Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Climbing the Volcanoes: Hiking Eldfell and Helgafell

The weather was miserable for most of my time in Vestmannaeyar - lots of wind, rain, and fog, which is pretty standard this time of year. For the first week, I kept waiting for the weather to let up so I could climb the two volcanoes that fringe the town: Helgafell, the old volcano to the south that has been there since before humans settled the island, and Edlfell, the famous volcano that erupted in 1973, still warm and bare of vegetation. Looking back towards town and across town to the volcanoes from the west, Eldfell is on the left and Helgafell is on the right.
Although I took most of my pictures on the single beautiful day during my two weeks in Vestmannaeyar, most of the time it looked something like this:Finally, I realized that the weather wasn't going to get any better, and I wasn't going to miss my chance to summit two volcanoes just because of a little wind and rain. I did manage to mostly avoid the rain, but both of these were very windy hikes: my jacket made a noise that sounded like a helicopter taking off while flapping in the wind and I actually was afraid I would be blown off the top of Eldfell. (But I didn’t get blown off, and instead came back to share pictures with you.)

My first trip was up Eldfell, which as you can see looks very distinctly like a volcano. A cinder cone, to be precise, covered nearly entirely with distinctive brick red tephra.
It was a steep climb, largely scrambling up slippery tephra slopes in the wind, and by the time I had climbed up and then skidded back down, my shoes were full of little bits of tephra.
Though I did get to look out over the ocean and the lava field created by the 1973 eruption on the way up.
And from the top, it was all worth it for the fantastic views - first to the south, all the way out to the tip of the island, and to the north, looking out over the town and harbor and surrounding cliffs.I look (and was) pretty cold, but I was excited to warm my hands over the residual heat of the volcano - the crater really does still feel warm to the touch!

There were also lots of nifty-looking features left behind by the explosive eruption, which produced fountains of lava up to 150 meters high. This arch was my favorite, mostly for the picturesque framing of the cliff across the harbor.
To complete my volcano tour, I also climbed Helgafell, seen here looking from the south, with the town just beyond the volcano. You can tell it's a much older eruption because nearly the entire cone is as green as the hillside below. The contrast is particularly obvious in this photo, which I took from the top of Eldfell and shows the red of the recent tephra in the foreground.With grass on the slope, it was a much less harrowing journey up and I made it to the top much faster. You can see that even the crater at the top has grown over. (It was also sheltered from the wind, so I took a break from hiking and sat inside the crater for a while to eat my lunch and read for a while.) You can see that it was still pretty windy up there, but more beautiful views - and there I was at the top of another volcano!With the continual bad weather, I must admit I was ready to move on from Vestmannaeyar after two weeks, but really, I think this was my favorite place in Iceland. I'll have to come back someday and climb again in better weather...

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