America and Iceland define “intermediate” in decidedly different ways. Here, when applied to a physical activity, “intermediate” suggests you may need to stand up. There, it means “in all likelihood, you’ll die.” So should you visit Iceland and go on an “intermediate hike,” as Maggie and I so unsuspectingly did, I offer you this guide that you might learn from our mistakes and perhaps live to tell the tale.
Pro Tip 1: Pick an honest guide. To determine if a guide is honest, refer to their suggested packing list, and identify how many times the word “waterproof” appears. For Iceland Mountain Guides, it was five, which put them just on the verge of veracity. (Sun protection, on the other hand, was “optional.” And highly optimistic.) Once you have obtained your hiking attire, test it out by putting it on and throwing yourself into a swimming pool. This simulates the experience that Icelanders call “going outside.”
Pro Tip 2: Befriend the other members of your group. Hiking is a collaborative activity, so it’s important to establish that human connection. Also, if things descend into cannibalism, the loners get eaten first.
Due to our innate extroversion, Maggie and I had no problem meeting our fellow hikers. They included Kay, a sunny Australian whose stock phrase of praise was “good on you”; Gustavo and Ian, sultry bankers from Mexico who kept their shirts on far too often; Sally and Lauren, a mother-daughter pair from New Zealand with accents straight out of Monty Python; Ted and Eric, a gay couple from Ohio who modified Icelandic and Icelanders alike to make them more pronounceable (our driver’s son, “Gømme” became Joe); Cristina, Sergio, Tomas, and Miguel, a good-natured foursome from the Canary Islands with whom I communicated primarily in pantomime; and finally Thora and Svana, our guide and backup guide respectively.
Pro Tip 3: Study the land, for it varies by the mile and often tries to kill you. Our trek began in the burgundy foothills of Landmannalaugar where steam spurts out of the ground and causes creeks to boil. By that evening, we’d arrived to Hrafntinnusker, a bleak icescape of snow and black crags. Over the coming days, the snow gave way to meadows of chartreuse moss (cf. the fever dream of a leprechaun on LSD), to deserts of black sand, and ultimately to towering volcanoes swaddled in snow and ash.
Though picturesque, these mountains are very insistent that you don’t climb them. When you’re at the base, with each step you take up the muddy trail, you sink into it an equivalent distance. When you’re at the top, the wind tries to return you to the base in as quickly and deadly a manner as possible.
Pro Tip 4: Waterproof. To protect myself from the elements, I started the hike with my winter-in-New-York leather gloves. After all, leather doesn’t leak, right? Right. But the seams do. The rain was so strong that, within an hour, the gloves had soaked through, and my hands were colder inside them than out. Fortunately, our backup guide Svana loaned me her backup gloves, designed specifically for torrential rain. Unfortunately, the wind was so fierce and the rain so unrelenting that the raindrops blew in through my hood, dripped down the inside of the sleeves, and proceeded to fill up the mittens as if they were North Face-branded udders. Every fifteen minutes, I had to take off the gloves and milk them.
Pro Tip 5: Dance. Should you transverse a mountain without drowning, your guide may require you, as ours did, to dance the hokey-pokey. This serves the double purpose of bolstering your spirits and confirming you still have all applicable limbs. The Icelandic hokey-pokey combines the American version with elements of burlesque, rugby, and Eurovision. After each verse, you gyrate your butt, run to the center of the circle, and smash into your fellow hokey-pokes. Don’t wound them too gravely, however, for you will need them to collaborate on the most nefarious aspect of hiking: the river crossing.
Pro Tip 6: Rivers hate you. As mentioned, Iceland is filled with volcanos and glaciers. When the volcanoes erupt, the glaciers melt; and you get rivers. Lots of them. Accordingly, at choice moments during your journey, you will find yourself on one side of a river and the trail on the other. Here’s how to cross the icy waters:
a. Remove your boots, socks, and pants. Place them in your backpack along with any sense of modesty.
b. Loosen your backpack straps so that, if you fall into the river, they mightn’t strangle you.
c. Link arms with your river-crossing partner. For the sake of this exercise, let’s call her Maggie.
d. With your Maggie firmly in hand, step into the river.
e. Scream. Know how your toes go numb after spending hours in the cold? It’s like that, except you go numb instantly and wherever the water touches you. Also, it isn’t so much numbness, per se, as searing pain.
f. Walk Hocus Pocus-style across the river. Swear wherever possible. If you run out of conventional profanities, work in the Norse gods. In a sense, this is all their fault.
g. Thank Maggie for booking this hike. Offer to plan next year’s trip.
Pro Tip 7: Hunker down. That you might defrost between the legs of your journey, you stay in “huts” run by the Icelandic Touring Association. Now, huts have all the grandiosity that their name suggests. They’re essentially supersized cabins stuffed with mattresses, where you sleep two to a bunk regardless of whether or not you know your bunkmate. (Fortunately, I knew Maggie. And Maggie now knows I sleep-kick.) Where huts have running water, the faucets are located outside and have a long tube leading from spout to basin to ensure that the water flows where intended. Otherwise, the torrential winds will blow the water into the distance or, more entertainingly, the person next to you. The more luxurious huts have amenities such as electricity (i.e. an outlet in the hutkeeper’s room which you can rent by the hour) or showers that are hot in a comparative sense.
Pro Tip 8: Fill ‘er up. Once shelter has been secured, turn your thoughts to food. Fortunately, much thought isn’t required because, when you’re hiking in Iceland, every meal consists of the same things: bread and what you spread upon it. These spreadables include cheese, liquefied meats of varying viscosity, and CaviarTM. (The trademark is intentional: Caviar isn’t caviar but rather a spicy fish paste that comes in a toothpaste tube.) And no Icelandic meal would be complete without their most ubiquitous staple: Skyr.
Pronounced like the first syllable of “scurrilous” (from which it’s presumably derived), Skyr is a thick, bland yogurt that Icelanders use in place of cream cheese, whipped cream, or any product that’s far superior to Skyr. This yogurt has proved a boon to Iceland, however. It keeps Icelanders in shape, as, upon consumption, it removes the desire to ever eat again. Also, it prevents overpopulation, as Icelanders often jump into volcanoes rather than eat more Skyr.
Congratulations, reader! You now know everything necessary to navigate your way through the Icelandic wilderness. Yes, the hail will sting. Yes, you will often find yourself frozen or sodden. But think of the pride you’ll feel and the stories you’ll have, just like a veteran of D-Day. Or as Iceland would call it: Intermediate Day.
Maggie and I set out to conquer the great outdoors. (Iceland quickly modified this plan.)
Our hiking group! Also pictured: the rain that got inside my lens.