags and a few small trees. While the intended pathway was by no means what you would call safe or an easy climb, that didn’t stop me from purposely straying into new territory. It’s not a real climbing experience until you are leaning off a cliff, holding on to just a tree branch to keep from plummeting fifty feet to your death.

I’m not sure if it is the thrill of near-disaster or the challenge of accomplishing something no one else is doing that attracts me, but I inevitably find myself looking for my own way up any rocky ledge with the mantra, “I can reach that far!” This experience was no different, and I eventually found myself at a point where I had only two options: continue upward to reach the top of the cliff (which was actually fairly near) and risk the very probable chance of either getting stuck or slipping to my doom, or turn around the take the always treacherous pathway back down to the path that satisfies any normally daring climber. Like I mentioned before though, going down is never easy, so these two choices didn’t really seem far from each other in possible danger.

After standing on my tiny ledge of safety for a few minutes to think about it, I at last turned to the U option: going back down and then up again on safer ground. This decision was based entirely on the fact that I had driven my host’s car there and had to pick up her daughter from a party at 5:30, so getting stuck or falling off a cliff both could have proved very inconvenient to their evening.


When I at last reached the top, I was greeted by giant fields of the famous (or rather infamous, if you ever have to mow it) Icelandic grass. This stuff grows ridiculously fast and always in round clumps. It gets so long that it bends over and matts down, giving the ground a sort of lumpy texture all over. It’s absolutely lovely to run through barefoot, so of course, I quickly shed my shoes and took off toward the last thing I had hoped to see: one more waterfall that plummets into a sort of canyon at the end of the route and is the real reason anyone continues past Seljalandsfoss. Sorry Namelessfosses.


Though I got a great view of it from the cliffs overhanging the cascade, I never made it down to the base of this one on that particular day. Upon realizing that I had half an hour to run back to the mountain-size path, climb down, trek back to the parking lot, and drive to the farm where my young charge would be waiting, I was once again running across the top of the cliff. That’s a lot of running in one day for a person who never runs, especially considering I needn’t have worried: apparently, in Iceland, “Pick her up at 5:30” translates to “As long as she’s gone by like nine…” By this time, it had been a while since I had last eaten, so a combination of hunger, adrenaline, and lack of breath led to the majority of my near-falls on the loose dirt, sharply angled path back down.

I could easily spend several more days hanging around this site. Between the green lawns, beautiful falls, and adventurous climbing options, it’s way better than any local park we had in America. Luckily, I got to return to this site within a week, after a great many other adventures whose stories are to come, and this time, saw the final fall from a new angle.

So how do you not die while hiking in Iceland? You carefully take the trail that some other person was kind enough to lay out for you in advance… or you leave it and pray hard!


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